The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


June 6, 2014

Bright reality for sci-fi event

— Said Obi-Wan Kenobi to Darth Vader: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

In 2012, Casey Bassett of South Fork, was scrambling to find a new home for his homegrown geek convention, Sci-Fi Valley Con, the area’s first science-fiction convention. Bassett was set on the War Memorial Arena – and so were arena operators. However, restrictive out-of-area vendor regulations and fees imposed by the city of Johnstown made the amateur outing unfeasible.

And so the first con was relocated to the North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg. The following year, it tripled in size and found a larger space in Altoona’s Jaffa Shrine. And the event, which will stay in Altoona this year, continues to snowball, Bassett said. The convention has nearly twice the number of vendors in 2014 – 140 tables packed end to end.

It’s not so amateur anymore.

“I’ve literally run out of tables at the Jaffa Shrine. Every single square foot is going to be filled with people,” Bassett said. “I didn’t think I was going to have this many. ... I think it’s a lot of word of mouth. A lot of the dealers and artists go to other conventions.”

Even with all the exposure and tireless efforts to bring together all the celebrity guests, artists, dealers and local fanboys, Bassett said he’s still looking for ways to keep the event fresh.

This year introduces a trivia event, with trophies for each winner across the event’s three nights, classic video game tournaments, hosted by Retrospect Games of Altoona, laser tag and even an ordained minister for fun and geeky nuptials. The trading card game tournaments have also expanded to include Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon.

“Things that are new or interesting to me that I haven’t seen at other conventions – that’s pretty much what I try to do,” Bassett said. “With bigger conventions, yes, they’re huge, and yes, they have a lot of big guests, but that’s pretty much all they have going for them.

“There’s nothing dynamic to it. They’re not trying to add new things.”

Bassett said he doesn’t have too many celebrity guests this year, although he’s excited about the inclusion of Robert Bruce, comic book expert featured regularly on AMC’s “Comic Book Men” and the return of Brian O’Halloran, known as Dante Hicks from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” films. What he has in abundance, however, are replica vehicles that con attendees will instantly recognize.

Alongside the “Back to the Future” DeLorean, the “Ghostbusters” Ecto-1 hearse and a tentative appearance by the Tim Burton-era Batmobile, Bassett is getting his “Jurassic Park”-styled Jeep ready for photo ops. The car took him around nine months to gut and remodel, he said. He dumped around $8,000 to make it movie set-worthy.

“The only thing original in that Jeep is the frame, the engine and the hood. Everything else is completely (film) accurate,” he said.

Looking ahead, Bassett said he’s anticipated the con’s growth and has already signed a five-year contract to host Sci-Fi Valley Con at the relatively new Blair County Convention Center. This is the con’s last year at the Jaffa Shrine. He said the convention center is a bit pricier, but will be worth it in the long run.

“(We have) tons and tons of space to expand,” he said.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.


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