SAN DIEGO — Riding at the front of an escalator packed with cheering fans, Tim Pontrelli raised his arms in victory, a crowd of perfect strangers chanting his name.
When he got to the bottom of the escalator, he quickly stepped aside, letting the fans behind him stream onto the floor of the San Diego Convention Center.
The 2022 edition of San Diego Comic-Con was underway, and Pontrelli was back behind the scenes, where he’s helped make the mega-event possible for the past four decades.
The touching retirement send-off, captured on video and later shared online, was orchestrated by a security supervisor as the crowd stood waiting to enter the convention, Pontrelli later said in a phone interview.
The supervisor told the eager fans a bit about the event manager’s storied career. When it was time for one last escalator ride, the crowd helped mark the occasion with their gesture.
Pontrelli said “time sort of slowed down,” when he realized the group was chanting, “Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim.”
“It was just really sweet that they remembered my name,” he told FOX 5.
Pontrelli has been around since the days of Golden Hall hosting San Diego Comic-Con. He laughs remembering how he and other event staff members were wowed by a turnout of a few thousand people.
“Ooh, that’s a big line,” he remembered saying, commenting on a queue that stretched a single block to Third Avenue. It was a big crowd, no doubt. But at today’s event, you might wait longer for the bathroom.
Lines are actually a defining feature of Pontrelli’s career, he told FOX 5.
He cut his teeth at Golden Hall through the 1980s and eventually moved over to the San Diego Convention Center, where he continued to play a key role in the production of Comic-Con.
By the mid-1990s, a transformation of the convention itself was well underway. No longer just a gathering of comic book collectors and graphic novel enthusiasts, crowds grew to tens of thousands of people.
As the number of attendees eventually surged past 100,000, managing the event became “a Rubik’s cube of line control and crowd management.”
Waiting is just part of the process at such a massive event, but Pontrelli and his team still wanted to make it as painless as possible. He said it’s critical to make sure people stand in the correct line, because there’s nothing more devastating than a two-hour wait to reach the wrong door.
It’s also important to make sure people are standing in a real line in the first place. Yes, sometimes phantom queues pop up in crowded walkways, leading to nothing at all.
“People will be in a mini line and we’ll ask them, ‘What is this line for?'” Pontrelli said. The confused attendees will gesture toward some destination with a queue that starts around the corner.
“‘You guys are in a line to nowhere,'” Pontrelli said, laughing.
As the event grew and grew, so did the number of items on the event manager’s plate. He tries to manage the experience from the moment attendees leave their home or hotel, keeping traffic and transportation issues in mind.
He rattles off the agencies he’s coordinated with: the Port of San Diego, the city, the California Coastal Commission, the fire department and police. Then there’s the team of 1,000 security guards and meeting room coordinators and massive cleaning crew — the contractors and production teams and Hollywood PR teams.
Beyond Comic-Con, Pontrelli and his team helped run 10 or so other large conventions each year. He also played a pivotal role in converting the venue into a homeless shelter and a safe haven for migrant children during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You could tell, in a way, you were changing their lives,” Pontrelli told FOX 5. “A lot of them were very appreciative.”
The work is gratifying in all its forms, he said. But there’s no denying it can be a grueling job.
Pontrelli has “the same ailments that a lot of event managers have” from “pounding the pavement many times over the years.” Plantar fasciitis and bad knees come with the territory of 12- or 13-hour days during his most intense weeks of the year.
He’s grateful for the support of his wife, Kerry, who he actually met at the convention center. She’s worked in events, so Pontrelli says she understands the bizarre schedules and dizzying logistics.
As he bid goodbye to Comic-Con, Tim marked another enduring milestone this year. He and Kerry have now been married for 24 years.