Ellen Klages and the Tiptree Auction

Ellen Klages

Ah, dear friends. This is a hard blog to post, but….

After twenty years of having the honor and pleasure of being the emcee for the Tiptree Auction at Wiscon, I am retiring.

I’m sad, but it’s the right decision. I am no longer a spry young thing. Young at heart, always, but the body is different now, and less able to caper and cavort for hours at a time. Plus, I injured my back in 2014, which has limited my mobility and flexibility, not to mention the ease of traveling. Add to that a general WisConian sense of transition, transformation, and change — and it’s time.

It feels like the end of an era. But what an era it was.

In 1994, on the weekend of my 40th birthday, I was in Worcester, Massachusetts, for Readercon, the guest of my friend, Pat Murphy. Ursula LeGuin was the Guest of Honor, and Nicola Griffith was the winner of the Tiptree Award. I knew nothing much about all that, just that the prize was given by an organization that Pat had founded.

One of the committee members in charge of the evening’s banquet and awards ceremony told Pat that some generous people had donated a few items — t-shirts, a handful of books — to benefit the Award, and asked if Pat was willing to auction them off.

Pat was already emceeing the awards and interviewing Ursula, so she said, “No, but I bet my friend Ellen will do it.”

“Sure,” I said. What the heck? It sounded like fun.

And so it was that, at the end of a very long evening, I got up on stage in a hotel ballroom for an impromptu performance, convincing an audience to buy random objects for startling sums of money. Forty-five minutes later, the Tiptree coffers had a thousand dollars, and I was suddenly, accidentally, notorious.

A man asked Spike, “Who is she?”

A total stranger came up to me. “Where else in Worcester are you performing?”

It was a heady experience.

In 1995, I came to WisCon for the first time. More generous people had donated items, and I did another auction during a Friday afternoon programming slot. It was small, but the Tiptree people were happy, and the audience seemed to have a good time.

The next year, the audience was a little larger. More stuff was donated. The Tiptree Auction was becoming a Thing, and I found myself, a newbie to WisCon, an odd sort of celebrity.

Stuff kept happening. I joined the Tiptree Motherboard, the organization thrived with the support of the community, and the auction and I somehow became an Institution.

In the beginning, I felt like my class-clown, childhood self was finally vindicated. Every May, I got to get up on stage — with a microphone — in front of a huge audience — and make people laugh. I also got to spend time on eBay and at garage sales, looking for items that would tickle the Madison fancy. Old space toys, bottles of Lysol, copies of Alice in Elephantland. I spent June through April trying to find things to delight you.

Which is cool enough. But somehow, it just kept getting better. You all started playing right back. I’ll let you in on the secret to the auction’s success: the audience is the real star.

When it works, it’s an energy exchange. I say something funny — you laugh. That makes me feel good, and relaxed, and funnier, and you laugh more and it grows and grows. After a while, you didn’t come just to watch, but to actively participate in the fun.

I don’t know any better way to build community than by shared laughter.

Backed by a shared mythology.

Space Babe.

She started out as email shorthand for one of the designs that Jeanne Gomoll and I were considering for a temporary tattoo. Another little fundraiser. The female space pirate with a blasting ray-gun was just “the space babe.”

She became so much more.

Growing up as science-fiction readers and proto-feminists, those of us of a certain age had to piggyback our imaginations onto whatever the men who controlled popular culture doled out to us. But from the get-go, Space Babe was ours.

I ran with her, shamelessly, and with a huge grin on my face. I made decades-old souvenirs of a popular culture icon that had not actually existed. A back-story with no narrative, just imaginary collectibles. If I leave behind a legacy from my auction years, I hope it’s her. I found that I love making art as much as I love performing.

See, my Dad was a painter, and a photographer, and a craftsman. And when I was a kid, I kept overhearing my mother say to her friends, “Oh, the girls all take after me, I’m afraid. Jack is the only artist in the family.” I cringed, hearing that, because I liked making things. But I knew — because I was told — that I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t draw — still can’t — and my art projects in school were judged as colorful, but inferior, lumps. Never the ones picked to be displayed on the bulletin board.

