Mastertronic’s Murky Connection – Cal-Vista and Frank Herman

Mastertronic 3D logo
Mastertronic 3D logo

Mastertronic was quick to expand its business beyond the UK. In the summer of 1984, the company exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, claiming to be the only British games publisher to do so. A subsidiary – Mastertronic Inc – was incorporated in Delaware but soon the seat of business was moved to California. A record of that filing still exists:

Mastertonic Inc Filing
Note that “foreign filing” does not refer to any UK ownership – it is because Mastertronic Inc had already been registered in Delaware.

Who was Sidney Niekerk? Not a lawyer or a games distributor as one might think. He was the President of Cal-Vista, a big and very successful film producer who specialised in the making and distribution of hard and soft-core pornographic videos. He may also have had mafia connections.

Niekerk (with something growing out of his head).

The following extract from Out of the Blue by a gay porn star called Blue Blake gives a feeling for the man

So, what was the link between a Californian high-living super achiever and a newly formed British software publisher? The answer is Mastertronic’s chairman Frank Herman. Herman had been a UK distributor for Cal-Vista (perhaps the distributor). This is why he was familiar with tape duplication and with distribution networks to shops like video rental stores, newsagents, corner-shops and similar outlets, and this is what brought him into contact with Martin Alper and Terry Medway, who ran a shop in George Street, London W1, called Video Tapes International. When Mastertronic was at the CES, Herman and Niekerk were able to renew their acquaintance and Frank could pitch the idea of cheap computer games as a new revenue stream for the Cal-Vista empire.

A direct link with Cal-Vista was not going to work but the business had a separate arm called Classic Family Entertainment a “distributor of adventure, sports and children’s films through 35 major video and record channels in the US”. This was to provide the partnership vehicle.  US magazine Info World reported on the project and quoted Cal-Vista VP Jack Gallagher as the source for the story.

The US magazine Electronic Games noticed the new arrival in its November 1984 edition

Niekerk is described as President, with Martin Alper as his number two in the venture. It was typical of Herman to keep himself in the background, and equally Alper would have loved mixing with the Hollywood bullshitters (and within two years was to migrate to California to continue to live the dream).

It was impressive for Electronic Games to misspell both Niekerk and Mastertronic in a single sentence.

Neither Info World nor Electronic Games made the connection with Cal-Vista.

This plan never came to fruition.  In 1985 Mastertronic Inc moved its business to Frederick, Maryland and allotted 20% of the company to Gary Snyder who ran a duplicating facility there. Herman probably ceased to distribute Cal-Vista product once Mastertronic took off, but his background was known to the staff and I once found a letter from a Trading Standards official to him with a customer’s complaint – the grouse was that the video did not live up to its lurid cover!

There were to be no further business dealings with Niekerk, Gallagher or Cal-Vista. In view of later developments this was just as well. For, in 1990, the FBI put Cal-Vista at the centre of a campaign against pornography. It was legal to produce and sell it in California and other states but illegal in some others. Agents purchased some videos and asked for them to be shipped to Oklahoma, where it was most definitely illegal to sell pornography.  By shipping them across state lines, Cal-Vista committed a federal offence.  The following press cuttings tell the story…

The trial failed. Perhaps the jurors were not as conservative in outlook as the prosecution had hoped. A press cutting containing Jack Gallagher’s obituary, published in 2016, mentions the case –

During his time at Cal Vista, both Gallagher and Niekirk were arrested for allegedly selling obscene videos in Broken Arrow, Okla., and on October 5, 1990, were indicted in federal court on five counts of conspiracy and interstate transportation of obscene material; most notably, several Cal Vista movies including Sorority Pink and Backdoor Lust. Both were eventually acquitted of all charges.

I have no further material on the case and do not know what happened to Niekerk after the acquittal. It seems he may still be alive, at the ripe age of 90, living in Northridge, California.

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