Bil Herd and Leonard Tramiel

Greg Alekel of the Portland Group

Commodore Las Vegas Expo 2015

CommVEx 11.0


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July 17 - 20, 2015

After skipping the event the last two years, I once again took the long, boring, hot drive to Las Vegas for the 11th annual CommVEx, the Commodore computer show sponsored by clubs in Fresno and Vegas, and held this year at the Plaza Hotel. I've already driven through Las Vegas once this year, on my Colorado Springs trip in June, and will do so again in October when my daughter and I visit Grand Canyon and some of the national parks of Utah.

So when I had to drive not THROUGH Vegas, but TO it, I was less than thrilled. Still, I had a good time, met some new people, renewed old acquaintances, and heard some interesting new stuff about these old computers.

Without going into detail here, the Commodore 64 was ahead of its time and sold more units than any other single model (regardless of Steve Jobs' claims to the contrary). The Commodore 128 took things a step further, with more capacity and increased speed, and also sold in the millions. For a number of reasons, the company did not keep up with developments in the world of computers, and went bankrupt in the early 1990s. However, the name lives on, with all trademarks owned by a Netherlands company, Commodore Holdings B.V.  You can read more about the original company and the various computers they made here.

There were numerous other models, before and after the C64 and C128, but those were the biggies. The next most successful product was the Amiga line, which had three or four models. It started as a separate company, but was bought by Commodore before being brought to market. For many C64 and C128 users it was the next logical step, offering more memory, faster speed, and a better color palette. I never used an Amiga, but I would guess that 90% of its users were former 8-bit owners.

Most of the officers of the Fresno Commodore Users Group (FCUG) were at the event, one of them for the first time. They included President Robert Bernardo, Vice President Roger Van Pelt (our first-timer), treasurer Dick Estel, board member Louis Mazzei, his son Vincent, Grand Exalted Poobah of the VIC20, and our newsletter editor, Lenard Roach. Lenard lives in Kansas City KS, performs his duties long distance, and made the 25 hour drive with his oldest son and several friends. Robert and Roger drove down Wednesday in my F150 pickup, to provide more carrying capacity than Robert's Crown Vic; I drove down Friday, and the Mazzei's left Thursday after work, arriving very early Friday morning. Most of us stayed at the Plaza, although Robert and Roger were at another motel a few miles away.

Since most of my audience are not Commodore fans, I will focus on non-technical matters. Robert and Lenard will surely provide reports on that aspect of the event, and publish them where the proper audience will see them. When they do, links will appear here and below.

I arrived about 5 p.m. Friday, stopped by the meeting room to see what was going on, then got checked in. Although the show does not officially start until Saturday, there are lots of people there Friday evening, setting up their equipment and greeting other Commodore fans from around the country and the world. I have to confess I was happy to see that Robert and Roger had already finished setting up most of the equipment we were responsible for.

The hard core fanatics stay in the room as long as Robert lets them, which Friday was about 1:30 a.m. I however, was long gone, reading, relaxing, and getting to bed at my usual time, a little after ten.

The show started Saturday at 11, but Robert was there at 7 a.m., driving from his motel several miles away. Roger, unused to the wild Commodore life of virtually no sleep, slept in, so at 9:30 I was dispatched to pick him up, along with more equipment. We then went to a local supermarket to pick up a cake Robert had ordered in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Amiga and C128.

We had good attendance this year, with 47 paid admissions. In addition there were a couple of special guests who did not pay. With a few wives and kids not on the registration roster, we had about 55 people, not all there at once.

However, the special guest who caused the most excitement was Bil Herd, who describes himself as "a recovering Commodore engineer." Bil worked for the company in the early 1980s, and was one of the designers of the Commodore 128. He described the development process as designing a computer to do what the engineers thought it should do, rather than to meet the goals set by sales and management. I only made use of the two major Commodore products, of which there were at least two dozen brought to market, but the C128 seemed to me to be the perfect computer for its time, capable of many things that designers of IBM and clone PCs had not yet been able to do.

Bil is a fascinating speaker, with an endless supply of stories. Some of them are of interest mainly to those with considerable technical knowledge, but many are of the "human interest" type that would entertain any audience. Bil spoke for close to an hour, recounting various experiences and events during his years at Commodore.

He then called up our other special guest, Leonard Tramiel, son of the founder of Commodore, the late Jack Tramiel. The business started as a typewriter company, later made office furniture, watches, calculators and a number of other products, before venturing into computers in the late 1970s. (Read more about Jack here.) Bil asked Leonard a series of questions about matters that took place during the time Bil was with the company, as well as some about the Tramiels' work at Atari after Jack resigned from Commodore.

One of the most fascinating revelations was that Jack was not at all interested in technology. He was interested in creating a product that could be sold at a low price to millions of people, and succeeded wildly in that quest. The first computer he was really comfortable using was an Apple iPad.

