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Interview with Renee Alper
Posted by Urulókë on Jan 18, 2007 (39232 views)

Recently, I had the honor to talk on the phone with Renee Alper for a long time, discussing the American Hobbit Association, the influence Tolkien’s works have had on her life, and her rather impressive Tolkien memorabilia collection. Renee also sent me some autobiographical writings on these topics that I have included at the end of the interview. We are working on getting photos of her years in the AHA to publish with this article in the near future, as well as uploading images of items from her collection to help fill out the Collector's Guide.

Read on...

Were you involved at the very beginning with Annuminas?

I was one of the co-founders. Two young teenagers wanted to start a group – a sub-group of The Mythopoeic Society in the Chicago area. The boys' initial ad was in Mythprint, a newsletter of The Mythopoeic Society, in their New Sub-Groups Forming section. I had begun subscribing to that publication only ONE MONTH before that first announcement. (Wow!) I saw it, and was at the first meeting. I said, “I want to help, give me stuff to do.” They gave me all the contact information they had taken in so far to call and say “So we’re now a club, do you want to join?” So, they made me an initial co-founder. They were 12 and a half and 13 years old at the time. We did a newsletter.

They came over to help edit and type the first six newsletters, then left the newsletter production and eventually all of the other functions of the group to me.

We all went to this first meeting at one of the boy’s houses. At that meeting we voted on a name for the group. Somebody wanted Annuminas which means “west tower”, sort of a reference to Chicago being on the west side of Lake Michigan and the John Hancock or Sears Tower. I came up with Minas Aeron – “Tower by the great sea”. That got voted in, so when we were looking for a name for the newsletter I suggested the runner-up name for the group. So our first newsletter was called Annuminas.

I put ads in the local suburban newspaper where I lived three times, announcing an upcoming meeting. Then suddenly, that newspaper wanted to write an article about us. It was a great article with a picture, and was fabulous. Then the other Chicago newspapers were calling and saying they wanted an article, too. So three of the major Chicago newspapers featured us: the Tribune, the Times, and the Daily News. Shortly after that, I started getting in memberships from Idaho, and Alaska, and Texas. At first I figured one person had an aunt or something who was interested in Tolkien. Then someone said, "Your article went out on the wire." A lot of cities picked up the story about the club, and suddenly we were not just Chicago based, we were national. We were getting mail to "Annymings" (a misspelling of Annuminas). I said, "This isn't going to work," so I came up with the name American Hobbit Association -- its acronym, AHA, in elvish means "rage", because we were the rage of the country! I love acronyms and puns, as you can tell.

We began with a once a month newsletter. Eventually, we lowered the frequency of the publication, but it got bigger -- it was easier to do that than to send it out more often. I would get great letters. People would say, "I anxiously await the coming of the newsletter. I rush to my mailbox to see if it has arrived yet." MY NEWSLETTER had this effect on people? I was very excited.

In addition to the newsletter, we did a one-time fanzine called The Tales of Aragorn and Arwen. It contained stories, artwork, poetry and even a song about Aragron, Arwen and their family. There were two stories by Marion Zimmer Bradley, reprinted with her permission. One of them was illustrated by Hannah Shapero, who was, at that time, the official illustrator from her Darkover books. That was a pretty big deal.

We also had two meetings a month for 12 years, which is quite a thing all by itself. We had a Hobbit dinner every year, which was a huge event. We also had an annual Midsummer Faire and Auction, where people donated books and other Tolkien or fantasy related drawings, posters, etc. A pretty girl member auctioned a kiss once. Boy, was the bidding fierce! All these guys were fanatically bidding. It was hysterical and kind of sad at the same time.

We did some t-shirts, but Tolkien Enterprises didn't like that, and asked us not to make any more (there were six). They had an original drawing of Frodo on them. We also did a t-shirt that was not banned. It was a silhouette of the White Tree and stars. It was our rendition of the Gondorian flag, what Aragorn's standard would have looked like, and it said "American Hobbit Association".

