Everyone needs a Rumpus Room.
That’s the motto of the always-smiling Bonnie Somdahl. This past weekend she supervised the Rumpus Room area of Minicon 53’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Bonnie’s Rumpus Room is of course inspired by Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are. Yet one might also compare it to J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
There, Gryffindor students melted marshmallow monsters, and Ravenclaws built clothespin fairies that flitted about with a helping hand.
Hufflepuffs made microscopes and cultures to study Earth’s invisible realms. Realms ruled by paramecium, volvox, and teeny-tiny tardigrades. Although the latter eluded detection due to the frozen landscape.
Even Slytherins had a grand time since discrimination isn’t allowed under Minicon’s Code of Conduct. Their Defense Against the Dark Arts training included lock-picking and Nerf gun marksmanship.
Other activities included puppet theater, puzzles, a scientific scavenger hunt, making fancy Czech Easter eggs, an Easter egg hunt, and creating stuffed sock animals. In addition, there was a dog theme this year. Kids made Frankenstein-like pooches using beanie babies in the “Create your own dog breed” session, as well as twisted balloon dogs. There was actual canine training too to help tame any Fluffy. The final class was “Tool Time for Kids,” where kids dissected muggle electronics.
But the Rumpus Room’s energy level peaked when professors made sure anyone who wanted a costume had one. For over three hours, scissors, sewing machines, glitter tattoos, and elaborate braids transformed children for Saturday evening’s costume contest. There, a Klingon emcee introduced Luna Lovegood, Hermione Granger, Spock, Catbus, Kylo Ren, Victor Nikiforov, a duo of Undertale video game characters, as well as Bluebell the water fairy, Jade the tree elf, Mother Nature, and the goddess Queen Rainboom. Adult cosplay grandstanded too of course, but the tykes and teens took home the majority of the showcase’s awards.
To fuel this enterprise, similar to Hogwarts’ Great Hall, Minicon’s ConSuite offered endless snacks, beverages, and meals. While supplies lasted, sugar addicts also swarmed a cotton candy machine (all food and beverages are free for Minicon members).
How did Bonnie manage this chaos? With a clever system that epitomizes James Garfield’s saying, “He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation.” Acting much like Gringotts bank, Bonnie dispensed gold coins to those doing activities, puppet shows, or anything deemed worthy. The coins then purchased items from tables heaped with donated toys, activity books, novelties, and art supplies.
Bonnie’s always quick to credit the Rumpus Room’s success to her cadre of equally devoted professors. Indeed, of her score of help, some have entertained and educated Minicon’s children longer than she has. Collectively, these faculty embrace “insanity” to create a fun space where all-ages learn and play. This inclusive philosophy has created a bustling area whose population exceeded thirty bodies at one point. By my estimate, ten percent of the convention’s 545 attendees were kids and adults who attended and/or helped the Rumpus Room.
This contrasts when Bonnie took charge at Minicon 47. Then, she feared no children would even show up (she could remember only two kids who took part in Minicon 46’s kids’ programming). So, to ensure success, she brought her own grandkids to establish a fun vibe. It worked.
Chas Somdahl, Bonnie’s husband and a mainstay professor, described the Rumpus Room as “A con within a con.” In fact, word of mouth brought at least one family to Minicon 53 strictly for the Rumpus Room’s activities. I can echo this sentiment, as next year I already preregistered two children I know I’ll have to drag back home to their parents.
Of the kids attending, Luna said, “I like everything. There’s always something to do.” Altin felt the same and said, “I really liked everything.” Some favored the gel decorative frosting though, which went more into their mouths than on their marshmallow sculptures. Free play also thrives—art covered the walls, and Madeline enjoyed building a fort with toy bricks. New friends are made too—one child was heartbroken when a prior Minicon playmate couldn’t attend this year.
What’s the Rumpus Room’s origin story?
Early Minicons offered a paid babysitter. Sharon Kahn and Carol Kennedy explained the early conventions also had babysitting cooperatives, where parents took turns watching younger children in a hotel room (which inspired a cartoon in Minicon 25’s guidebook). Older children were “emancipated” and allowed to play “stairway tag” on their own. The mention of stairway tag brought a smile to Thorin Tatge. Decades later, he is now a games professor in the Rumpus Room (a welcome break when he’s not cranking out issues of the convention’s Bozo Bus Tribune).
Starting at Minicon 31, childcare evolved into “childrens’ programming.” With ups and downs the next decade, Marian Turner became headmistress at Minicon 41. She remained in charge through Minicon 46, bringing stability to childrens’ activities until Bonnie became her successor at Minicon 47.
Bonnie and Chas first attended Minicon 32. In the two decades since, Chas has been an occasional panel member and a frequent musician (he’s part of the duo Riverfolk). Bonnie has contributed guidebook art, and was in charge of helping with costumes starting at Minicon 43. Four conventions later, she became headmistress. Her first act was to introduce more structured activities. The following year she rebranded “Kids’ Programming” into the all-ages “Rumpus Room.” This past weekend, her seventh consecutive year in charge, she became Minicon’s longest serving headmistress.
Her legendary dedication includes showing up last year for Minicon’s opening ceremony the day after an emergency appendectomy. Yet, she isn’t superhuman. She isn’t always nice either. Her daughter Guinevere, another anchor professor, cautioned, “She’s the sweetest person until she’s playing a board game. Then, she’s absolutely ruthless.” This dark side might explain Bonnie’s tolerance of toy figures being stuffed into the Rumpus Room’s volcano. If one overlooks her tolerance of toy and marshmallow sacrifices though, Bonnie’s charm, patience, and dedication clearly make her a wonderful headmistress.
After 48 hours of imagination and insanity, the Rumpus Room closes. Professors gather their paraphernalia, and the rest is inventoried and packed into totes. All that fun, all that magic, is then stashed in a secret storage locker until its power is needed again.
How long will Bonnie run the Rumpus Room? She isn’t sure. However, she plans to groom a successor. An unnamed heir that will ensure the Rumpus Room’s legacy continues. For now, Minicon’s community is lucky to have Bonnie, and a cadre of dedicated professors. They’ve made a special place, even for adults.
Although I do have advice for adults who swing by future Rumpus Rooms. Don’t be alarmed if you hear “Wing-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa.” As you float upward, just realize young Hogwarts students often prank unwary visitors with levitate charms. Enjoy the ride, as I did, or improvise a wand and utter a Finite counterspell. But if you dare to venture toward the box castle, carry a shield. This province has ranged weapons, fierce teddy bears, and a “No grown-ups!” policy.
You’ve been warned.
For information on past and future Minicons, click here. A shout out to Matt Strait, whose archiving efforts were invaluable in researching Minicon’s five-decade history. My gratitude also goes out to Bonnie and Emily Stewart, who helped make this profile story possible.