Odyssey ends at Urbana for '2001' fans

HAL computer 'birthplace' hosts March festival

By Julie Wurth
News-Gazette Staff Writer

     URBANA - There are fans, and then there are fanatics.
     Phil Vendy loves "2001: A Space Odyssey." He's seen the movie at least 50 times. He runs a "2001" Web page that includes all the dialogue spoken by HAL, the Urbana-born computer in the film.
     And next week, he's flying to Champaign-Urbana to take part in Cyberfest '97, the salute to the science-fiction masterpiece written by Arthur C. Clarke and produced by Stanley Kubrick.
     That may not sound remarkable, but Vendy lives in Sydney, Australia.
     "It's a personal adventure," said Vendy, a data architect with IBM.
     He's been fascinated - some say "obsessed," he admits - with "2001" ever since the film came out in 1968.
     "I was just leaving school, where the teachers told you the answers to things, and here were Kubrick and Clarke saying, 'Hey! Here's a whole bunch of questions and we're not going to give you any answers.'
     "It just seemed to stand everything on its head. This hit the screen and nobody knew what to make of it. That was enough for me. It just stuck with me."
     Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of "2001" enthusiasts will join Vendy at Cyberfest, which is scheduled for March 10-15.
     The festivities are built around a birthday bash for HAL, the smooth-talking, chess-playing computer in Clarke's novel. HAL "became operational" at Urbana in 1997 (in January, not March, but hey, the weather's better now).
     It's an appropriate choice. After all, birthdays are a theme in "2001."
     An early sequence in the film shows Dr. Heywood Floyd wishing his daughter a happy birthday via videophone from his space shuttle. And astronaut Frank Poole receives birthday greetings from his parents back on Earth before meeting his untimely end, courtesy of HAL.
     "HAL was probably not considered the nicest guy in the world, but everybody deserves a birthday party. I think he'd probably enjoy it," said chief Cyberfest organizer Carol Menaker, UI director of communications.
     Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert will co-host two major events during Cyberfest:
     - A special screening of "2001" at the Virginia Theater on March 13, in the film's original 70 mm, stereo format. Actor Gary Lockwood, who played Frank Poole in the movie, will also take part.
     - A "Cybergala" at the Krannert Center on March 14, which will pay tribute to computers, "2001" and those involved in the making of the film.
     Keir Dullea, who portrayed the astronaut who outwits HAL, Dave Bowman, will send long-distance greetings from New York in a taped interview played at the Cybergala.
     And Clarke will appear live - via an Internet audio/video link - from his home in Sri Lanka.
     The Cyberfest guest list also includes Harry Lange, a production designer and technical adviser on the film; Piers Bizony, author of "2001: Filming the Future"; Roger Caras, president of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a production assistant to Kubrick; and David Stork, a California scientist who edited the book, "HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality."
     Among the no-shows are most of the Hollywood types invited: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. However, Hanks will appear in a video interview with Roger Ebert at the Cybergala.
     "We knew going in that, although we could get very excited about this, it would be a challenge to get other people excited," said Rick Kubetz, vice president for Champaign County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Cyberfest planning committee.
     Other Cyberfest activities include technology fairs, a science-fiction film festival, a new-music concert, symposiums on computer and film topics, open houses across campus and reunions of alumni who took part in computer research at the UI.
     The Champaign County Network, or CCNET, rescheduled its Internet fair to coincide with Cyberfest. Held in late April last year, the 1997 fair will kick off Cyberfest on Sunday, March 9, at Parkland College.
     "We thought all the activity surrounding Cyberfest would give it a little more notoriety," Kubetz said. "We're trying to show how the community at large has benefited from technology, just as Cyberfest shows how the world has moved forward."
     UI officials don't really have a handle on how many visitors to expect. A few Cyberfest events are ticketed, but most are free and no registration is required, Menaker said.
     One thing is certain: the campus will be jampacked toward the end of the week. The Engineering Open House and Agriculture Open House, which typically draw 20,000 visitors over two days, will be held Thursday and Friday, March 14-15.
     And Champaign-Urbana has a number of other conventions or events scheduled that weekend, said Kim Pillischafske, director of the Champaign-Urbana Convention and Visitors Bureau.
     Among them are the state drill-team championships, an international computer science symposium, and a Christian church conference.
     It's put a premium on hotel rooms that weekend - coincidentally, the same weekend of the Illinois High School Association boys' Class A basketball tournament, which is now in Peoria.
     "There are a bazillion things going on. Everything's just packed," said Pillischafske. "We couldn't have the IHSA here if we wanted 'em."
     The University Inn has some rooms available Saturday night, but Friday is sold out, said Connie Hilson, director of guest services. The Chancellor Hotel is booked solid both nights, but rooms are still available during the week, said sales director Wally Lotz.
     Both hotels set aside blocks of rooms for Cyberfest, but not many have filled up, Lotz said.
     "We've got a few people here for Cyberfest, but not a lot - between 10 and 15," said Hilson.
     As of Friday, about 250 tickets had been sold to the "2001" screening at the Virginia, although the university had another 300 tickets on reserve, said John Eby, managing director of the theater. The theater seats 1,600.
     At Krannert, about 200 tickets to the Cybergala had been sold, with another 500 held by the university, said spokeswoman Jane Ellen Nickell. The Festival Theater holds just under 1,000.
     After more than a year of planning, Menaker is happy with the Cyberfest lineup.
     "We set out to create programming that would be of interest to all parts of the campus, not just the technology parts. We also set out to bring the community into the event, so we could share this experience," she said. "Now it's just time to play."
     Vendy said he's looking forward to the movie screening, but also just being around other "2001" fans. "It will just be nice to be with other people who share my interest," Vendy said.

See also: Phil Vendy's web page

This article has been electronically republished with permission from The News-Gazette.
©1997 The News-Gazette