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'Simpsons' Fanfest Attracts International Set

Television * Visitors from 16 countries were among those celebrating the show, which begins its 12th season on Sunday.

October 31, 2000|JORDAN RAPHAEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fernand Jonac is a huge fan of "The Simpsons," and he's got the merchandise to prove it. The 22-year-old says his apartment in Montelimar, France, is filled with "Simpsons" posters, toys, mugs, T-shirts and bed sheets. He's even a nuclear technician--"comme Homer."

And over the weekend, Jonac lived out the ultimate "Simpsons" fantasy when he attended the Simpsons Global Fanfest, a three-day festival here that capped a year of international events celebrating the long-running animated series, which begins its 12th season on Sunday. (A new Halloween episode airs Wednesday.)

Jonac joined about 700 Fanfest winners from 16 countries--including the United States, Brazil, Japan, Belgium and Australia--who were treated to an all-expenses paid "Simpson"-themed vacation. Everything from the orange "Springfield Elementary School" school buses to the puffy Homer slippers left by their turned-down hotel beds helped make the weekend the definitive fan experience.

"It's gratifying because animation is not a very glamorous process, and we generally are watching the results of our handiwork with our families," said Matt Groening, the show's creator. "After a decade of that, it's good to find out who really loves the show."

The festivities kicked off Friday night with Homerpalooza at the West Hollywood House of Blues, featuring performances by Sheila E. and Save Ferris. On Saturday morning, the winners visited the "Simpsons" star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as a new exhibit dedicated to the series at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. Later, they took in an Extreme sports exhibition in Long Beach and spent the evening crashed out on beanbag chairs watching a "Treehouse of Horrors" marathon of past Halloween episodes.

By far, the festival's biggest event was Sunday's Backlot Bash, a carnival of all things "Simpsons," prepared with an attention to detail that only dedicated fans would appreciate. About 2,000 people crowded onto the Fox lot in the drizzling rain to ride the "Ferris Wheel of 'D'Oh' Nuts," munch on Krusty Burgers and guzzle Duff Beer at "Moe's Tavern." On the midway, would-be Itchys tried to launch Scratchys onto a bed of nails at the "Cat-a-Pult" game. Several cast members, including Hank Azaria (Apu), Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart), performed a hilarious read-through of Season 9's "The Cartridge Family" (the episode where Homer buys a gun). As the drizzle turned into a downpour, fans remained in their seats, underscoring how important the voice talent has been to the show's success.

Alberto Lopez, 13, earned his admission to the Fanfest by winning Spain's national "Simpsons" trivia contest. "At the moment, I am the No. 1 'Simpsons' fan in Spain," he said. Lopez was the odds-on favorite to win the Bash's "Bart Bowl World Finals," a competition that pitted his knowledge of the show's minutiae against that of 11 other Springfield junkies.

Another "Bart Bowl" contestant, 23-year-old Steve Ferrigan, of Skokie, Ill., won his trip through the "Simpsons" Web site. Armed with 11 tapes of original episodes and the knowledge he gained from a training regimen of three reruns a day, Ferrigan was in top "Simpsons" trivia form. Still, the kid from Spain had him worried.

"That's the big concern for everyone, that [Lopez] is some kind of Rain Man with 'Simpsons' trivia," he said. As it turned out, Lopez was eliminated in the first round, seemingly because of problems translating the questions to Spanish. Ferrigan made it to the finals but ultimately lost to Sean Gardell, an 18-year-old college student from Worcester, Mass.

"There are probably people who are bigger fans out there, but I just happened to answer the right questions," Gardell said of his victory. Fanfest organizers limited attendance mainly to winners of sweepstakes and promotional drawings held online and around the world, and that irked some "Simpsons" fans.

"They tell us they're holding this great event, and then they're keeping 99% of the fans out," said Joel Elad, an MBA student at UC Irvine, who tried in vain to get a pass to the events. "I was willing to pay almost $500 to go."

Paul Mikkalson, vice president of worldwide promotions for News Corp. One, said the Fanfest wasn't designed to be a public convention. "We're trying to create a more intimate, high-quality experience for the fans," he said. At least two die-hard fans went to great lengths to partake of that experience. T.J. Quatrone, a postal worker from San Diego, and his friend Paul Wojtak, who flew in from New York City, showed up at the Bash at 10:30 a.m. with a sign depicting Krusty the Clown holding a gun to his own head. The caption read: "Give us tickets or the clown gets it."

Quatrone, who sported tattoos of Krusty, Professor Frink and Homer, had tried to secure passes by sending a registered letter to Groening, hitting up friends with Fox connections and scouring eBay--all to no avail. The pair stood outside the gate for three hours, getting soaked by the rain. Finally, minutes before they were about to call it quits, a man in an SUV pulled up and handed them two passes. At day's end, standing in line to pay for $1,250 worth of rare "Simpsons" merchandise, Quatrone was elated.

"The read-through made everything worth it," he said. "Even knowing every line by heart, I still laughed."

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