Tuesday, September 28, 2021

WEG Memoirs: Hosting Uncommon Visitors

Some odd coincidences recently reminded me of a few, rare visitors we hosted at West End Games’ headquarters in the remote wilderness north of Honesdale, PA. (And it seemed appropriate after my recent post about behind-the-scenes revelations of game companies.) A friend sent me a photo when he discovered a pack of bratwurst from the Alpine Wurst & Meat House in his local grocery store. My son and I watched A Bridge Too Far to commemorate Operation Market-Garden Sept. 17-25, 1944. Both incidents – however odd and seemingly unrelated – stirred my foggy memories of three rare yet notable occasions I entertained illustrious visitors at West End’s offices.

Some gamers might aspire to visit their favorite game company’s headquarters, but it’s quite disappointing to discover it’s primarily a business – offices, warehouses, shipping facilities – with only minimalist trappings that betray the game product’s inspiration. They’re usually little more than offices and warehouses with a few geeky mementos on desks and perhaps a display with some distinctive product or awards. (Though I fondly recall a Phil and Dixie comic strip in Dragon Magazine that pictured TSR’s headquarters as a giant six-sided die....)

Frequent readers have seen my 1993 photo of the West End facility enough times. The front of the building consisted of two floors of offices, with Bucci Imports and the overall business administration on the first floor, West End on the second. Owner Scott Palter had his office downstairs for convenience; when I first arrived in 1993 the sales office was on the second floor, but later moved next to Palter’s office where he could advise/meddle/micromanage (pick one, they all applied) sales issues. Upstairs the creative/editorial team occupied the east half of the floor, with the art department and production manager’s office the west half. Restrooms and the conference room sat in the middle near the stairwell. Some editors had their own office with a door, while others had open offices with six-foot separator walls and an open entrance. While the production manager had his own office, the art staff sat at desks in a bullpen, with their supervisor peering out from his cubicle at the far end at the slightest intrusion by an editorial staff. The rest of the building behind the offices consisted of the shipping/assembly area and the warehouse, about three-quarters of the entire structure. It was not much to look at. Staffers sometimes decorated their desks and offices with posters or other mementos displaying their geeky interests. The most sensitive business information – the production schedule for upcoming products – remained out of sight along one wall of the conference room (sometimes covered with a sheet) and inside the production manager’s office. No walls covered in Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters. No bookshelves displaying West End’s most recent products or classic best-sellers. No life-sized Star Wars character stand-ups or giant, cardboard X-wing fighters. The building didn’t even have a sign out front.

I can think of only three occasions when guests trekked out to West End’s nondescript brown warehouse building about eight miles north of Honesdale on Route 191. Each time we had to clear the visit with management, with the requisite covering of schedule boards (about the only “corporate secret” worth hiding). In those days before cell phones and digital cameras we didn’t worry much about people filming the building and sharing all our embarrassing realities with billions on the internet. As one might imagine there wasn’t much to see anyway. Staffers tolerated our brief and underwhelming tour filled with introductions; owner Scott Palter was gracious as always to outsiders; we peeked into the art department, the warehouse, and the editorial offices; and we usually ended in my office talking about upcoming projects or looking at some of the Adventure Journal artwork originals that accumulated in my office (back in the days when actual artwork came through the post rather than electronic files via the internet).

The three visits I recall came about because people were traveling through the area on their way to somewhere else; their route just happened to bring them near Scranton and hence close enough to Honesdale to ask if they could swing by their favorite Star Wars Roleplaying Game publisher. The first two visits I remember came from freelance authors for the Star Wars Adventure Journal. As I recall both were in the area on vacation, Charlene Newcomb, author of the popular Alex Winger stories, and on another occasion Carolyn Gollege, who wrote several stories for the Journal, touring the United States all the way from her home in New South Wales, Australia.

The third was John Morton, a writer and PR professional out of Maryland who was traveling through northeastern Pennsylvania on other business; he is better known for his all-too-brief appearance in The Empire Strikes Back as Luke’s snowspeeder gunner Dak Ralter. He was traveling in the area and wanted to arrange a visit; since most of the creative/editorial staff at the time consisted of Star Wars fans, we spent most of our time talking with him over lunch out. (Our rare long lunches annoyed the Bucci Imports people; although we were technically “salaried” management still required us to punch in and out on a time clock, a petty indignity manifesting their general disdain for the younger employees they felt had too much fun producing games.)

So how did these visits relate to my memory of the Alpine Wurst & Meat House and A Bridge Too Far? After the bare-bones tour of West End’s offices and some time talking shop, Charlene Newcomb and her friend took me out for a wonderful German dinner at the restaurant down the street from my apartment. And, of course, John Morton had a small role in A Bridge Too Far as a padre in the boat assault scene at Nijmegen (along with other Star Wars film alumni Garrick Hagon and John Ratzenberger).

These were the most notable from my perspective. The offices occasionally hosted freelance writers and designers, especially in the early days when the company still supported TORG and sought original game ideas to mold into MasterBook. Some paid visits in early summer as part of vacations to help assemble boxed games to which they’d contributed. I don’t recall any mainstream Star Wars authors or personalities visiting remote Honesdale, though many generously treated West End staffers to dinners out at various conventions we attended...perhaps a subject for a future WEG Memoirs piece.

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