SAM National Convention – January 17- 21, 2020 – Lupe’s Review

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I have a HUGE soft spot for the Society of American Magicians. That was the very first magic organization I joined when I was 14 years old. Several service members from the Panama Canal Zone who were amateur magicians formed a SAM Assembly in Panama at the time, and we used to meet at their homes in Fort Clayton or Albrook Air Force Station. I had a blast learning magic and participating in the club.

Later on, when I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, the big club in that town was the SAM Assembly 9. This group had probably the most active and creative group of magicians I had ever met. You see, most of the professionals in town were part of the Assembly, along with the magic collecting crowd, and even the guys from Hank Lee’s Magic, where I used to work at the time. The Assembly sponsored public shows and banquets and most members were active performers.

2020 marks my fortieth year as part of this organization, and their convention this time was in Las Vegas, Nevada. This meant that I had to go!

For this event, I had to earn my keep, so I decided to have a double dealer sales booth at the event, for the simple fact that we had to spread out the magic posters we sold so that people could see them. Norm always used to say: “If they can’t see them or they don’t know you have them, you can’t sell them.”

We no longer travel out of town anymore. With Norm’s Alzheimer’s it is impossible to do so. He gets very confused and disoriented these days, so for the event I arranged several caretakers who would bring him to the convention for and hour or two each day. To help me with the booth, I recruited my dear friend, Denny LaRocca, who is like a brother to me. He is an outstanding woodworker (that is how I met him), and eventually realized that he was involved in the world of magic and magicians over twenty years ago, and knew everyone at that time.

What comes next is the description of the convention from my point of view. This might be a disappointing review; it is an overlook of the event from my standpoint, instead. Due to the schedule, we were able to see very little of the convention. Lectures and shows happen during dealer hours, and the location of the dealers’ space was not conducive to participate in too many activities.

I will organize my observations of the event into days in chronologically.

Friday January 17, 2020

Our day started at 1:00 pm when we drove to the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino here in Las Vegas to figure out the logistics of the convention in order to load our booth products and paraphernalia.

Load in for the dealers was promptly at 2:00 pm.

Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino
Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, as seen from the sixth floor of the parking lot.

Hotel properties in downtown Las Vegas are older buildings, with meeting and convention facilities added years later. Loading docks and easy access are unavailable. Denny and I decided to park on the roof of the parking garage’s 6th floor, take the elevator down to the street, cross the street, go to the Hotel tower that had the conference room, find the main elevator, and arrive to the Mezzanine Conference Floor where the Dealer’s Room was located.

I guess this whole ordeal kept us in shape, as it took three trips to accomplish such a feat. We were all set up and ready to return home by 6:00 pm.

Nielsen Magic Booth
Our Nielsen Magic Booth for the SAM 2020 National Convention.

The Convention had a “soft opening” during the evening, with various meetings of committees and groups from the organization, like the Magic Endowment Fund Meeting, the Virtual Assembly 1.1, and Youth Protection Training program. The one lecture that evening was that of Bruce Kalver who is an expert in tech tricks, or those effects that use computer technology.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

This was the very first official day of the event. For the Nielsen Magic Booth, our hours were 9:00 am – 11:00 am; followed by a Dealer Show in the Showroom from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm; followed by having the booth open from 2:30 pm – 6:00 pm.

Nielsen Booth from behind
This would become our perch during the Convention
My view from backstage during the Dealer's Show
My view from backstage before participating at the Dealer’s Show.

I am grateful that the vendors were given the opportunity to show a few of their wares in the main Showroom at the Dealer’s Show. It allowed everyone to introduce themselves and give the onlookers a quick overview to what they could buy at the event. Each dealer had only three minutes to make a presentation.

In the morning the events (which we missed, except for the Dealer Show) were: Convention welcome and orientation, and an interview and talk with Mat Franco. In the afternoon, there was an interview with George Schindler (Dean of the SAM), and a Gala Show dedicated to Johnny Thompson with the following performers: Stephen Bargatze, Ice McDonald, Gustavo Raley, Paul Vigil and Yukihiro Katayama.

View from the back of the ballroom
This is the view from the back of the ballroom. Stephen Bargatze is on stage performing.

I did manage to sneak and watch the show for about fifteen minutes. The talent and material I saw seemed to be good. I saw it from the back of the room, though, and have a lot of comments on the technical aspect of the ballroom setup they were using for the convention, later in this blog post.