The first six newsletters were about two pages each. Then we changed the format, turned it sideways, made it eight pages, and actually like a booklet. I still have my archive copies, and extra copies of about half of the issues as well.

About Renee

I am disabled, and the club was a phenomenal experience for me to not sit at home and do nothing all day. I was also dramaturg for a three-year stage production of The Lord of the Rings in Cincinnati. I liked saying "I am the dramaturg, I speak for the text" -- you know, "I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees." Because where the author deviated from the text, I basically said yay or nay, but he didn't always listen. The biggest faux-pas he did was having Sam and Rosie get pregnant before they were married. I hopped up and down, waved my hands, did everything I could, but he kept it in the play. Turned out, it was the thing everybody else hated, too.

Fandom in general is still a big part of my life. In my mind, there is a big distinction if people I know are fen or not. Not specifically Tolkien fandom, though. Almost everyone who is a fan has read Tolkien. I am still predominantly a fantasy reader, and the fantasy I've read the most is Tolkien. For me fandom and Tolkien fandom are nearly synonymous. Because of the accident I had, it is very hard for me to read for various reasons. So I don't do any of the fanzines at this point. Honestly, after running the AHA for 12 years, I felt that, if I had to read one more story about who was older, Treebeard or Bombadil -- I would scream. I've edited so, so much fan fiction, non-fiction essays, etc. It is time for me to do something else.

A lot of AHA members are also my personal friends, still in touch a lot, some by email, phone, some come to visit. There are probably a half a dozen or more that I still have regular contact with.

Tolkien collecting

In those days, in the 60's, 70's, 80's, you could collect absolutely everything you found if you had enough interest and money, because there wasn't that much. It was people individually doing stuff. I would go to Ren-Faires and science fiction conventions, and go to each booth and say, "Do you have anything Tolkien related?" Now, Tolkien merchandise is in stores, and a lot of it is schlock. I don't really collect any more, but do still have a first-rate collection, in my opinion. I bought some used Tolkien games from somebody last week because they were there and they were cheap, so I said, "Why not?" There isn't any non-movie related stuff now because Tolkien Enterprises and the movie copyright holders have cracked down on the copyright thing.

The American Hobbit Association put out six T-shirts that had an original logo, and Tolkien Enterprises got upset and said no more T-shirts. That was very annoying to me, as it didn't seem as though our six T-shirts were hurting anybody. But then they found out that I knew so much about LotR, and they wanted to pay me to be a witness in a trial against Marshall Fields department store. Marshall Fields at one point sold a doll called "The Wanderer". They wanted me to say why it was clearly a Tolkien related thing, and that's when I realized that I didn't really have a problem with people doing this. I suppose I should, in deference to Tolkien, but it seemed bigger than any one man. It seemed like he accomplished what he set out to do to, to make a mythology for England (and their descendants). So it felt very public domain -- everybody knows Hobbits! I didn't want to help them sue somebody, even if it was Marshall Fields and they weren't doing art on an individual level. I enjoyed owning things like that doll, so for whatever reasons, good or bad, I declined being a part of the trial as a witness. It's funny, because, part of me says Tolkien's heirs deserve it. I seem to have very mixed feelings about it that I never quite sorted out.

What’s in your Tolkien collection?

For books, I have books in 18 foreign languages, most multiple titles. I had every edition printed for a while there -- Ace, first Ballantine, second, third, the trade paperbacks. I bought every edition that came out for a long time. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Tolkien Reader, Farmer Giles of Ham, Father Christmas Letters, tons of books. I bought every biography I could find in multiple editions. I have an Italian Lord of the Rings comic book in hardcover.

