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At Fanboy Expo Tampa, the fans are the show

TAMPA — Nothing like Fanboy Expo Tampa to bring out a kaleidoscope of humanity.

The celebrities — stars who made their names for everything from The Six Million Dollar Man to The Walking Dead — are the draw, but really the fans are the show.

Saturday's edition of the three-day event, expected to draw a total of 5,000 people, turned the Hilton Tampa Downtown into a pop-culture jukebox.

The hotel ballroom and hallways swarmed with costumed superheroes, storm troopers, ghostbusters, medieval wenches, guys with shields, guys with masks, guys in bodysuits, women in bustiers, people with horns, Trekkers, nymphs, mutants and Randy Nothdorf.

Nothdorf, not in costume, had a good spot near the entrance to the main ballroom for the actual-sized R2-D2 he made from wood, styrene, resin and repurposed household items.

With a PlayStation 2 controller, he guided its movements, lights and sounds — 62 different chirps, burbles, squinks and wolf whistles.

The R2 unit turns heads not just at fan conventions but at parents night at Mulberry Middle School, where Nothdorf is a sixth-grade science teacher.

"They think I'm the coolest teacher they have," he said.

But, and this is true for many of the people at Fanboy Expo, he is not just a guy with a robot but a member of a community. The website for the R2-D2 Builders Club has more than 1,100 registered members trading design tips on hundreds or more robot projects.

Somewhere, Nothdorf said, guys are working on an R2-D2 that can project a true-to-the-film holographic image.

And that's just one person in one corner of the place.

If you drew a family tree for the Fanboy Expo, it likely would have branches for Doctor Who, anime, George R.R. Martin, the Cartoon Network, Marvel comics, Mexican wrestling, A Clockwork Orange, Madison Avenue and the Spanish Inquisition.

What's more, the expo's polychromatic free expression tends to draw on a wide range of skills, from costume design, sewing, hairstyling and makeup to drawing, crafting, engineering, electronics and entrepreneurship.

Fanboys know their characters, origin myths and alternate realities, so they appreciate attention to detail.

"You will get called out," said 22-year-old Rennie Starks, dressed as Anna from Frozen, walking through the expo with three college-age friends, also in Frozen gowns and wigs, a couple of them carrying cans of Red Bull.

Not everyone, however, is in costume, and many come for the actors, the autographs and the photo ops. Saturday morning, for example, featured The Six Million Dollar Man's Lee Majors and Richard Anderson.

The morning's biggest draw was Walking Dead actor Scott Wilson, whose character, the veterinarian-farmer Hershel Greene, ended last season.

"The saddest death in The Walking Dead," 12-year-old Emily Will of St. Petersburg said moments after meeting the ponytailed 72-year-old actor.

During a packed Q-and-A session later, someone asked Wilson whether he knew that his character would be killed off.

"In Episode 3 of the fourth season, I got a little suspicious because they were giving me too much to do," he said. "They didn't tell me, but I said, 'This is not good.' "

After Wilson mentioned that his mother recently turned 100 and still drives, someone asked whether she watches the gory zombie drama and whether she saw his grotesque death.

Yes and yes, the veteran actor said, not that it bothered her.

"She said, 'Oh, I've seen him get killed before,' " he said.

Wilson won praise from fans for being approachable and drawing people out in conversation.

"When they show an interest in something other than selling an autograph, that's nice," said Emily's dad, Scott Will, 43, whose red beard, earmuffs and pickax showed him to be Yukon Cornelius from the animated 1964 Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special.

Just at that moment, a furry 7-foot Wookie stopped, leaned over and asked the Will family, had they seen a mutual acquaintance named Brandon?

Yes, Scott Will explained a moment later, "we're friends with the Wookies."

That's the sort of cross-pollination the fanboy experience encourages and celebrates.

Maybe some of the people who attended were not the most popular in school, but they're open and curious and engaging and friendly, said Saria Alderson, a 16-year-old Riverview High School senior wearing the pink wig, makeup and costume of Princess Bubblegum from the TV show Adventure Time.

Saria said she doesn't worry about talking to someone at an expo, because they are welcoming, even when it's not clear who they're supposed to be.

"That's us, too," she told a clueless interviewer. "Half of us here don't know who everybody else is, but we pretend."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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