That night, we had tickets to go see the Mat Franco Show at The Linq Hotel. The Convention kindly provided buses as transportation from the Nugget to the Linq as part of the event. Alas! Denny and I decided to skip the show that night. We were worn out, and it was wiser to get a good night’s sleep.

I have seen Mat Franco in a previous occasion, and by the smiling faces from those who attended, I am sure that every one was very pleased with his performance. Mat is very likable, has excellent material, and a great presentation. No wonder he was an America’s Got Talent winner! If you are looking for a good show to see when you come to Las Vegas, we highly recommend this show.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Dealer’s Hours were: 10:00 am – 1:30 pm / 2:30 pm – 6:00 pm

Morning activities: Magic Circle reception. Alas! To this day I have yet to become a member of London’s Magic Circle! (It’s a long story…) But Norm has been a member, as an MIMC with Gold Star. With Norm having such a pedigree, I (as the wife) used to attend the various receptions from the organization with him. I bet there was a large British contingent at the event to have this reception.

Gustavo Raley Lecture
Gustavo Raley Lecture.

Lecture 9:30 am – 10:30 am by Argentinian Gustavo Raley. I did take off from my booth duties, and attended this lecture. This lecture was probably one of the highlights of the convention for me. The reason: It was on “General Magic”!  You see, most lectures in conventions are about card magic, or coins, or pocket tricks. Gustavo’s lecture was about very visual simple magic you can perform for children and families. The kind of stuff that you would actually do in a good ol’ magic show for a paying audience. His material was brilliant, clever and very easy to do. He is one of the most creative magicians out there and what he did blew us all away.

Throughout the day, the events we missed were:

Close up Show view
This is what the Close-up Show looked like.

Stars of Tomorrow Stage and Close-up Shows, the Professional Close-up Show, a Lecture with Scott Alexander, and another lecture by Juliana Chen. 

I did watch 10 minutes of the Stars of Tomorrow Show, and it looked like a fun event.

The last event of the night was the Rudy Coby Show, presented upstairs in the Showroom of the Golden Nugget.

We did go to see it, and had a good time watching Rudy performing his Labman Act, along with other effects that matched his crazy laboratory character. The show also included Nick Diffatte who performed his signature ring on toe routine.

Rudy Coby
Rudy Coby stars and performs his show at the Showroom.
Nick Diffatte
Nick Diffatte performing his signature ring in toe routine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This show was followed by a comedy show starring Harrison Greenbaum. Because it was so late – starting at 11:00 pm – Denny and I missed it. However, from friend reviews the following day, this was touted to be the best show of the convention.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Dealers: 10:00 am – 1:00 pm / 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Henry Evans
Henry Evans Lecture.

I managed to watch 30 minutes of Henry Evans’ lecture that morning. As usual, his magic was superb. But his lecture was mostly on card magic. His magic is very clever, incorporating a Gilbreath principle method in one of the routines, for instance. He also had an excellent handling for the color changing silk trick.

Later in the day, these are the rest of the events we missed:

Rudy Coby lecture on Illusions / Stars of Tomorrow Close Up / Fool Us Auditions.

From friends that saw the presentations, everyone I spoke to agreed that the Fool Us Auditions were the weakest part of the convention.

Mac King Banquet
Mac King Banquet setup. The chairs were decorated with Mantles of Invisibility.

After closing our booth, we attended the Mac King Roast and Banquet event. To be truthful, I don’t particularly enjoy convention banquets. I go more for the company and to hang out with friends than for the quality of the food or service. This time, we went because it was for Mac King, and because I was supposed to present a special gift that the Society had commissioned from me: A handmade customized Adirondack Chair.

Mac King Roast Banquet
Centerpieces featuring goldfish and a bear atop a plaid cloth.

The banquet room chairs were decorated with Mac style raincoats, used in his signature “Mantle of Invisibility Cards Across Routine”. The tables had centerpieces of goldfish bowls with a model bear on top, all over a plaid base.

After all the social niceties – acknowledgments to people that helped with the event, and to those that had contributed to the club, along with inducting Mac into the SAM Hall of Fame – the Mac King Roast began. The participating “roasters” were: Piff the Magic Dragon, Chris Kenner, the Amazing Johnathan, Derek Hughes, Nick Diffatte, Fielding West, Stephen Bargatze, Penn Jillette, Michael Carbonaro and Mike Hammer. Personally, I have never liked the American tradition of a “roast”. As far as roasts were concerned, I found the event to be quite funny. Although crude and at times insensitive, the roasters were prepared and they managed to be on point regarding the various comedic insults they uttered. At the end, I was called onstage to present the furniture piece I had made for Mac.