The first time I dared to make something for the auction, I was terrified no one would want it. But you did. You gave me permission to make art. And those are some of my favorite memories — being down in my basement for hours at a time, messing about with paints and glue (and Photoshop), turning up in Madison with boxes of things that I made myself, and that amused other people.

My mother is long dead, so she’ll never know that today my art is in private collections in Vienna and London and New York. But I do. And I thank you for opening a part of me that I hadn’t even let myself dream might exist.

Performer, artist, author. I would be none of these today without your support. I have loved the applause, the acclaim, the “celebrity, ” and am forever grateful for how that contributed to my recognition as a writer, especially early in my career.

Like most people, I have many personas. The auctioneer is loud, fearless, funny. The words that come out of my mouth on stage are spontaneous, stream-of-thought, in-the-moment, and ephemeral. Your acceptance of her gave me the courage to allow a much smaller, quieter voice to emerge. My writing is planned and thoughtful. The words you see in print are honed and carefully chosen.

So thank you for allowing me the space for both voices to be heard. For reading my fiction, and for applauding when I got up on stage and put on my chicken suit or shaved my head or did The Happy Dance. I don’t know any other performer who has gotten the chance — even once — to and do a three-hour, one-woman show.

Well, sort of. It has never really been a one-woman show at all. Although I’ve been the public face of the auction, I’ve always have had a team behind me doing the hard work — sorting, preparation, and logistics. And other folks collecting the money and doing the math.

Jeanne Gomoll — a national treasure — was, for a long time, the person accepting donations, setting up the display of items, and making sure the trains ran on time. Scott Custis hauled boxes down from their attic every year. Jim Hudson, a mensch if there ever was one, handled the accounting, a most important part of any fundraiser. In recent years, Nevenah Smith streamlined the process and added her own flair to the event.

It’s been twenty years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who have supported the auction, the Tiptree Award, and/or WisCon whose hard work, technical expertise, and enthusiasm made me look good up there.

To them, and to all of you — I enjoyed every minute.

Thanks for a great run.

— Ellen


PS-1: Fundraising for the Tiptree Award will go on. We will continue to offer you choice items in return for your support. There will be future auctions, some live, perhaps some online. I may even participate in them, but not as a solo act.


PS-2: The auction was one of the centers of my life for a very long time. But because each of them was one long improvisation, happening as fast as I could talk, I honestly don’t remember much about individual moments. I’m hoping that you do, and that you’ll use the Comments to share your memories with me.

11 thoughts on “Ellen Klages and the Tiptree Auction”

  1. Oh, Ellen, my lower back injury is moaning sympathy. I feel you on the loss of capering and cavorting, and those auctions were endurance athletic events.

    My auction is memory is from the time Sharyn November stole you microphone from you and got up on stage and told the audience how everyone in her office who read the Green Glass Sea found themselves crying at the ending. And then she auctioned off a ARC of it, and I can’t even remember how much it went for, but I remember thinking it was a pretty nice chunk of change.

    And then I went out and bought it, and I cried at the ending.

  2. Oh wow! This truly does feel like the end of an era. When I went to my first Wiscon, I didn’t intend to go to the auction, but every single person I talked to raved about how fun it was. Ellen, you brought so much laughter and togetherness to us. Thank you for so many years of art and improv. I hope from now on you’ll get to enjoy the auction from a different perspective–maybe even one that’ll let you remember more of the experience!

  3. I remember how you sold someone’s bra and then you sold a trip around Madison in your new car – and added you’d wear the bra as well. It was a delight to watch you. Much thanks.

  4. Ellen, you so totally rock it’s hard to believe you exist! I remember the Wiscon where a gorgeous woman dressed up as Zenia for the auction and you said, “That woman has more bosom than I have body!”

  5. I have always been astounded by the Tiptree auction. Through 20 years of hard work (and lots of fun), you created a unique art form.

