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Brick by brick, Mark Larson talks about a life of LEGOs
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2020-05-14

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Mark Larson has done a lot of things in his life, from being a theater actor to a bouncer at the now-defunct Boystown nightclub Spin.

Now he's the "chief brick officer" at Brickworld, which embraces the educational and inspirational value of the LEGO brick as well as hosts LEGO conventions throughout the Midwest. He talked with Windy City Times about the conventions and the proliferation of LEGO projects in pop culture.

Windy City Times: How are you coping with the pandemic?

Mark Larson: It's my first year owning this public-event business and a global pandemic broke out—so there's that. [Laughs]

It was a lot at first, but I've worked as an actor, a freelancer and an artist, and you learn to take things one day at a time. And this is so far out of my control, and I was lucky enough to identify that immediately and stay calm. [Laughs] I was starting to build more virtual content and now that I'm stuck in my condo for at least several weeks, I've started some YouTube videos to build the community—and that's our mission: to connect LEGO fans and build the community.

The previous owner and I had talked about doing a virtual show. The original intent was to keep our vendors, some who don't have an online presence, connected with new customers. What we've found is that people who are cooped up in their homes and have watched everything really enjoy having something new to do—like talking with designers and exhibitors.

So what we know now is that this is something that can help save the company. It's about sustainability but it's also about our mission statement: to connect LEGO fans with exhibitors and with each other. There's not a lot happening now, except horrible news every day. So this is something we can develop into the future. [Virtual expos] also work for those who may not be in the area, or for those who have disabilities and health challenges that don't allow them to attend actual spaces. It's also an opportunity to share content during our dark months, when we don't have shows; something that's important is buying LEGO pieces in bulk without going through official LEGO channels, like BrickLink.com—although I think LEGO actually bought that site this year.

LEGO's been a great partner for us and, since most of the in-person shows have been cancelled for this year, they asked us for time in our shows to do some media training for their designers and community team. Of course, I said yes because that's a great connection.

Things could have been really bad my first year. So we may break even now while continuing to drive our mission statement.

WCT: The virtual expos will have presentations and tutorials—but there will also be something called the Great Ball Contraption. What is that?

ML: There are so many LEGO soccer balls in that and people are always talking about having balls printed or something else. There are so many conversations around balls, and there is always someone chuckling. [Both laugh.] It never gets old.

What that actually is [involves] some of our smarter LEGO fans building machines that are basically small modules that move balls from one end of the module to the other, with an entire line of LEGO motors and gears, along with levers and other items. When you put two modules next to each other, they pass the ball from one to the other; if you put hundreds together, they pass the ball in a huge loop. Brickworld actually holds the record for the world's longest Great Ball Contraption loop—so what we're doing for the virtual show is that people will have loops set up in their houses. They're going to run the ball through their individual [modules[ for 10 minutes and then "pass" it on to the next host. We have people from North America to Australia and back—so we'll technically have the longest virtual loop in existence. [Laughs]

It's just mesmerizing to watch all of these machines pass balls in such clever ways. We're trying to offer 75 percent new material in each show—but we'll have the Great Ball Contraption in each one.

WCT: So how does one go from being a theater major at Illinois State University to being a chief brick officer? By the way, you'll probably be the first—and last—chief brick officer I'll ever interview.

ML: [Laughs] I don't know about that.

Yes, I studied theater at ISU and got some internship opportunities and auditions in the city. However, I had not come out of the closet yet. And I stayed in Bloomington-Normal because I still had stuff to figure out. I had known for a few years but didn't know how to tell anybody; this was in 1998 and '99. And I was raised in a conservative household as well, so it took me a while to figure out that it was even a possibility.

I eventually got myself to the city, and I worked pretty successfully as an actor for a while, although I never got my Equity card. I also got to do some commercials. But the money wasn't enough, so I worked as a bouncer at Spin. However, I also got other jobs that allowed me to build my managerial skills, and I helped with marketing. Then I went back to school and got a degree in branding at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; I was also starting to do shows and taking film classes.

I did this one show and someone from LEGOLAND recruited me; a week later, LEGOLAND hired me and I moved to San Diego. I spent four years there working as an art director and project manager, and traveled around the world. I moved back to Chicago because I'm just not a West Coast guy, at all, plus I missed my friends.

I was trying to work at marketing firms. I was in my 30s and didn't have much experience in that area, but I had my LEGOLAND background—so they'd ask me in basically just to see my portfolio. Then, the previous owners of Brickworld wanted to retire and asked me if I wanted to take over. Who knows what's going to happen next? [Laughs]

WCT: Of course, there's been such a LEGO pop-culture explosion, with movies and the TV show LEGO Masters. When you're watching the movies or show, do you find yourself critiquing them in any way.

ML: [Laughs] You know, I was really impressed with those movies. I was glad that LEGO let go, a little bit; there are very strict guidelines about what you can do and how LEGO wants to be represented. But they let go—and the movies were funnier than they would've been. The films did a great job of honoring LEGO fans.

The LEGO Batman movie, I think, is one of the best movies ever made. My husband is a huge comic-book fan, and he got the jokes a good two seconds before the rest of the audience. It made the experience more fun because he's huge and has this gigantic laugh; he would start laughing before everyone else, and I think it caused the audience to have a better time. Because they did so well in honoring the way LEGO actually works in real-life physics, I really enjoyed the movies.

With LEGO Masters, because I knew people on it, I was heavily invested in it. I found myself critiquing that a lot because the show was so overproduced. But I'm glad it was promoting LEGO and the fans, and it introduced us to a new audience. All of the contestants will be part of the May [virtual] show, and at least some will be in the June one.

WCT: Who or what would you like to see done in LEGO bricks that you have not seen?

ML: Oh, that's a great question! I've seen just about everything, but I'd really like to see more original content. People are inspired by existing ideas, like they want to see Star Wars or a video game. I like when people use their own imagination—and build something transcendent and new.

*****

Brickworld virtual expos will take place May 16, June 27, Oct. 31 and Dec. 12. Tickets are $9 per show, and $1 from each ticket will be donated to Brickworld's longtime charity partner Make-A-Wish, along with Riley Children's Hospital, Creations for Charity and FIRST LEGO League.

A four-show season pass is $27, and, currently, only 2,000 tickets will be offered per show, so early registration is encouraged; visit brickworld.com/brickworld-virtual .


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