With a simple turn of hand, a kinetic event is born. First, a bowling ball travels down a series of zig-zag stairs, is flung back up into a bathtub at 16 feet in the air, and then dropped again, setting off another series of reactions that drops a 2-ton bank safe from 30 feet in the air.
The 25-ton Rube Goldberg-esque contraption of 20 different kinetic sculptures, based on the Hasbro board game “Mousetrap,” is the result of a lifetime of interest in building and over 13 years of dedication to creating a larger-than-life spectacle.
The board game requires the pieces to be assembled in an exact way to “work,” but that didn’t cut it for Mark Perez when he picked it up as a child.
“I used to try to put a couple of games together and see if I could make it work—and hopefully I wouldn’t poke my sister’s eye out,” Perez said. And he turned the plastic crank handle and it worked. Now the crank is “life-sized,” at eye-level, and sets a bowling ball traveling through a series of simple machines, building enough potential energy to crush a car.
This year they’ve built two new structures—a tetherball-like piece where a bowling ball wraps around a pole to set off the bank safe-drop and a new gutter piece—both of which will be making their Bay Area debut this weekend at the Peralta Junction, a popup festival in West Oakland.
“There’s a great art scene in San Francisco,” Perez said on Monday, during the first of the four days that it would take to put together the entire Life-Size Mousetrap.
We make people smile. We make things happen.
Perez was a medic in the army and was eventually stationed and discharged in San Francisco, where he met his wife Rose Harden and many of the other regular troupe members. Harden, who also tours the world as a dancer, brings the performance to life with the choreography and costuming. She also runs the forklift for Life-Size Mousetrap.
Perez built the full, Life-Size Mousetrap in 1995, initially immobile. He then decided it was something to be shared—he recycled some of the parts and restarted in 1998. “We started touring in 2005, and we’ve been showing it ever since,” Perez said. “I was in it for a lot of the spectacle of it. No one else had done it.”
The Life-Size Mousetrap has been displayed in events from music festivals to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburg, Pa. During the Maker Faire, a DIY Festival, the performance really highlighted the handmade aspects—one of them being a crane that drops a bank safe from 30 feet in the air to crush something big—a car, 1200-pound pumpkin, or even a giant snowman filled with 100 pounds of pastry cream. It took Perez two years to hand build.
The entire living installation gets packed into a 53-foot semi-trailer, which takes another two days. “If we don’t pack it correctly, we can’t close the doors. It takes us about 10 people, and we need a forklift.”
But traveling with a 25-ton machine in a truck is not cheap. “It takes three dollars a mile to move the truck, and a dollar a mile to move my bus,” Perez said. During their show in Florida this past year, he had to leave the bus and come back for it later, because it cost $7,000 to move.
“It’s a labor of love,” Harden said. “We also rely heavily on volunteers, and I think that really speaks about the people; everyone is willing to help out, everyone wants to see it succeed.”
“We really want to bring the Mousetrap to everyone … to be able to exhibit it as our own attraction. Most of the shows are free, open to public,” Harden says. “We do request donations, but nobody gets turned away. Not everyone has access to a $30 ticket.”
“We make people smile. We make things happen. We’ve got an educational tool,” said Perez, who is often asked why he does this despite the immense financial difficulties. He stressed the importance of science and math being brought to kids in a fun way, Newtonian physics in the form of a giant toy.
“And more recently there’s been a general movement of education, away from the science stereotype of it being dry, being neatly placed rows of desks and books. Now people are starting to realize kids are excited to learn about science,” Perez said. “We do shows at science centers and hundreds and hundreds of people are cheering for what we do.”
“You want to see it work, and even if it doesn’t work, it works, you know?” Harden said. “I watch people walk up and see it, their eyes get big, and they say, ‘you know, I always thought about doing this, but I never did it.’ It inspires people to dream big and go out and do it.”
“We do different skits, we’ve done Old Mother Hubbard, we have a tap dance routine, where I dress up as a mouse,” Harden said. The performance has a structure—it takes about 20 minutes to set up and three minutes for the full run through, but there is always room for improvisation and collaboration with local artists wherever the Life-Size Mousetrap tours. “We’re not sure what we’re going to crush [this weekend], and we might do a couple of things—it’ll be a surprise!”
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