    The auction is a piece of absurdist theatre in the service of a good cause, a creative collaboration between you and a willing audience. This event is the essence of “you had to be there.” The morning after the auction, it’s so hard to explain why people were laughing hysterically while bidding (by prime numbers) to buy something as strange as the hot pink bra of a notable writer — or something as ephemeral as having another notable writer don that bra.

    You will be missed enormously. And I can personally testify that you are a tough act to follow. Last year, it took half a dozen writers and fans serving as substitute auctioneers to come close to the energy of a single Ellen Klages. This year, an all-new ensemble cast of auctioneers will rise to the challenge. We hope to do you proud. Thank you for 20 years of putting the fun in fundraising.

  6. Your art work is also hanging in my private collection in Hamburg! I will miss seeing your various antics, but hope that you will continue to make fun pieces of art, beautiful writings and keep telling such fabulous stories. You are a treasure!

  7. Ellen,

    I think I posted something on Facebook, but I also wanted to add a few more words here. Basically, I want to say THANK YOU. You made me laugh until I cried, and then at some point in every auction I’d have to leave because my face would hurt from laughing so much. You helped me feel part of a cool and extremely funny community. As has been said, you ARE a treasure. I feel so blessed to have attended your auctions. And thank you for raising so much money for such an important institution. You have definitely plumped up your basket of karma points.

  8. Favorite moments? I’ve got a couple I always tell people about when I’m trying to describe you & the auction.

    One was a little thing from back when you were auctioning off four(?) chances to control the little helium zeppelin for five minutes. One kid at least, of course, used it to dive-bomb you while you were auctioning off a later item, and I really enjoyed AND appreciated your fine & melodramatic reactions which both entertained us all and gave the kid immense personal satisfaction.

    But my favorite EVER, as I’ve probably told you before, was your auctioning off that souvenir kangaroo-scrotum changepurse.

    You did a great and hilarious job of peering at it, raising a severe eyebrow and tut-tutting whoever had such a tacky idea for a feminist-convention auction. And then, even before we’d stopped laughing, you turned the package over and announced “Oh, look; there’s a poem on the back!”

    And one audience member immediately offered you $10 *not* to read it out loud. Other people offered more money for you TO read it out loud; to sing it; to do a little dance….

    And you had the brilliant idea (hilariously explained, of course) of passing two hats: One if we wanted you to read it out loud; the other if we DIDN’T. And whichever hat came back with more money would win the vote.

    I think this was your first auction that I saw, but even then I could tell that hat-passing was a PERFECT technique that allowed those of us who couldn’t afford auction prices and/or didn’t want any of the affordable items to donate anyway. You were so good you had us laughing ourselves sick with the joy of giving money (how often does that happen?), waiting enthusiastically for the hats to come around.

    And once they’d made their rounds and returned to you, you counted up the totals and told us that while the “Do read it” camp had come up with more money, you felt bad for the “Don’t read it” camp because they’d also donated generously, so they deserved a prize too.

    Therefore, you said, here was you NOT reading it (you gave ’em maybe thirty seconds of silence, with a proper “Ta-da!” arm gesture and stage bow).

    And THEN you gave the rest of us what WE’D donated for, reading the horrible little tourist-shop doggerel for this kangaroo-scrotum change purse (using the right sing-song voice for it, too), and while you said we DEFINITELY deserved better than to hear you sing, you did a little skip-and-hop for the people who’d asked for a dance.

    Your auctioneering will be missed, but very fondly remembered.

    –Nonie the (Ex-)Toyseller, a minor co-conspirator on the Ellen Klages Auctioneer Barbie

  9. Aw. Really. What *great* times! My God, you made us laugh, and sing, and feel smart for catching all the jokes and puns and funnies, not to mention the anticipation of what you’d come up with *this* time, and then talking next day about how wonderful what you had in fact come up with was.

    Crazy hugs to you, only not real ones so as not to bother the back thing; so long to those days, and thanks for all the fish —


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