The First “Carmi’s Party”

An exceptionally geeky story at the dawn of SIGGRAPH

We were at Lucasfilm. It was 1985 and I had just graduated from Brown, spending the summer in the Bay Area, on Kerner Boulevard, where most of the and all the movies had recently been made. The company was hidden in plain sight, a handful of ordinary-looking buildings in industrial San Rafael. Skywalker Ranch construction was underway. ILM, in D and E Buildings, was still solidly analog, with blue-screen stages and model shops and matte painting studios and Yoda under glass. Street signage just said “The Kerner Company.”

The Computer Division — spread out in B, C and Z buildings, was predominantly new college grads and PhDs. Me and Hawley were in The Droid Works but most of our social circle was in the Graphics Group, now called Pixar. In the prior couple years the Pixar guys had done foundational work in computer graphics, and were already famous for it, but they were still 10 years away from .

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Me in my office… my first job after college;

As the summer workday was winding down, I dropped into Mike Hawley’s office down the corridor from me. He was playing on a keyboard that was connected to his SUN workstation. “I have a party invite for you,” he began with a grin. “It’s in Chicago. This Saturday night.”

“Go on,” I said, sitting down.

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…Mike Hawley in his office. At 24 he was already accomplished.

“It’s a ‘Bring Your Own Friends Party’ and I have a credit card number and I was told to invite as many friends as I want and to use this credit card for airline tickets.”

It was plausibly a scam, none of us expected a free lunch. But I wanted to know more. Excited, but wary.

“The party is for a guy named Carmi. I have an address. It’s Saturday night at 7pm and goes all night.”

“You’re allowed to invite me? Is there a catch? Can I invite others?”

“Who do you want to invite?”

I thought for a moment. I had graduated in May and many of my best friends were a year behind me, so they were starting to reassemble in Providence for their Fall senior year without me. Chicago is sorta mid-way in the country — what if I invited my college pals to the party, to meet me in Chicago?”

Hawley gave me the credit card number, and I gave it to my friends back east, and I didn’t hold back: Scott, Greg, Paul, Bruce, Nancy, Lisa and Natasha all said yes, spontaneously. There was a sense of danger, and urgency. None of us knew if the card would work, or if it would get turned off, or alert the authorities…but Paul was working at a travel agency and set to work handling the ticketing. In 1985 having a travel agent was key.

Hawley went on to invite much of the Lucasfilm Computer Division, David Salesin, HB Siegel, “New Wave Dave” Siegel, and included our bosses, Pixar founders Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull and Loren Carpenter. Loren was usually game. I’m sure Hawley invited Steve Jobs and Marvin Minsky. The invite circulated across the early Internet in academic and computer graphics circles. SIGGRAPH, the annual computer graphics conference, was a few years old by then, but growing in size and influence, and the Pixar team were already stars. No one seemed to know Carmi, but by Thursday the buzz in the industry was about “Carmi’s Party in Chicago”

By Friday we were all a little on edge. What if this was something illegal? What if it was some technology competitor trying to pilfer our team, or worse, murder us all. One well-placed explosion, in either a plane or at an event, could set back the entire industry meaningfully, wiping out some of the greatest minds in the fledgling CGI industry. Did anyone personally know Carmi? Should we take different planes?

We were seated disparately across the jet, so we each ended up talking to the people near us onboard, and told them what we were doing, and that if they read of some unusual plot in the Chicago newspapers, to notify the authorities. My friend Scott mailed himself a letter before the flight, outlining these events, so that if he should be the victim of foul play, the arriving letter would tell the story. I paid bills and notified friends and family, left clues and info around my apartment before setting off. By the time the plane landed at O’Hare, most of us had done something weird to hedge, and the cabin crew knew about our adventure and were rooting for us.

I lost track of the Lucasfilm team at the airport, instead excited to reconnect with a chunk of my college friends for this weird experience. Most of us weren’t really “computer people”. We spent the evening together. The next day was the party.

In the era before GPS, we had maps; it was Saturday afternoon before we pulled out a Chicago map and located our party address. That was the first odd thing, it wasn’t in some hip downtown high rise as we imagined. It was in Skokie… in the . And when we pulled up, it was just a house, like the rest of the houses on the street. A Skokie house with a little lawn and illuminated doorbell. Except one thing: there was a DeLorean in front of the garage.

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Natasha, at right, with unknown friends.
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HB, left, with Scott, Nancy, Lisa and Paul.

We got there early to scope things out. Inside it was a regular suburban home — little sofa in the little living room, facing a TV that was off. The kitchen was right there with a few people standing around, separated by a small counter. Carmi we were told, was out getting a keg and a cake, still. It was his 21st birthday. “It’s a kid’s birthday party.”

It was Margaret Minksy’s DeLorean. I didn’t see Jobs or Catmull. We heard Peter Langston and his band were going to play later. Langston had been the original leader of the Lucasfilm Games Group, and was a bit of a celeb in geek circles. And that was it, a kid’s party like in the movies. His dad was out of town. He was a computer geek and this was a stunt he decided to pull.

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The birthday boy, Carmi, at right.

We were all reasonably entertained but unsure how long we should stick around. We introduced ourselves to Carmi and told our story of the adventure to get there, which was mildly amusing even at the time.

I don’t remember much about the party itself. We left early. Could there have been a few dozen people spread out in the house when we said goodbye? Me and my Brown crew disappeared for the rest of the night.

Arriving back in San Rafael, I got the lowdown on what I missed. The party swelled to 500 people, more than half flown in for the event. Guests had to be 21 to drink, so there was a set-up with a Mac SE and laserprinter making fake IDs for people over 21. Langston played bluegrass. Alvy was there. There were little clumps of scientists from Bell Labs. and Berkeley. And MIT.

Because I took a different flight home, I was unable to reconnect with the Lucasfilm gang for the trip west. Salesin and Hawley and the rest of the group were on a flight that had a layover in Denver, where Dave Siegel lived, and the story they told was that his mom threw them a terrific BBQ that afternoon, for perhaps 20 LFL folks, before continuing on to SFO.

And it wasn’t for many years that I learned that Carmi went on to be a kind of fixture at the SIGGRAPH conferences, throwing parties that became legendary. His party at SIGGRAPH 1994 took over the Disney-MGM studios from midnight to dawn. In 1995 it was the Universal City Walk. But this was his first, the first of Carmi’s Parties.

Who else was at that party in Skokie, Sept 6, 1985 — and has a story to tell?

Written by

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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