Nowhere Near His Final Frontier
At 74, 'Starlog' and 'Fangoria' co-founder Kerry O'Quinn is just getting started
"Kerry O'Quinn's going to be in town for the Austin Film Festival," a friend of mine told me the other day. "He's making a movie or something, I think."
O'Quinn. The name was familiar but for a moment its significance eluded me. Then it clicked, and I grinned. Kerry O'Quinn was the man who was indirectly responsible for me being sent to the principal's office at my junior high school in Amarillo in 1980. Several times. The heinous crime? Bringing copies of a then brand-new horror movie magazine called Fangoria to school and disrupting the staid tedium of my geometry class. All the kids would gather around to check out the gory photos of special effects legend Tom Savini's bloody good handiwork in Dawn of the Dead and The Burning. Issue No. 1, I think.
"That's sick," the teacher scolded me.
"Yeah, isn't it great?" I probably said.
Not realizing he was following in the misguided footsteps of a thousand other parochial professors who had previously warned their wards on the dangers of EC Comics, Mad magazine, Cracked, and the like, the instructor/gym coach sent me packing, bad mag in hand, to the vice principal's office.
Kerry O'Quinn was the co-founder of Fangoria and, prior to that, Starlog, the equally seminal (now defunct) sci-fi magazine that preceded Fango by four years. To say that these two slicks – and CineMagic, the first "how-to" genre film fan magazine – had an impact on countless impressionable children of the Seventies and Eighties is like saying Star Wars was a big deal, or that Shoemaker-Levy 9 had an impact on Jupiter. Unlike Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog and Fangoria were written by adults for adults, whereas the entirely FJA-penned FM was aimed at monster-loving tweens and younger. O'Quinn and partner Norman Jacobs were fans of genre cinema long, long before it was cool to be such a thing. Ages before the Internet arrived, their magazines were the literary lynchpins that held America's sprawling, if unfocused, sci-fi and horror movie scene together. No small accomplishment, that.
So I decided to meet with O'Quinn, who, as it turned out, is an Austin native who played a much larger role in my life than I'd previously thought: He also, in the early Nineties, ran the infamous Club 404 on Colorado. At the time, Club 404 was Austin's go-to after hours bar, an ostensibly gay bar that catered to absolutely everyone once the other bars closed up shop at 2am. Austin Chronicle readers named Club 404 "Best Dance Music Club" in our 1994 "Best of Austin" issue, and I tended to gravitate there on a weekly, if not nightly, basis.
This city is full of characters, but at 74 years old, Kerry O'Quinn deserves a statue of some sort – or better yet, a hologram. At Barton Springs. A relatively recent cancer survivor who so thoroughly beat the disease that he declares himself a teenager again, the elfin, explosively creative O'Quinn has been back in Austin – he also has a home in Los Angeles – meeting with Troublemaker Studios' Robert Rodriguez to discuss plans for his upcoming debut feature film Dragworms, a motorcycle-riding zombie epic with Ayn Rand overtones. Seriously. His good friend George Lucas has already signed on to help out, and the O'Quinn Productions film is, essentially, already in pre-pre-production.
But the movie and the magazines are just part of O'Quinn's creatively peripatetic life. Walking into his family home overlooking Pease Park is a little like walking into his headspace. It's crammed with fine art and signed 8-by-10s from his famous friends and associates – Arthur C. Clarke, Nichelle Nichols, J.J. Abrams, Tab Hunter, RuPaul, Adam West, and Martin Landau, to name a few – and a wealth of both film and Austin-specific history. There are a thousand and one stories here, and indeed, O'Quinn's writing a book entitled Reach for the Stars that details the specifics of his hypercreative life. But why not let him tell you all about it?
Austin Chronicle: You've done a little bit of everything up to now. What made you decide to embark on a film career at the age of 74? That's pretty ambitious.
Kerry O'Quinn: It's my first feature, but I've produced [films] before. I worked for Grey Advertising in New York for a few years and produced major, national commercials for them, both radio and television. I've also produced a number of short films and documentaries, and grew up making short 8mm movies, but this is the first feature film that I'll be producing from my own script. And I'm doing it in Austin because now Austin has a film scene and I'd like to become a part of that. Two of the people I most admire in the film world are George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez, because each of them went away from the Hollywood system and built their own worlds so that they could make movies the way they wanted to, and I really admire that.
AC: Have you always been this indefatigable?
KO: I've always been fairly driven. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I still don't, frankly. I've acted, I've designed, I've illustrated, I've set-decorated, I've produced and directed, I've published, I've composed music, I've run a dance club. I've done all kinds of stuff and just had a ball doing all of it, but my résumé looks rather schizophrenic.
AC: How did you get into the magazine publishing industry?
KO: Norm [Jacobs] and I had worked together at another magazine publishing company in the Sixties and we knew each other pretty well. He called me up one day and asked if I would be interested in starting our own publishing company and possibly making some money. I said yes, and we each put in seed money of $450 to get started. This was in 1972, and at the time, the daytime soap operas were just huge. I think there were 14 soap operas on every day, five days a week, with an audience of millions. So our first magazine was Daily TV Serials, which did very well. It was the best magazine in the field. After a few years, once we weren't worried about going out of business, I said, "Norm, let's do something we really care about. Let's do a science fiction magazine!" And not something filled with puns and jokes like what Forry [J Ackerman] did with Famous Monsters. I wanted Time magazine for science fiction.
AC: How did that go over, initially?
KO: Well, our distributor initially said, "You're crazy. Star Trek is dead. There's no audience for science fiction, much less in a slick format." I had to gather all this information on fan clubs and fan conventions and take it to the distributor and prove that there was an audience. They were just invisible because they'd never been tapped. Finally they agreed to let us do it on a quarterly basis. And the first issue of Starlog sold better than anyone expected, and we eventually went bimonthly. Then when Star Wars came out in 1977, we were able to go monthly, and suddenly we were the voice of science fiction.
AC: How did Fangoria come about?
KO: I thought Frankenstein and Godzilla didn't really belong in a sci-fi title, and we decided to start a second magazine, but have it devoted to horror and monsters, again, with good writing aimed at a teen and adult audience. Because Starlog had become so successful, it was much easier to launch Fangoria. I came up with the name "Starlog," by the way, and Norman came up with "Fangoria." And that took off right away.
AC: You've had a hand in so much of what's now iconic pop culture. Can you point to a specific project and say, "That's what I'm really proud of. That's my favorite"?
KO: I've loved everything I've ever done. ... I spent 20 years of my life building a playpen in which I could do all the different things I love doing. In a certain sense I'm trying to do that again, now, in terms of film production activities. I'm trying to set up a production company here in Austin where I can build my own playpen, again, where I can produce movies, or television shows, or music, or write a show, or write a book ... all the different things I like to do. Right now, though, I'm focusing on the movie, and we're hoping to start shooting next summer. Things are looking good!