I have T-shirts from Rankin-Bass and Bakshi, but I don't have any from the new movies. I have tons of stuff that was custom made, like club T-shirts. I have jewelry -- I have a necklace with five figures -- Smaug, Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and Gollum. I have Royal Doulton china figurines, I've got mugs of various types that were made by artists at Ren-Faires. I have art from Mike Makras -- his stuff is way out of print and just magnificent. I have 20 clay sculptures of his - 2 versions of Bag End, a Rivendell, Treebeard , 2 or 3 Bilbos and Frodos, in different scales. I have a bunch of generic stuff that looks Tolkienesque. Playing cards -- I have an original deck that one of our members made, they are laminated and actually are too thick to play with, but each card has an original drawing on it. There is a jewelry box that someone made, with the One Ring poem on it. I have a ring with the tengwar letters engraved in it. I've got hats, I've got costumes, custom made, of course I was like a Barbie doll! Keychains, puzzles, board games, computer games, cork boards, posters and more posters. Coasters from the Hildebrandt brothers. They have a site at Calendars and more calendars. Journals to write in. I have some pencils that we made for the group, that say "Tolkien Is Hobbit-Forming". Stickers. T-K graphics printed a lot a lot of stickers, and also made rubber stamps. I sent them notes with a tag line I made up, and they ended up using it on buttons, but didn't credit me. "May the light of Elbereth shine upon your soul". if you see that anywhere, that's mine!

At one point, I am sure I had one of the three top collections in the country. One of the others would probably be Glen GoodKnight, founder of the Mythopoeic Society. Judy King Rieniets put out some posters, the best ones I have -- they are marvelous!

Tolkien Enterprises only puts out stuff that looks like the movies, and that's not the good art. They should have taken the good fan art and licensed it and made money that way, or let the people who do non-movie art continue to sell it. That's my biggest complaint.

Peter Jackson Movies

As one of our old members said to me recently, given that it was a movie that had to sell to the general public as well as to fans, it was probably 70% of what it could be, which is not too bad. I was particularly upset about some of the plot changes in The Two Towers, but they did The Return of the King so well, that I kind of forgave them.

Ringers – Lord of the Fans

I was incredibly upset with the movie. I sent them hours and hours and hours of stuff, pages of text with details about every aspect of the AHA that would be useful to anyone making a film about Tolkien fans. When I saw the movie, I recognized one book cover and two buttons out of my entire collection, and not a single mention of the club. It had nothing to do with people like us.

Renee and The American Hobbit Association
By Renee Alper

It all started in the 1960s with those book-ordering companies in school. I ordered everything that wasn't sports or romance (yech!). So, it was inevitable that one day I would come home with a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Cool book,” my older brother said, “but it’s part of a series. You have to read The Hobbit first.” He tossed a coverless, torn book onto my bed and walked out. I resented his opinion, but took his advice.

I spent the rest of the fifth grade and most of the sixth reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Every recess, break, and after homework, I was journeying with Bilbo, aching for Frodo and mooning over Aragorn. I savored each part. When Strider and the hobbits stopped on Weathertop, shadows seemed to loom in every dark corner of my room. I cheered first at The Departure of Boromir, and then wept at my hasty judgment of a good man. And I felt every burdened step of Frodo’s last days in Mordor. Middle-Earth had become my home.

Soon after beginning college, I developed severe arthritis and was forced to drop out. I spent a year and a half doing nothing, an almost impossible task for an overachiever like myself. Then, in 1977, I read a small notice that changed my life forever. The Mythopoeic Society (a fan club for Tolkien and other fantasy authors), announced a new Tolkien sub-group was forming in the Chicago area. I volunteered to assist and became one of the co-founders.

The American Hobbit Association was founded in 1977 by me, Michael Dorfman, and Greg Everitt, in the greater Chicago area. It began as a sub-group of the Mythopoeic Society, a California-based organization dealing with the works of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and other authors. At the first meeting, the name Minas Aearon was chosen, meaning “Tower By the Great Sea”, a reference to the John Hancock Building or the Sears Tower, depending on your point of view. The newsletter was named after the runner-up name for the group: “Annuminas” (West Tower).

