Star Trek historians headline the 34th Trekfest in Riverside

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Trekfest XXXIV

Riverside, Iowa — Friday, June 29 at 5 p.m. to Saturday, June 30 at 11:30 p.m.

The Tenutos, Maria Jose, John and their son, Nicholas Jose. — photo courtesy of Trekfest

We’re roughly 215 years out from the birth of James T. Kirk in Riverside, Iowa, and the town’s present-day residents (and traveling Star Trek fans) continue to celebrate the future occasion with their annual Trekfest. The 34th festival will take place this weekend, with events beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, June 29, and running late into the evening on Saturday, June 30.

In his 1968 book The Making of Star Trek, Stephen E. Whitfield and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote that Captain Kirk was (or would be) born in “a small town in the State of Iowa.” After reading the book, Riverside councilman and self-proclaimed Trekkie Steve Miller decided Riverside might as well be that small Iowa town. He proposed such at the March 25, 1985 city council meeting, and his motion passed — Riverside had officially declared itself the future birthplace of James T. Kirk. The town wrote a letter to Rodenberry, who accepted the idea.

In short succession, the Riverside slogan “Where the best begins” became “Where the Trek begins,” a “birthstone” was erected on a plot of land owned by Miller, behind the town barber shop, and the annual River Fest became Trekfest.

Captain Kirk’s birthstone in Riverside, Iowa. — photo by Marshall Astor via Wikimedia Commons

Trekfest is still a very community-focused Iowa event — complete with a pancake breakfast, 5k run benefiting area schools, local food vendors, tractor pull, co-ed softball tournament, fireworks show and performances by local musicians; this year, on Friday, the Swing Crew (8:30 p.m.), and Saturday: Abbie Callahan (7:30 a.m.), the Awful Purdies (Saturday at 12:30 p.m.), Chautauqua Road Band (4 p.m.) and Brutal Republic (Saturday at 8 p.m.).

But the fest has a distinctly Star Trek touch, including parade floats inspired by Starfleet ships (the parade is Saturday at 10 a.m.), a Star Trek costume contest (11 a.m. Saturday on the mainstage) and trivia contest (8 p.m. Friday at St. Mary’s Parish Hall) and a Star Trek movie marathon (12-6 p.m. Saturday).

Headlining the 2018 Trekfest are John and Maria Jose Tenutos, sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois and Star Trek historians. You read that right.

What does it mean to be a Star Trek historian? For one, it means the Tenutos have been invited to discuss the franchise and its surrounding culture by numerous networks and publications, including BBC Radio, CBS News, WGN News, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, WIRED and, most recently, Netflix.

The Tenutos featured in the season two premiere of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us, discussing the Star Trek toy market, which often included slapping a Star Trek label on random, already-existing toys. The Tenutos show off a parachuting Dr. McCoy toy, and a Gorn action figure from Mego made using the head of a reptilian Marvel Comics villain and the body of a Planet of the Apes character.

Maria Jose and John Tenutos discussing Star Trek toys on Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us.” — still from Netflix

The Tenutos also appeared in the Toys That Made Us episode about Star Wars toys, but we won’t speak of that franchise here.

For Trekfest, John and Maria Tenuto will hold two presentations. The first will be Friday at 7 p.m., fitting the festival’s theme “Khhaaannnn!”: “Thriving on Limitations: The Making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” The Tenutos will present more than 100 newly discovered photos from behind the scenes of the beloved 1982 film, and discuss “how it was made despite limitations of budget, time, and technology,” according to a Trekfest press release.

Saturday’s presentation is “A Remarkable Life: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy,” beginning at 2:30 p.m. The Tenutos will again examine rare images from their research, this time looking at the life and times of Nimoy, who portrayed Spock in the original series and died of chronic obstructive pulimonary disease in 2015.

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Both presentations are free to attend, and will be held in St. Mary’s Parish Hall.

Riverside’s relationship with Star Trek has been largely positive, helping to multiply the town’s population of 1,000 by a factor five, 10 or more every summer during Trekfest. But their association with Captain Kirk has not always brought positive attention to Riverside.

In 2005, William Shatner, who portrayed Kirk in the Star Trek original series and its films, starred in the Spike TV reality mini-series Invasion Iowa, filmed in Riverside in the fall of 2004. The series had Shatner auditioning eager Riverside residents to appear in a sci-fi film he was directing. The film, however, was fake, and the show served as an elaborate joke on the people of Riverside — “a big old hoax on these good folks,” as Shatner sings in the promo. Ha, ha.

Riverside residents didn’t take it too hard; Trekfest vendors will often sell Invasion Iowa DVDs, and props from the reality show are housed in Riverside’s The Voyage Home museum alongside memorabilia from the Star Trek TV series.

Other Star Trek icons have visited Riverside under much friendlier flags: Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the original series, was the grand marshal of the Trekfest parade in 2008, also serving as the judge for the costume contest and a guest speaker. He performed these roles again in 2009, this time joined by George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura); they hosted a mini-convention at Riverside Casino that same weekend, taking photos and signing autographs. Koenig returned once again in 2010.

Despite the endorsement of Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek media largely ignored Kirk’s Iowa roots until 2009. Riverside is considered to have entered official Star Trek canon with J.J. Abrams’ reboot film Star Trek, though the name “Riverside” is never stated and the “Iowa” scenes are filmed in California.

In Abrams’ alternate Star Trek timeline, Kirk is born in space, but raised in Iowa — a move some Iowans didn’t fully appreciate. Riverside’s implicit role in the Star Trek universe is elevated, however — Abrams places a Starfleet shipyard near the town, where the U.S.S. Enterprise is constructed. There’s also a hip future bar nearby, frequented by Starfleet cadets and officers.

Riverside residents received a special advanced screening of the 2009 Star Trek, confirming this Riverside-centered film was not, in fact, a hoax.

For a more complete Trekfest 2018 schedule, visit their Facebook page and website.

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