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Industry Interview

Chicago area promoter talks about his views on trading card and entertainment shows

Aug. 8, 2004

The 2003 Midwest Non-Sport Card Expo was the largest independently promoted event the Chicago vicinity had seen in over a decade.  Trading cards did not dominate booth space at the show, as there had been a wide variety of memorabilia to satisfy any generalist.

Show host Paul Maiellaro may not be considered a unique innovator, but he is not reticent toward tinkering and tweaking with the convention format.  A few promoters of the past merely selected a venue, collected table fees and opened their doors.  They no longer participate in the industry.  Maiellaro exhibits a refreshing earnestness toward the hobby clientele as has been demonstrated over the previous two Septembers.

The influx of entertainment collectibles Maiellaro incorporated last year prompted a name change for his show.  The Chicagoland Entertainment Collector's Expo will also debut in a new location close by the city's O'Hare Airport and main superhighways.

You may access the CECE's Web site for detailed information on the upcoming event.


Q:  Would you reveal some of your personal background and your earliest collecting interests?

Maiellaro:  Currently I work for an industrial auto transmission company.  I grew up near downtown Chicago on the Near North side.

My first love was Silver Age Marvel and mainstream superheroes like Spiderman.  In 1975, I went to my first convention.  It was held at the YMCA on South Wabash, one of the early pioneer shows.  My brother took me to it.  Back then, dealers had file copies of comics, which were books that are seemingly unread, just put away and untouched.  I bought a run of Iron Man and picked up issues 2 through 13.  They were 50 to 75 cents a copy.  In most cases, the covers hadn't even been cracked open.  Now, those issues in file copy condition would bring several hundred dollars with CGC grading.

But, unfortunately, as the years went on,  my priorities changed, although I had amassed a nice collection.  Later on, they were all stolen.  I lost between 10 to 15 thousand books.  That soured me for a few years, but I came to realize I really enjoyed collecting and wanted to start all over.  Right now, I'm almost done with the entire Iron Man series from 1961 to 1980.  Unfortunately, some are key books that are worth several thousand dollars.         

Q:  What is your first youthful recollection of non-sport cards?

Maiellaro:  Wacky Packages, that's the most dominant in my mind.  There are other things like Topps' Marvel Super Heroes Stickers from the mid 1970s were fun.  I was as guilty as anyone pulling the stickers off their backing.  They're probably still on some light pole in Chicago.

Q:  You mentioned that you eventually got back into the comics as a hobbyist.  To what extend was your involvement and did you dabble in other memorabilia?

Maiellaro:  All throughout the late 1980s forward I was a dealer in comics, toys and movie posters, both selling and buying.  My business was mainly through shows in the area. I've always liked the hands-on approach -- people see immediately what they're getting.  Mail order's very impersonal.

Most of what I bought for myself didn't come from the established media, like Comic Buyers Guide; I went to area comic shops.  One was Larry's Comic Book Store on Chicago's North Side near Loyola University. 

Q:  When was your first attempt at show promoting?

Maiellaro:  I started doing small shows in the late '80s.  I wanted to make some money, but I also wanted to have a good time doing it.  Back then, comics were on top of the world in terms of popularity.  I knew some people in the industry, so I put on small shows and things were hot.  It was a little like the stock market at the time, although it's still a bit similar today.

We generally had about 30 dealers and roughly 50 to 60 tables.  They were taken mostly by comic dealers, although a few dealt in toys and novelty items.

Q:  The trading card and comics industries experienced a downturn in the lat 1990s.  How did that affect your efforts?

Maiellaro:  Business was still decent in comics.  As far as cards go, I started putting on shows again in '98.  But then things started to slump and after Sept. 11 it died.  It took people a good six to eight months to get their heads back together and move on.  Collecting can be a lucrative hobby, but, of course, it is not a necessity.

Q:  Your first multi-day trading card show took place in May 2001 in south suburban Chicago.  Les Davis, editor of The Wrapper, observed that the show had been "sparsely attended," due, no doubt, to rise of easy Internet auctions.  What were some of your  goals?

