At the tip of Florida’s panhandle the small town of Pensacola is descended upon once a year by tens of thousands of nerds from every walk of pop culture for Pensacon. Nearing the shows 10th anniversary we spoke to show runner Mike Ensley about the joys and trials of producing an event that literally transforms his home town into a nerd mecca (the mayor even officially renames the airport the “Pensacola Intergalactic Airport”).
Lets start with a little of your back history, were you born in Pensacola?
I’m rare in that I’m a native – I was born and raised in Pensacola. It’s my home and a place that I’ve always worked to create great events and better culture for over the years. The wonderful thing is the support that we have received from so many in the community. It was touch and go that first year – a lot of people didn’t get the event – but most everyone was game to participate and it turned out great for everyone who did. The bars and restaurants have really embraced us over the past ten years and it creates the sense that the whole city is involved.
What-When-Where was the first convention you went to and did you go on your own accord or did someone take you?
When I was thirteen, I attended the original “Pensacon” in July of 1984. It was a small one-day event at a local hotel’s meeting room, but it opened a whole new world for me to realize that outside my small group of friends, there were lots of other people who were into Doctor Who and Dungeons and Dragons and Swamp Thing. It really made me feel a part of something.
What was it that got you into producing a con? (Was Pesacon your first experience in event production, If not, what came before it?)
Pensacon was the first con I attempted, but I had done events in Pensacola for years – booking bands, filmmakers, etc. Always trying to do something interesting. Through my show Nightmare Theatre, we did an annual Shocktoberfest! Film festival in October and a Cult Film Festival in April every year.
What was the attendance of the first Pensacon vs what it is today?
At the first Pensacon, we expected the attendance to be between 3-5k, though I was told by many people that that was ridiculous and we’d never get that many. When all was said and done, we had 12.5k that first year. We grew to 22.5k and were really overwhelmed. This past February, we had our highest attendance ever, reaching 35k.
You are the head of the show, but don’t do it alone, how big is your core team and the people that make the show happen (shout outs all around)? And how many volunteers do you have a year?
The Pensacon staff is four people – two full time and two part time employees – and that includes me. Our volunteer staff is around 300-400 people per year.
What have been some of the most notable challenges and rewards of producing Pensacon?
The biggest challenge we face is the lack of a proper convention facility. Space is at a premium and we’ve adopted a campus strategy to make it all work. All of downtown Pensacola is involved. The biggest reward is the joy that it brings to the community. People love it and that is satisfying.
Who was your first guest booking, and who has been your favorite guest booking so far (and why)?
Our first official guest booking was Kane Hodder, but the one I pursued first was Peter Mayhew because he was my dream guest as a lifelong Star Wars fan.
Who would you say has been you biggest celebrity guest so far and how did their appearance go?
This is an impossible question to answer, as we’ve had so many great names from Billy Dee Williams, Henry Winkler, Weird Al Yankovic, William Shatner, George Takei, etc. We’re lucky in that we have great word of mouth in how we treat our guests and more and more celebs want to join us each year.
Aside from Pensacon you are involved in (produce?) the cable TV show Nightmare Theater, tell me a little bit about what that is, what got you started in it, and how many markets is it currently in?
Nightmare Theatre started as a public access show in 2001 with my friend Chip Chism. It’s an old school horror host show. In 2004, we were tapped to host some films nationally for Spike TV and we kept the show going on WUWF – the University of West Florida’s TV station. We added a new character – Mittens the Werewolf played by Lemmie Crews – shortly after that. Five years ago, our local PBS station WSRE asked us to produce the show with them. Since that time, we’ve been syndicated to stations throughout the Southeast. Currently, we’re on in Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Ft. Myers in Florida; Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee; and the entire state of Alabama via Alabama Public Television.
Any interesting attendee, guest, or situation gone-wild stories you could share (without getting yourself or anyone in trouble)?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one experience. I’ve had David Bradley sing White Wedding during his panel. I’ve been kissed on live television by Nichelle Nichols. I’ve eaten breakfast with Lita Ford and dinner with Deep Roy. Just too many to choose from.