The group set up two meetings a month; one, called a “Council”, was similar to a book club, but the book was always one of the three volumes of “The Lord of the Rings”. Each chapter was discussed in great detail, examining the motives of each character, the author’s choices of wording, and other minutiae of the writing. The other meeting each month, called a “Conspiracy”, was an outing, party, or other special event.

Before long, I was running the club single-handedly, from newsletter editing, printing, and mailing, to meeting planning and organizing to marketing. I recruited new members at SF conventions, in my day-to-day living, in bookstores, et al. The most successful marketing was through the local community newspaper, where I placed a free notice of an event in our community each month for three months. After the third announcement, the community paper asked me if they could run a feature article about me and my club. What a wonderful surprise! It was more than a full-page story, with a huge photo of me and some items from my collection. One of the major papers in Chicago saw this and asked me for an interview in their paper. This recruited quite a few new members. Then, the other two major Chicago papers also called me, asking for interviews. Our Chicago-based membership grew quite significantly.

The club was a great boon to me, since as my illness progressed, I was unable to go back to college or get a job. Although I needed a wheelchair and had limited use of my hands, I typed the newsletter every month, able to use only two fingers (long before the days of home computers). I corrected every typo, re-threading the paper to match the previously typed text. It was a painstaking labor of love, and it showed.

At about the one year mark, I began receiving checks from folks in other parts of the country: Idaho, Texas, California. I wondered how they had all heard about my little club. Someone told me that news stories in big newspapers go out “over the wire” to papers all across the country. As these letters continued to come in, I decided to change the name of my group to something that reflected our current national status, as well as something easier to spell and remember. The choice was simple: the American Hobbit Association, which, when referred to as an acronym, spelled AHA. “Aha”, in Tolkien’s Elvish language, means “rage”, and we were the “rage” of the country! I also changed the name of the newsletter to “The Rivendell Review”, as my character in the club was Arwen, who lived in Rivendell, which was also the nickname for my family’s house and our meeting place.

The AHA grew consistently over the next year, until we had more than 200 fans, most from the US, but several from England, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong! We even recruited Christopher Tolkien (son of J.R.R.T.), Prof. Clyde S. Kilby (who helped Tolkien organize his notes on “The Silmarillion”), and Raynor Unwin (of Allen and Unwin, publishers of “The Lord of the Rings” in Great Britain), to name a few. It was exciting to think that, all over the world, people were reading and enjoying my publication.

The newsletter grew as well, from a two-page bulletin to a full-fledged fanzine, complete with cover art, regular columns of meeting reports and new Tolkien-related books and merchandise for sales in stores or through mail-order houses. Other newsletter features included front and back cover art, a Middle-earth or other Tolkien-related story, a non-fiction article about a Tolkien topic (such as “Who is older, Bombadil or Treebeard?”), a monthly puzzle, and a riddle/joke with the answer hand-written in Cirth, Tolkien’s Elvish printed alphabet. Members submitted their work, I edited and typed it, and laid it all out in anywhere from eight to sixteen pages (some double issues were as long as 32 pages!). I took it to a professional printer, and members of the club helped collate, staple, and mail the finished product. We went from a monthly ‘zine to eight or nine times a year, and eventually down to six issues a year. Members would write letters for our letters column, telling me how much they loved the club, and how they would wait anxiously for the appearance of the next issue in their mailbox!

As the newsletter grew, so did the scope of the meetings. In the “book club” style meetings, discussions became animated, as members discussed everything: Middle-earth’s religions, history, geography, and social interactions, as well as individual character’s points of view. The less scholarly, more “social” event each month, grew in scope, as we did such things as going together to the Marion E. Wade Collection (a library of Inklings-related books, pictures, and other paraphernalia) at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, the local Renaissance Faire (in costume) or a taking a trip to a local showing of Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” movie (also in costume -- we may have actually caused a traffic accident as a result of a driver gaping at us). Camaraderie was high, and, as one of regular writers was fond of saying, “A good time was had by all.”