Bil continues to write and speak about his experiences, and there are articles and videos on line. Click here for photos of Bil and Jack together at the Commodore 64 25th anniversary celebration.

Once they finished their presentations, Bil and Leonard cut the C128/Amiga 30th anniversary cake, and all who desired some had a piece.

Since I am no longer a Commodore user, just sort of a hanger-on-er, most of the talks and demonstrations were not of great interest to me. Still, it's always fascinating to see what people are doing with these machines that were declared "obsolete" over a decade ago. There is pretty much no modern computer equipment that has not been made to work with a Commodore or Amiga computer, particularly various configurations of flash drives and CD-ROM drives.

I enjoy seeing the various pieces of equipment that are put on display, and of course, I have great respect and admiration for the enthusiasm of these vintage computer fans. However, I had duties that kept me occupied throughout the day.

As usual, I operated the registration desk, collecting admission and selling tickets for the prize drawings that are held throughout the event. The procedure is to have a container for each prize, so that people can put their tickets into the box for the specific prize(s) they are interested in. In the past I had used the lightweight cardboard boxes that CDs and DVDs used to come in, but this year I hit on the idea of washing out Hershey's cocoa boxes, melting a slot into the top with a hot screwdriver, and labeling each box. It worked out well, and gave us a much more durable container, reusable for many years.

Years ago I created an Excel spreadsheet file in which I enter the name of each person and the amount of their admission and raffle ticket purchases if any. The dollar totals are automatically updated on a second sheet that shows income and expenses, so at all times we can see how close we are to covering costs. At the start of the day on Saturday this was a busy task, but I enjoy it, and get to meet everyone who comes in, at least briefly.

The final "presentation" of the day was actually a round table discussion of the future of CommVEx. The room we were in was slightly smaller than the one provided last year, and I believe a little smaller than what we had three yeas ago at the Las Vegas Club Hotel. There were more people wanting table space, and of course, near-record attendance. Therefore the room was crowded, it was hard to get around, and the various exhibitors were jammed together with no elbow room whatsoever.

Robert had talked with the hotel about a bigger room. One is available, but the cost would be nearly double. Since we have been doing just a little better than breaking even, funding the extra cost was a concern, so Robert asked everyone present for their thoughts.

Without exception, everyone felt we needed the bigger room. Several of those present said they would donate anywhere from $100 to $500 to help pay for it. We also talked about increasing the admission price, currently $10 for both days. Many said they would not object to a higher price. We've never charged for the use of tables, and a number of those who had set up tables for various purposes said they would be willing to pay for the privilege. There was also discussion of making admission free but charging for tables, advance registration (so we would know before the event how much money was coming in), making admission good for the entire family (although few family members attend), and asking for voluntary donations instead of a set price.

It was clear that with money raised this year plus pledges, we could fund the larger room for next year, and that decision was easy. Whether we can sustain this is another matter, so the precise method of admission/table fees etc. will be discussed further by the organizers of the event, and a decision will be announced later, after we calculate how various methods would work.

In a good sign for the future, several people made immediate donations, so one way or another, we can look forward to a bigger, better, less crowded CommVex next year.

In a long-standing tradition, those of us who wanted to walked to the nearby Main Street Station to eat at the buffet a little after 5 p.m. This year our group was 17 strong. Due to consuming cake, a very tempting doughnut, and a peanut butter sandwich, I was not hungry enough to take full advantage, but I managed to enjoy it anyway.

A lucky few, including myself, were seated near Bil Herd, and were treated to another series of his always enjoyable stories.

One of the best features of the meeting is that many people bring their own equipment, some to display it, some to sell items, and many to just play/work. Several of them spent both days sitting at their computer, working on projects, and talking to people who were interested in what they were doing. Of course, they also kept an eye and ear on those presentations that were of interest to them.

Sunday's presentations covered a wide array of topics, but again the best one was Bil Herd's second talk. In this case he just called for questions, but with rare exceptions, each question triggered his memory of still another fascinating story of the heyday of Commodore. It was obvious that Bil enjoyed the occasion as much as his audience.

Eventually closing time arrived and the part of the weekend I enjoy least began - disconnecting all the computers, packing everything up, and loading it into the truck. Since Robert does not have room to transport the extra computers we like to set up, we get some from Al Jackson, a member of the Las Vegas club. These then have to be returned Monday, and fitting everything into the truck is a challenge.

This time I was able to put quite a few things in my car so that Robert could get all the rest of his and Al's items in the truck, but it would not have been possible without the packing expertise of one of our guests, Agent Friday (Steve Davison). He must be an expert at Tetris, because he fitted things together in the truck bed in ways the rest of us would never have thought of.

It took about two hours to disassemble and load the equipment, with some more waiting time as some of the guests finished getting their own items loaded.