Maiellaro:  We just made a decision to expand.  I felt it was time for hobbyists to pick themselves out of a rut.  Any hobby is an escape from the stress of the day-to-day world.

I thought that instead of running small, one-day shows, we could fine tune and do non-sports with no guests and strictly cards.  But a lot of customers want to see manufacturers at the shows and they want celebrities and artists.  Big shows like Wizard World San Diego prove the point entirely.

Q:  How do you view your situation today?

Maiellaro:  We're slowly growing.  At this point, we had gone from a tiny show of 30 dealers to this year having 110 tables including celebrity guests, artists and manufacturers.  The manufacturers are starting to see the value in our efforts.

We're also in a very good position geographically.  Last year we had several people that I know of from Canada visiting just for our show.  Talking strictly of customers, we had people from almost every state -- actually from about 40 states.  This year, so far, from what I've seen in pre-sale tickets, we have three people coming from England and one from Germany.  I'm so proud that it means the networking, the advertising and word of mouth is working.  I'm not asking for an overnight success, but I'm hoping that with the support of the customers, dealers and manufacturers will carry us through this year with a gradual increase every year.

Q:  What problems did you encounter with your expansion plans?

Maiellaro:  It was difficult at first to get guests and manufacturers interested in a show that was coming from out of nowhere.  It was a hard wall to break through because of the skepticism.  You have to have someone who believes in you and the show's potential because I don't have a lot of money to spend.  I wouldn't consider it a competition between myself and Wizard World because there's no way I could match their funding and programming.  Last year we had question and answer sessions in a kind of seat-of-your-pants scheduling.  This year everything's pre-scheduled in the program book and on our Web site.

Q:  You mentioned that the Chicago area is advantageous for luring out-of-towners.  What other strengths can you identify?

Maiellaro:  One of the things I'm finding out is people like the idea of having a show close to O'Hare Field.  And it doesn't hurt that the hotel has free shuttle service to and from the airport.  You take into consideration comments from customers and dealers about location.  The hard part was finding a location that was affordable.  You're always walking a fine line trying to keep the admission price and table rates down as much as possible.  But I still have to be profitable to a certain degree.

Look at it this way:  The customer has a family and other responsibilities.  I still want them to come out, but I don't want it to be just another convention.  I want them to consider it a mini-vacation, a time to talk to others, buy a few things, trade, meet a few celebrities, get an autograph or two.  More importantly, when they go home, I want them to talk about the show and say, "I really enjoyed myself and can't wait for next year."

Q:  What additions to this year's show would generate the positive word-of-mouth effect you are seeking?

Maiellaro:  Two things.  We've added a Star Wars breakfast for Saturday morning from eight to 9:30.  For a $15 ticket you can have breakfast with the eight Star Wars actors appearing at our show.  (The Star Wars guests are Tim Dry, Sean Crawford, Gerald Home, Jeremy Bulloch, Christine Hewett, Steve Speirs, Felix Silla and Dalyn Chew)  During that time, a raffle will be held.  Federation Toys has donated an action figure of each actor, who have agreed to sign their respective figures for the raffle.  Attendees can purchase additional raffle tickets for three dollars.

All the money from the breakfast proceeds go to the Treasure Chest Foundation.  This was founded by a woman whose seven-year-old son was a cancer victim.  He beat it and is now 17.  The charity helps out 19 area hospitals.

We'll also hold a charity auction benefiting Treasure Chest Saturday afternoon at one o'clock.  We have mostly autographed photos from actors like an eight-by-ten glossy signed by Carrie Fisher.  There are other things such as an Anthony Daniels signed Hallmark ornament, original printing plates from comic books and some uncut sheets from Topps' Widevision Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.


Previous interviews:
Wrapper publisher Les Davis

Inkworks president Allan Caplan



Paul Maiellaro, promoter

of the Chicago Entertainment Collector's Expo.

photo:  H. Toser


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