The Occupants of the Empty House celebrate their fortieth year as a Sherlock Holmes society this month. Forty years being the same length of time it took for the original Canon of Holmes to be published, that makes this their "Canonversary."
In trying to reconstruct the Sherlockian world into which the Occupants chose to hold their first meeting, I had to go back into my own poorly-dated scrapbooks to see what was stirring those Southern Illinoisians up to gather together for that first meeting on January 22, 1977. It was a fabulous time to be a Sherlockian.
A few months before, in October, we had all seen Roger Moore on our TV sets in Sherlock Holmes in New York and Nicol Williamson as Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Otto Penzler had an article in TV Guide to accompany the former, in which he reported on the Baker Street Irregulars, saying "Their annual dinner attracts nearly 200 Irregulars from every part of the U.S.A. One woman is invited to the pre-dinner cocktail party. She is, that year, the woman."
In the bookstores that fall, you could find Beyond Baker Street: A Sherlockian Anthology, edited and annotated by Michael Harrison, with articles by both Isaac Asimov and Christopher Redmond's father, Donald Redmond. You could also pick up the latest printing of Baring-Gould's boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes . . . a milestone marking your Sherlockian enthusiasm having reached the point of spending a bit more to get a bit more on your favorite character. Nicholas Meyer's sequel novel, The West End Horror was out in hardcovers as well.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett could still be found in a Pinnacle paperback edition, if you kept your eyes open. Pinnacle had also reprinted paperback collections of Solar Pons adventures, which were pretty much Sherlock Holmes by another name. Paperback pastiches were a wonderful thing for the new, too-excited-to-be-a-purist fan, and if you were like me, you'd have been reading The Adventure of the Peerless Peer by Peoria author Philip Jose Farmer, The Earthquake Machine and Hellbirds by Austin Mitchelson and Nicholas Utechin, John Gardner's two Moriarty novels from the preceding years, and likewise Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds by Manly Wellman and Wade Wellman.
That was what you had, forty years ago, before you connected with the rest of the Sherlockian world through a Sherlock Holmes society like The Occupants of the Empty House. It was a great time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan, as I've said, but you were a bit like a computer without an internet or a car without a highway. Up in Central Illinois, a name had been proposed for a group, but unlike Southern Illinois, the local Sherlockians didn't seem to have the energy to pull the trigger for another ten months. And I'd still be a year or so out from that same connection myself.
But forty years ago in Southern Illinois, Sherlockians gathered together, became a society, and began something that rewarded, informed, connected, and just improved the world just that much more for so many of us.
And they called it "The Occupants of the Empty House." Which is still one of the most curious names for a group in all the Sherlockian world.
Happy Canonversary, Occupants!
P.S. Yes, I know January 22nd is still a ways off, but the Occupants are having their anniversary meeting today, which I'm hoping to attend. So I'm early.
P.P.S. The first thing I found in my scrapbooks was a little personal: About five days before the Occupants first met, I was going on my first date, which I only mustered courage for by having bought two ticket to a touring production of William Gillette's play Sherlock Holmes starring John Michalski and Richard Lupino as Holmes and Watson. (Kurt Kasznar as Moriarty was who really interested me, as he'd been in TV's Land of the Giants.) But that was Peoria.