When scores of Twin Cities Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts join visiting fans at their convention this weekend at the University of Minnesota, the cast of characters would do Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proud.
There will be a blue-collar worker on one side and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist on the other, P.J. Doyle said. What Doyle, managing director of Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre, and all the nurses, lawyers and others at "The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes" conference share is -- well, a lot.
They love the Holmes mysteries and history. They're collectors by nature, meticulous and detail-oriented. And they are not like Trekkies -- except when they are.
"We're a little more sedate [than Trekkies]," said Gary Thaden, a St. Paul lawyer and co-chair of this weekend's "The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes" convention. "Most people don't dress up. I do own two deerstalkers [Holmes' signature hat], but I don't wear them. Actually, neither of them fits," he added with a laugh.
Said Julie McKuras, a retired nurse, "I know people think, 'Wow, what a bunch of dweebs.' You might see the occasional deerstalker, but no uniforms. 'Star Trek' is more about role-playing, and the Holmes group is more of an appreciation."
Doyle did admit to owning a signed "Star Trek: The Next Generation" script in which Lt. Data channels Holmes on the holodeck.
Richard Sveum, a physician, goes a step further: "Wouldn't that be cool, to be able to play Holmes on a holodeck?"
Minnesotans love Holmes
Minnesota has been a longtime haven for Holmes aficionados (aka Sherlockians, or Doyleans in Great Britain).
In 1948, several University of Minnesota faculty members founded the Norwegian Explorers, named after a passage in "The Adventure of the Empty House" about "the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson." For 62 years, the group has met regularly to discuss all things Sherlockian. A study group pores over a story each month and holds an annual dinner, a few other conclaves and the triennial convention at the University of Minnesota.
The get-togethers of the 180-member group generally end up being as much social gathering as salon.
"We all share this interest in Sherlock Holmes and the Victorian era, but it's never the predominant topic," said McKuras, who's hosting a dinner party Thursday evening for convention attendees. "It's a lot like a family reunion; you all know you're related but don't have to talk about it."
A frequent topic at Norwegian Explorer confabs is the collection started by one of its founders, University of Minnesota professor and librarian E.W. McDiarmid and now curated by Tim Johnson. Beginning in 1974, the university started buying private collections and now has more than 15,000 items, including an original manuscript page of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," a replica of the sitting room at 221B Baker Street and the Muppet character Sherlock Hemlock.
Someday the Andersen Library's Holmes collection, believed to be the world's largest, might be augmented by what the Twin Cities enthusiasts have gathered over the years: Doyle's Holmes and Watson teddy bears and children's books, McKuras' four copies of the penny magazine (Beeton's Christmas Annual) where Holmes first appeared, Sveum's letters from H.G. Wells and P.G. Wodehouse to Arthur Conan Doyle and the guest book from Undershaw House, where "Baskervilles" was written.
Roads less traveled
Like the stories that they revere, Holmes hounds followed many paths to get there and pursue many other avenues once they do.
Thaden and McKuras can thank Channel 11 icon Mel Jass, because they got hooked watching the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on "Mel's Matinee Movie" in the 1960s. Sveum loved those movies, too, but drifted away before becoming enamored of the Baker Street Journal while attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
For P.J. Doyle, it was love at first read while in the fourth grade at parochial school.
"Each generation discovers Holmes in their own way," he said. "Radio or the Basil Rathbone movies, the Jeremy Brett series, now the new movie with Robert Downey and even electronic games."
Once the bug bites, the pursuit begins. Thaden uses the Holmes books as a springboard "to learn about that era and what happened then and why it happened ... [to] investigate the Victorian era's politics, look into what was happening in Afghanistan when Dr. Watson was there, learn about the wines they were drinking."
This attention to detail pervades the group, McKuras noted.
"If a story says it was sunny that day, someone will research it and say, 'Actually, it was cloudy that day in London. The date must be disguised by [narrator] Watson.'"
Which leaves just one mystery: Is P.J. Doyle related to the author whose fertile imagination drew in such devotees?
"I get that a lot," she said with a chuckle. "It's my married name. My late father-in-law did some fairly extensive genealogical research, and we're fifth or sixth cousins. Which doesn't mean much, considering that we're 10th cousins with someone who hasn't left their yurt."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643