Several months since I posted an article on my domino toppling hobby, a strange thing happened. I got a job offer to create a domino course. Then another. And another. I never imagined that anyone would ever want to pay me to set up dominoes. I briefly considered accepting some of these offers, but since they all required travel and time away from my day job, I didn't take them too seriously.
Then one day I received an email that really got my attention. It was from a man named Tim Rogan, the stage manager for Penn and Teller's TV show (I'd mention the title here, but it would put my family-friendly website rating in jeopardy). I was intrigued, and a little starstruck upon the mentioning of celebrities, so I called him. Tim put me in touch with Patti Duce, the coordinating producer, who explained what they needed.
They were looking for someone to spell out the title of their show with dominoes at a recording studio in Las Vegas. The TV series debunks bogus claims and phony practitioners, and the title sums up Penn and Teller's opinion of such subjects. I must admit I can't afford Showtime and therefore hadn't seen the show, but I am a fan of other pro-science promoters like James Randi and Philip Plait, the Bad Astronomer.
When asked if I had any assistants, I immediately thought of my younger brother Steve, although he is certainly no mere assistant. He was my partner-in-dominoes as we were growing up. We made some lengthy courses together and invented our own stunts in our younger years. I told Patti that we could do what they needed. A couple of days later, we were given the job.
Almost immediately after accepting, I slipped into a nearly weeklong stupor. It wasn't that I felt I couldn't build the course, but rather a fear that something would go horribly wrong. Most of our own domino layouts have stopped unexpectedly at some point due to a crooked trail or risky stunt, but it didn't matter too much since we were just entertaining ourselves.
Now that we were being paid, I worried about disappointing our employer. My brother had quite the opposite attitude. Steve was really excited about the freaky way this whole thing came about and looking forward to a free trip to Las Vegas. He has always exhibited far more confidence than me.
In an attempt to calm my nerves, my brother and I got together to plan our attack. Our main goal was to ensure that the entire course would fall with just one push. This meant using fool-proof stunts and two rows of dominoes. In addition, we decided to periodically insert pairs of dominoes that had been taped together side-by-side. This safety measure would restart both trails in case one had stopped.
We packed our clothes and dominoes in the same carry-on bags. We didn't want to give the airline a chance to lose our dominoes. Everything was set; now it was just a matter of getting it done.
Steve and I flew from Pennsylvania to Las Vegas on a Tuesday evening on Southwest Airlines. They're definitely a no-frill carrier, so make sure you pack something to amuse yourself if you take a five and a half hour long flight with them.
Upon landing, we took a cab straight to Action Sound Stage where we were to set up the dominoes. We agreed that even though it was late and we were getting tired, we should make sure everything was ready for the toppling that would take place tomorrow before getting any sleep.
My brother Steve stands by three foot tall letters.
A nice security guard let us into the studio and occasionally checked up on us throughout the night as a curious observer. Our stage was basically a white floor and two walls with rounded corners. With the right lighting and camera angle it looks like one endless plane. In order to keep it white, we were provided with medical booties to wear. Large foam letters were there to indicate where we should build.
Calling Doctor Perrucci, Doctor Fine, Doctor Perrucci.
We got off to a bit of a rocky start. The floor was bumpy, and our skills were a little rusty having not worked together on a domino course for some time. But like riding a bicycle, we never forgot how it's done, and before long had made our first letter.
B is for, uh... Bunnies?
As we worked throughout the night and into the wee hours of the morning, we needed to keep our energy up. They had a nice craft table set up in an adjoining room. I was still too nervous to eat solid foods, so I picked out a can of Coke. Steve opted for a Red Bull.
There was a huge rainstorm that night. The roof leaked, and water nearly dripped onto our domino course. But we carried on, and finally finished after about four hours. We triple-checked the entire course for any spots that could cause the dominoes to stop falling. It was 2:00 AM, and we'd done all that we could.
We called a cab to take us to the Harrah's Hotel. Oddly, this huge building had no rooms with two beds available, so they brought up a folding mattress that only I was small enough to fit on. I wouldn't get much sleep anyway, since I was still anxious about the big toppling that would occur in a just few hours. Also, I discovered that it's hard to find some peace and quiet in Las Vegas. If it's not a million ringing slot machines assaulting your ears, it's a lame rock band playing right outside your window.