We also went to McGiddy’s, a Chicago restaurant that served such dishes as Bilbo Burgers, as well as local SF/F conventions, where we recruited new members and sold Tolkien-related merchandise at a table in the dealers’ room. We also played Dungeons and Dragons occasionally, where we adventured in Middle-earth-like settings. I entertained those who did not know how to play with my character Arwench; her personal mission was to seduce every male member of the adventuring party (even the cleric!). This gave me the opportunity to make somewhat lewd puns, keeping those who couldn’t follow the game amused, while the more serious players adventured on. We played other Middle-earth and fantasy-based games, including a live-action Tolkien game (a sort of Capture the Flag derivative), using the park behind “Rivendell” as a replica of Middle-earth.

Some of the parties became annual events. We held an annual Halloween party each year, where we again wore costumes and played games adapted to Middle-earth themes. In March, we held an annual “Come As a Crazy” costume party, at which members were encouraged to come in costume, but as something out of the ordinary. I dressed as Arwen for these occasions, but Arwen with a twist: anything from Arwen the Beagle (my dog), to Arwen as a little girl (complete with pigtails), to Arwen the housewife, to dead Arwen, to pregnant Arwen (I wore pillows for several months at costume events, and then went to Toys-R-Us and gave birth to Baby Eldarion, complete with tunic, tights, and cloak). Other character choices included characters from Harvard Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings” (e.g. the Voluptuous Elf Maiden, Stomper, Eorache, the Nozdrul, and a merino sheep), and even Frodo’s Finger - Ten Days Later!

But the two most popular parties were in the summer and the fall. The Midsummer Faire and Auction was our annual costumed fundraiser. The Faire began outside at Rivendell in the early afternoon, where we played games such as Middle-earth Croquet (the name of a Middle-earth location was written on a sign placed on each wicket), Throw the Ring Into Mt. Doom, Pin the Tail On Bill the Pony!, Bilbo Bingo and Guess the Number of Palantiri (clear marbles) in the Jar. One year, we even staged a mock wedding between the Aragorn and Arwen (Yours Truly) in our group! After the festivities of the afternoon, we would hold an auction of member-donated artwork, books (including the infamous Ace Paperbacks), posters, hand-made items (such as stained glass, playing cards, and jewelry boxes), and lots more. The bidding sometimes got very fierce, such as the time one of our younger, prettier members donated a very unique item: a kiss to the highest bidder!

Late September brought the Annual Hobbit Dinner, a recreation of Bilbo’s Long-Expected Party. The basement at Rivendell (replete with all the Tolkien posters and artwork that didn’t fit in my bedroom upstairs) was converted into the party field at Bag End, complete with party lanterns overhead to add to the festive mood. Every flat surface in the house (including a ping-pong table) was put end to end to create a giant table on which to serve our costumed guests.

The whole family got into the act; my grandfather made “Colonel Baggins’ Chicken” on the barbecue outside, and my mother, who loved hosting parties, served mushrooms, lembas (Vanilla Wafers wrapped in green, leaf-shaped tissue paper), mushrooms, Gamgee taters, mushrooms, fresh fruit, and of course, mushrooms. We even had a Great Cake (from Tolkien’s short story, “Smith of Wootten Major”, complete with a Fairie Queene on top and trinkets inside, including a silver star!)

After dinner a member, dressed as Bilbo, would read the famous Farewell Speech. As he stepped down from his chair, the lights would go off, and we would all laugh and act shocked at his strange disappearance. For many years, one of our members brought a multimedia slide show he had created, called “A Tolkien Tribute”. It contained many, many pictures of Tolkien art, from books, calendars, and posters, as well as slides of Middle-earth statuary: sculpture from wood, clay, and pewter, all set to music, such as songs from Enya, Vangelis, and the group Renaissance. The Tribute was divided into sections, such as The Fellowship, the Elves, the Valar, the villains of Middle-earth, and a Grand Finale in Valinor. It made a perfect end to a great day of the celebration of the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo.