Mac King Roast Banquet - Piff
PIff the Magic Dragon introduces the events about to unfold.
Mac King Roast Banquet
Mac is inducted into the SAM Hall of Fame.
Mac King Roast Banquet
Check out those roasters, guaranteed to reduce Mac to a nice crisp.
Lupe Nielsen presents chair to Mac
I am presenting the gift that the SAM commissioned me to make for Mac King: A customized Adirondack Chair.
Fielding West performs
Fielding West performs at the convention’s Comedy Show.

After the Banquet, a Comedy Show was scheduled in that same room. We all moved out so that the hotel staff could prepare for a show featuring Fielding West, Eric Buss, Michael Holly, Steven Bargatze and Harrison Greenbaum. It was late, we missed the show, but from the talent listing, I knew that the show would be top notch.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dealers hours: 10:00 am – 1:00 pm / 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm

There were numerous events today, all which I missed: Lectures by Fielding West, Danny Archer and Cosmo Solano, and more Close-up Magic from the Stars of Tomorrow.

Denny and I took care of the last business day at the booth, and after closing, had our workout for the day: Three trips to the 6th floor of the Golden Nugget parking lot. Down the elevator, finding the entrance, going across the street, and walking 200 feet to another building and taking yet another elevator to a sixth floor.

After striking our booth, we attended the last official event of the Convention: “The Magic of China” Gala Show. The show featured:

  • Juliana Chen and Vinny Grosso as Masters of Ceremonies.
  • Ding Yang – Who brought the house down when she did a headstand and produced a silk fountain with her feet, followed by a dove, which she later split still with her feet!
  • Zhu Mingzhu – Did a very skillful manipulative act with origami paper planes.
  • Chin Yan and Chan Ninchen (I did not quite get the names right, and they are not in the program – They were the variety juggling act.
  • Xin Yafei – Fan Act
  • Yu Boran – Traditional Chinese Magic – Waterbowl Act
  • Yank Xiaolei – Manipulation and Parasol Act
  • Juliana Chen – Performed her signature manipulation act
  • (For completion, I would like to acknowledge Mr. Chen Jian, who was performing closeup magic for the audience before the show started.)

The show was very well received by the audience, and received two to three standing ovations for the various acts.

The Magic of China
Juliana Chen and Vinny Grosso MC “The Magic of China Show”.
Ding Yang
Ding Yang brought the house down by doing a headstand and producing doves with her feet!
Chinese Jugglers
Gotta have the juggling variety act!
Xin Yafei
Xin Yafei performs with fans and silks.
Yu Boran
Yu Boran performs a traditional magic bowl act.
Yang Xiaolei
Yang Xiaolei performs classic manipulation and a parasol act.
Juliana Chen
Juliana performs her award winning card manipulation act.
Magic of China Show
Curtain call!

Pros of this show: I love Chinese people, as I should, since I am half Chinese myself. Lol!. The Chinese are probably the most industrious and disciplined people on the planet, and this show demonstrates it. The emphasis is on skill, skill, and more skill. It was amazing to see the sheer skill and talent that these performers had. Their talents must have taken a lifetime to develop. I was in awe.

Cons of this show: Communism is a political system that stifles the individual, in favor of the collective. This show clearly demonstrated that. I saw traditional Chinese magic with consummate skill from the performers, but at the end of the show, I had no idea who they were as people. None of their acts were conducive with getting to know WHO was on stage. They all did their job, but I did not feel a connection to the performers. The only exception was Juliana Chen, who that by developing western sensibilities has become a household name amongst magicians.

And no, you don’t have to speak to get the audience to know your character on stage. Master performers like Marcel Marceau, George Carl, Sr. Wences, Cardini, have become legends because they give us a glimpse of their soul through the act they present onstage. That vulnerability, and that honesty on stage is what makes seeing them live a unique experience. I did not feel that uniqueness with the performers in the show. Perhaps, it is just me, who as I get older, long for more meaning in life.