If you look reeeal close, you can just make out my bed.
Steve and I were picked up at Harrah's Wednesday morning and driven back to the studio. A staffer was driving a Nissan Armada, which is one of the biggest vehicles I have ever seen. There were about 30 people there, all doing whatever it is people do behind the scenes for a TV show. There was also a catering truck serving breakfast to everyone. Everyone except me, that is; I still couldn't eat.
Luckily, our dominoes were still standing. But Steve and I had not set up some of the more precarious stunts because we were afraid they would go off in the middle of the night. This nearly turned out to be a major miscalculation.
I had the unenviable task of placing a ping-pong ball on a bridge. The ball wasn't perfectly weighted on all sides, so if placed incorrectly it would roll either forwards or backwards, knocking the whole course down. I made two failed attempts during which I bumped the bridge and jostled the dominoes. The third time was the charm, and everything was ready to go.
Penn Jillette was the first half of the duo to arrive. He shook our hands and told us the setup looked good. He seemed to have a passing interest with the whole domino thing. He asked Steve and I how long the course would take to fall, and then went around telling others how quick we said it would be. He even asked what the domino toppling record was. When I told him it was just under four million dominoes, he looked shocked! Penn is also 6' 6" tall, and while I'm only 5' 3" and used to looking up at people, the 15 inch difference surprised me.
We met Teller shortly afterwards. While he's known for not speaking onstage, he obviously talks in real life. He's very soft-spoken when he does, though. He came to us with a nifty question. He wanted to know if he could trigger the dominoes by blowing on them. Steve and I liked the originality of that idea. We assured Teller that it would work, and that's how he did it. It was a great example of the unordinariness that makes Penn and Teller's act so unique.
It was finally time to shoot the scene. The show is about conspiracy theories. It starts with Penn laying out a huge conspiracy that ties lots of other conspiracies together: Roswell, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana, and others. He hands dominoes with pictures of these figures on them to Teller, who then goes off to presumably set them up. Then Teller starts the dominoes with a puff, and as they're falling, Penn delivers the line, "We're Penn and Teller, and conspiracy theories are [baloney]!"
The whole thing worked perfectly! The only unplanned event was the time it took to topple. It went faster than Steve and I predicted, clocking in at a mere 16 seconds. But we got applause from the crew, and Steve and I high-fived. The pressure was finally off my shoulders. Since everything went well, I figured this would be the least tacky time to ask for a photo with Penn and Teller. They kindly obliged:
Penn, Steve, me, and Teller behind the wreckage.
With our job complete, but a day left until we were to fly back home, Steve and I gathered our dominoes and returned to the hotel. For the first time during our entire trip we could spend some time apart. Steve left to walk up and down the strip while I stayed in and watched some TV. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our different personalities.
Patti graciously offered us tickets to see Penn and Teller's live show at the Rio later that night. Online mapping services said it was just a mile from Harrah's, so I assumed it would be a short walk. It ended up taking about 45 minutes to get there (mostly due to a wrong turn), and another 15 to find the theater inside the Rio. But we eventually found the stage, which I thought kind of resembled the set of the original British version of "Whose Line is it Anyway?".
Their act is a whole combination of things. There's humor, and there's morbid humor. They'll perform a trick, show you how it was done, only to immediately perform a similar third trick, which you can't figure out. They interject their critical thinking philosophies with Penn talking at length on several topics. Teller's incredible slight of hand magic is amplified with no music or speech to distract from it. It was a very interesting and entertaining show, and I had a good time.
That's about all that happened. I didn't gamble, marry Britney Spears, or do anything else that "stays in Vegas". Steve and I got paid $500 dollars each. A little less after taxes, actually. It was a wild experience, and I want to again thank Patti Duce and Tim Rogan for taking care of our transportation, food, and reservations, and for making a couple of strangers feel welcome in a strange place. I also want to thank Bravenet for giving me a few days to do this. And, of course, Penn and Teller were cool, too!
I'm not sure if I want to set up dominoes professionally again anytime soon. The pressure to perform, the travel, and arranging time off from my real job all put me through a lot of stress. I'm happy to be back in my normal routine. And while normalcy may get a little dull at times, at least you have your appetite.