Hello modern convention-goers. Gather 'round children, and the old man will tell you the tail of the
Conventions in Olden Tymes!
I don't think I could tell you the year that I first started attending conventions, but it was well before most Americans had heard of Afghanistan outside of history class. It was closer those heady, optimistic times when we thought we might actually have the guts to go metric. Attending conventions was different on those days, what with the long treks through the snow. That's the real reason we were called 'trekkies."
Just kidding, but it was different in those days. The movie studios hadn't yet fully realized that cons were a great way of marketing to their most dedicated fans. I don't know if I'd still call cons mainstream, but they’re WAY closer now than they were then. In those days tell your friends that you're on the way to a scifi convention, and you were pretty much guaranteed funny looks. And let's not talk about the bullies. Best to just avoid them the week after in case they got wind of your perversion.
The cons in those days didn't have nearly the range of stuff to cover either. There was Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who as the major franchizes, and that was about it. You might get a little booth put up by a studio to hand out buttons and posters for their new summer blockbuster, but was the limit of their involvement. There were many, many independent comic book stores with booths lined in long boxes, and the occasional bootleg Star Trek blooper real on a VHS copy of a VHS copy of a ... If you squint, you can just make out Shatner walking into non-functioning doors a hilarious number of times.
Oh, and cosplay wasn't invented yet. I can see your shocked faces. It wasn't that there were no costumes at all. There was usually a "costume parade" that gave you a sequence of men in bulky, hairy suits. Sorry, dressing as your favorite spandex-sporting comic book heroine was still decades away. Yes, you may cry for my deprived adolescence. You could definitely see the nascent glimmerings of the cosplay culture, but it was still a small and not terribly inclusive thing.
I can fondly remember sitting with my brother and sister in the balcony of the Roosevelt hotel during the charity auction of various swag and tchotchkes. Kathy had found a new game for herself. She was seeing how high she could get the bidding on the items without buying them. She did an pretty good job, although we did end up coming home with an inaugural bottle of Jolt Cola ("All the sugar, twice the caffeine!!!"). None of us slept well that night.
I kind of fell out of the cons scene when I went off to graduate school, and never really got back into it. I haven't taking the little man to any cons yet, although Maker Faire has a lot in common. I suspect the time is coming. Any recommendations for east coast cons that wouldn’t be too overwhelming for a first timer?