What follows are my closing comments and feedback about the Convention:

Dealer’s Room

For the most part, I always have a blast when selling at magic conventions. I get to see my second family composed of those friends who do what I also do for a living. Magic is changing due to the current technology and the internet. There are very few of us the traditional magic dealers left. It was great to see Harry Allen and Wayne at the Daytona Beach Magic Booth, Roger Nicot from Card Shark, Bill Pearce, Meir Yedid, the good folks from Joker Magic, Andy Greget, Martin Lewis, Chris Smith, Astor, and so many others. It was also a treat to meet new people like Gene Alcorn from Alcorn Illusions who was our neighbor across the aisle.

However, at this convention, due to the logistics, the Dealer’s Room was up “in Siberia”. We were at a separate building, away from all the main events! By doing so, we lose a lot of the “impulse purchases” and people have to think twice before they take the ten minute trek it takes to find the dealer’s space from where the convention events are.

My suggestions on improving this situation is either move the sales space to somewhere next to where the events are, or try to encourage people to come to the dealer’s room. Have daily raffles for instance, where the tickets can only be obtained when you buy say $20 dollars from a dealer. These tickets can e drawn toward the end of the day, and one should be present to win. Have a big grand prize at the end of the convention, and again, to get tickets, they have to get them when they buy from a dealer. Instead of doing multiple Stars of tomorrow close up shows on stage, bring them closer to us. What about hiring them to perform real closeup somewhere outside the dealer’s area?

Overall, Nielsen Magic did not do poorly. We did have good business in relation to the 500 people attendance to the event. However, I know we all could have done better.


Main Ballroom Set-up – My observations:

90% of all the events of the Convention, were held in the Main Ballroom. A stage platform was erected for that purpose, along with curtains and a makeshift backstage area. There were two large screens on the sides along with lighting.

Lectures, interviews, the Close-Up Shows and Stage Shows were presented in this space.

Frankly I dislike ballrooms. They are uncomfortable, one is sitting on the same level, and it is difficult to see. This applies in particular to the Close-Up Magic. Folks… Close-up Magic is NOT Stage Magic!

I also understand that a convention has a budget, and under the circumstances, they provided what they could afford.

My suggestions would be:

  • Raise the audience. There is plenty of space in the back of the room to rake the last ten rows of the audience with platforms.
  • If there is nothing one can do about the makeshift stage, and mediocre lighting or anything else, a large part of the budget should go into better screens with TWO super high quality MANNED cameras for the onlookers at ALL times. The cameras at this convention were wasted. There was one camera on the back of the room, and each time I went for a few minutes to look at the events, there was no one at that camera. The cameras are the eyes of the audience. If the organizers insist on having close up on stage, this should be the single largest investment in the entire convention. They should have full time operators, and they should be of such quality that you could see even the smallest pip on a deck of cards.
  • The same camera setup should be given to lectures. There was many an effect we couldn’t see because the proper camera work was missing.

So there you have it folks! My little review of the convention. Overall, in spite of the little issues, we had an enjoyable time at the event.

To close, I would like to share a few pictures of a few visitors that came to the booth. I am so deeply grateful that we have meet so many interesting and decent human beings throughout our lives.

Norm and Lupe Nielsen
It was good to see Norm for a couple hours at the event.
Photo with Wayne from Daytona Magic
Wayne (from Daytona Magic), Norm and yours truly.
Norm and Ben Winn
Norm and Ben Winn.
Lupe and Mickey Silver
Mickey Silver stopped to visit!
Norm Nielsen and Ray Lum
Norm Nielsen with Ray Lum.
Norm Nielsen and George Schindler
The Dean (George Schindler) came to visit!
Lupe and the Puerto Ricans
It is always awesome to see these talented guys from Puerto Rico: Raymond Alexander and Hansel.
Norm Nielsen and Denny LaRocca
Norm and Denny LaRocca pose for the camera.

I would like to encourage all of you to support your local magic organizations and shops. They are wonderful resources in which you can meet learn and share your magic. National Conventions like those of the SAM bring us all together, and the love and enthusiasm for magic was palpable in the entire event.

The SAM will skip their National Convention next year, due to the FISM Event in Quebec Canada in the Summer.

The next SAM Convention will be again here in Las Vegas, Nevada on January of 2022. If I am still around, I plan to attend once again, and visit with the magic family I have cultivated through the years around the world. I look forward to seeing you all there!

(February 9, 2020)