Jackie Estrada remembers the El Cortez hotel because of its pool. The U-shaped amenity lives in her memory as a gathering place for legends in the comics industry.
“You could hang out with Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel,” Estrada said. “Every person that we all treasure as the best of their field was there, hanging out by the pool. It was just magical.”
As an Eisner Award administrator and one of the few people who has attended every San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), Estrada reflects that memorable nights like these were formative in the convention’s early years.
Now a cultural landmark, SDCC attracts over 100,000 attendees each year. However, the intimate and casual nature of the early conventions, eight of which were held at the El Cortez Hotel, provided the foundation for its later popularity, according to seven panelists at “The Early SDCC El Cortez Hotel Years” panel on Thursday at Comic – Con.
The panel was made up of Estrada, Comic-Con founder Mike Towry, long-time attendee Anthony Keith, artist Clayton Moore, animator Milt Gray, author and director Paul Sammon and long-time attendee Greg Koudoulian. This year’s convention marks the 50-year anniversary of the first Comic-Con held at the El Cortez.
“Fortunately for Comic-Con, by 1972 the hotel had fallen on hard times and was pretty much looking for any business they could get,” Towry said. “And that was fortunate for us because comic conventions were not really a desirable customer in those days for hotels. So we were able to get into the hotel there and it was a wonderful venue for us.”
More than just the site of the convention, the El Cortez served as a hub for comic enthusiasts and creators.
“I love comics. I collect comics. That’s why I’m here. I walked into the [dealer’s] room, and all the comics that I could never afford were there. But I wanted to see them and fill in the holes in my collection,” Moore said. “I felt involved right from the moment I walked in the door.”
Gray recalled that, on his first time attending the SDCC at the El Cortez, he brought a movie projector and a few 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons to share with other attendees, hoping to bond over the animation.
“I thought maybe comic book fans might be interested in these cartoons, and they were a huge hit,” Gray said. “Just to see that there were so many comic book fans… You know, when I grew up, I didn’t have any friends who were interested in comic books. So this was a real special thing for me.”
From its earliest days, Comic-Con served as a place where individuals from all backgrounds could gather and rejoice in their shared passions. During its first year at the El Cortez, the convention only had just over 900 attendees.
“It was such a small attendance [which allowed us] to have access to these people,” Estrada said. “And the cool thing was that they interacted with each other and got to know each other. You’d have Bob Clampett hanging out with Ray Bradbury. It was fantastic.”
Over the last three decades, SDCC has welcomed hundreds of thousands of eager fans with the opportunity to be in the presence of influential creatives. In the days of the El Cortez, however, attendees were able to participate in a more personal experience.
“I can remember when I was 14-years-old, sitting at the pool with Sergio Aragonés, Stan Lee and George Clayton Johnson,” Keith said. “It was two or three in the morning, [and they were talking] about the most incredible, esoteric things. I didn’t understand anything that they were saying, but it was just incredible to sit there and hear them talk.”
The El Cortez, while being a source of nostalgia, was also the backdrop for behavior reflecting the counterculture of the 1970’s, according to the panelists. Towry recalled a time when someone put shark repellent in the pool, and Moore shared about an adventure to the top of the hotel, where he perched himself beside the iconic red ‘El Cortez’ sign to take in the “beautiful view.”
“When I think of the El Cortez years, I think of such things as George Clayton Johnson taking all his clothes off in my room, with about 50 other people present, sitting in the bed cross-legged and rolling a joint,” Sammon said . “I remember Jack Kirby using his cigar to light off fireworks. And I also remember sharing a joint with Timothy Leary. So if you ask me: do I remember the El Cortez years? Sort of.”
While Comic-Con began as a humble, intimate meeting of like-minded individuals, it has expanded into a major non-profit organization and international phenomenon. This growth, the panelists believe, would not have taken place without those initial gatherings at the El Cortez.
“I had no friends ever, at 19 years of age, that shared my interest in comics or science fiction until I went there,” Koudoulian said. “We only loved the El Cortez after we were gone, because you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
Whether spent in a small group around the El Cortez pool or all along the streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp District, SDCC has served as a center of creativity and belonging to those who attend.
“In those days [1970’s], society looked down upon science fiction, but even the science fiction fans looked down on us as comic fans,” Towry said. “We saw ourselves as being at the bottom of the cultural totem pole with everybody looking down on us. So we accepted everybody, and we were happy that anybody would come and hang out with us.”