Our Sunday dinner tradition is a visit to a sit-down restaurant in the nearby Hotel California, where about 17 of us enjoyed a very good but very late dinner.

Returning to the Plaza, we detoured through Fremont Street, but I felt my eardrums being destroyed as soon as we walked in. I turned back and returned to the hotel, leaving the others to suffer as best they could. I thought I was going to escape without being tempted by the casino, but walking back in I put some money in a slot machine, which paid off less than any other machine I've ever used. At least the torture was over quickly, and I headed upstairs to bed.

Robert could not leave before noon on Monday, so it was decided that Roger would ride home with me. I checked out of the hotel, got gas, and headed for their motel. I had a hand cart that Robert would need, so I asked Roger to get the keys and open the truck so I could put it in.

Roger put his luggage in the Honda, and we left Las Vegas about 9:30. Our trip home was mostly smooth. We stopped for lunch at Peggy Sue's Diner near Barstow, then continued on our way. We made a rest and gas stop in Earlimart, just north of the Kern County line, about 70 miles from home, and I asked Roger to drive. I then checked the email on my cell phone, only to discover a very unhappy message from Robert asking where in heck were the keys to the truck. We pulled over, and Roger sheepishly pulled them from his pocket.

By this time it was after 5:30, so we made arrangements to send them priority mail the next day, meaning Robert would have to spend another two nights in Las Vegas. We also agreed that someday we would look back and laugh, but that it would probably be quite a long time.

After dropping Roger off at his apartment I arrived  home between 6:30 and 7, a trip of 830 miles. I packaged up the keys, got up early the next day, and was at the counter at a nearby FedEx before 8 a.m. The following day, Wednesday July 22, the keys arrived at 9:30 a.m. and Robert could finally finish up his duties - returning Al Jackson's equipment, and signing a contract for next year's CommVEx.

Every time I am in Las Vegas the crowds, the noise, the traffic, and the temptation combine to make me swear I will never return. This time was no different. However, I now think I will have to come back in 2016, if only to see how the new, bigger room works out.

(Disclaimer: Some of the photos linked from the text above are from previous CommVEx events.)

--Dick Estel, July 2015


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window)

Equipment lined up and ready to use   
Equipment lined up and ready to use
Chris Zimmermann's display
Chris Zimmermann's display
Commodore stuff from the 1980s and a modern laptop
John Ferrell's Commodore stuff from the 1980s and a modern laptop
Bil Herd holds forth Bil Herd and Leonard Tramiel The anniversary cake
Bil Herd holds forth Bil Herd and Leonard Tramiel The anniversary cake
Bil advances on the cake, knife at the ready Almost time for dessert! Yul Haasmann with his SX64 on  a backpack

Bil advances on the cake, knife at the ready

Almost time for dessert!

Yul Haasmann with his SX64 on  a backpack

Greg Alekel of the Portland Group Jim Drew, long-time Commodore developer On the way to dinner
Greg Alekel of the Portland Group

Jim Drew, long-time Commodore developer

On the way to dinner
Bil Herd and Robert Bernardo, waiting to be seated Mike Hill, Roger Van Pelt, Matt Brewster Yul, David Holz, Mike Battilana
Bil Herd and Robert Bernardo, waiting to be seated

Mike Hill, Roger Van Pelt, Matt Brewster

Yul, David Holz, Mike Battilana
Agent Friday, Chris Zimmermann, Dan Lee, John Carlsen Bil expounds while Greg listens A nice way to carry disk drives - two 3.5 and two 5.25 PC drives
Agent Friday, Chris Zimmermann, Dan Lee, John Carlsen Bil expounds while Greg listens A nice way to carry disk drives - two 3.5 and two 5.25 PC drives
Lenard Roach at work Bil take questions... ...while Robert takes a video
Lenard Roach at work Bil take questions... ...while Robert takes a video
Matt Brewster FCUG members: Dick, Lenard, Robert, Roger, Vincent, Louis Bil Herd joins the Fresno gang
Matt Brewster FCUG members: Dick, Lenard, Robert, Roger, Vincent, Louis Bil Herd joins the Fresno gang
The view north from the 16th floor of the Plaza Hotel The traditional Commodore banner is displayed each year Where it all happened
The view north from the 16th floor of the Plaza Hotel The traditional Commodore banner is displayed each year Where it all happened
   Related Links
First pix from show More photos More Photos & Stuff
Portland Commodore Club Commodore Vegas Info History of Commodore
Fresno Commodore User Group Five C's Club (Las Vegas) Commodore Information Center
History of the Amiga Bil Herd's Story Bil Herd Video
A younger, sexier Bil Herd Jack Tramiel Tribute Commodore Gallery
Bil's Comments on CommVEx
On the way to dinner

Yul Haasmann with his SX64 on  a backpack

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