The man on the street had no idea who Conan was, and thought of elves as "those little guys who made toys for Santa." What popular fantasy did exist took the form of translated fairy tales, which were, after all the original fantasy fiction, including the excellent films of Ray Harryhausen and various sword-and-sandal movies loosely based on the Greek Mythology taught in school because someone thought it was educational.
|Popular conceptions of dwarves were more like this...sorry Gimli!|
But there were no fine lines drawn. Those who loved Conan also liked science fiction and probably enjoyed them in the same monthly periodicals. They also liked those Hammer Horror films that dealt with the same fantastical themes. In short, fantasy buffs took it where they could get it, and science fiction remained the dominant and most easily recognized genre within the fantastic, such that anything besides Tolkien was a sub-genre at best.
When the first fantasy role-playing game(s) emerged, they weren't based so much on a coherent genre as they were on a mishmash of varied fantastic influences. Thus, you had games based on the historical Middle Ages that depicted dwarves and elves as wearing pointy caps with curly-toed shoes because that's how they were shown in storybooks from the 19th century. You had overt references to horror movies and unabashed sci-fi elements intermingled because it was cool, and the referee had just watched 2001!
These weren't devotees of any pure genre. They were friends converting the medieval war-games they were playing into something fun, and medieval myth seemed a good starting point. From there, they bolted on anything they could get their hands on, and there was a silly, beer-and-pretzels atmosphere that began to fade as gaming became more mainstream and sophisticated.
The hobby caught on, and people found out they were more properly classified as fantasy fans and/or gamers, and gaming itself became a recognized genre that began to influence mass media. Forty years later, fantasy is a mainstream phenomenon with well-established conventions, but it's always nice to remember when it was still new, and we didn't have a name for what we were and what we loved!