In 1982, members of the American Hobbit Association participated in a play that was performed for an audience of over 100 fans at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago. Called “The Greatest Gondorian Hero,” it was a parody of a TV show at the time, “The Greatest American Hero”, set in Middle-earth. The leading players were Geshlepper the Great, the sixth (and unheard of) wizard of the White Council, and Rink Halfling, a Hobbit residing in Gondor (the leading player in the original TV series was named Ralph Hinkley). Elbereth appears to Geshlepper, and instructs him to “Seek for the nose that was broken”. When Rink runs into a stone wall and damages his proboscis, Geshlepper believes he has fulfilled the first part of his quest. Wondering what the next step is, the two are shocked when a pair of red long-johns falls from the sky. Rink tries them on, and finds out that they bestow on their wearer the ability to fly. In the pocket there is a Wonder Whisk, which, when pointed at a being, causes them to be frozen in time. They set out to locate the One Ring, the next part of their quest. They encounter Radagast the Brown, Saruman the White, and a southern belle Galadriel and her band of giggly females (including Renee’s mom). At the end of their quest, they encounter Gollum, who has just lost the Ring to Bilbo. Tired and defeated, the duo is just about to set out for home, when a TARDIS (Dr. Who’s trans-dimensional spaceship) appears. Out steps Fred Silverman, Executive Producer for NBC Television in the 80’s. He offers the heroes their own TV show back in America, and they accept. The show ends with a parody of the original show’s theme song, sung by the characters as they take their bows.

The AHA also sold its own merchandise to raise money. We created and sold a very limited edition run of our own t-shirts, sporting the official AHA logo of stars and a tree. Back issues were also for sale, for members who had just joined. We published a one-time fanzine, “The Tales of Aragorn and Arwen”. This 88-page book contained short stories, artwork, poetry, and songs, all dealing with the royal couple. These were submitted by our members, and also two out of print stories written by Marion Zimmer Bradley (author of the Darkover series, as well as “The Mists of Avalon”), and were illustrated by her official cover artist at the time, Hannah Shapero.

Topics ranged from a story about Arwen’s mother, Celebrian, and her rescue from orcs in a dangerous journey, to a description of an imagined meeting between Bilbo and ten year old Estel (later Aragorn), who were both in Rivendell at the same time for a brief while; it supposes that Bilbo is responsible for Aragorn’s penchant for pipeweed. Another story imagines the adventures of Aragorn and Arwen’s children, many years after Aragorn’s coronation, and one story even goes behind the scenes on the royal bride and groom’s wedding night!

One of the most exciting things that happened in the twelve years of the AHA was the appearance of sub-groups. These included other parts of Chicago, as well as Ohio and the east coast. I visited several of these groups, and felt very proud of these, my progeny. So many people, so many friends, so many memories!

My life as the heartbeat of the AHA has changed me, all for the better. Although we have all gone our separate ways, many of us remain in touch, and occasionally get a chance to visit each other in person. I have even begun a tradition of holding an AHA reunion at a Chicago-based SF/F convention! The American Hobbit Association remains one of the major accomplishments of my life, and it and its members will always hold a place in my heart.


Renee Alper founded The American Hobbit Association in 1977, which she ran until 1989. She is a singer/songwriter, a playwright, an actress, and a director. She served as Dramaturg for a three-part, three-year production of The Lord of the Rings, adapted for the stage by Blake Bowden. She starred in and directed her play, "Roll Model", about a disability support group (she is disabled and uses a motorized wheelchair). Three other of her plays have been produced as well. Other writing projects currently include an autobiographical play, and a book of humorous quotes from job applicants. She attends about 100 plays a year, and can be seen zooming around Cincinnati with her canine sidekick, Moonbeam.

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