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pepcom oz assets
pepcom oz assets

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Finding Oz in the heart of Las Vegas

A glimpse behind the curtain at CES

Dorothy is standing in the middle of a crowded hotel ballroom in Las Vegas. Toto is in her basket and her lipstick matches her red shoes. A group of middle-aged men come over, suits wrinkled and Coronas in hand. They sheepishly ask for a photo and she obliges with a smile.

There are actually three Dorothies in the room, but only Tala Marie can lay legitimate claim to the throne. The other two, she says with a laugh, are “business-corporate-slutty Dorothies, if that makes any sense.” I nod because it does.

Tala and her Dorothy doppelgangers are here because they’ve been hired for the Pepcom Digital Experience, an annual event held in a massive ballroom the night before CES officially begins. Gadget vendors set up camp in front of their booths and networkers mill around a giant central buffet full of braised meat and oversized hors d’oeuvres. Everyone pretends like they’re not trying to sell you something.

A tiny planet within a solar system of surreality

In many ways, CES is a constructed reality within the larger artifice of Las Vegas. Tents and booths are erected for three days of madness, then dismantled and shipped away as quickly as they came. Pepcom sits at the middle of it all, a tiny planet within the bigger solar system of surreality. It’s always loud and bright, and it’s always themed. One year it was something football-related — women were hired to walk around in jerseys and cheerleader outfits — and another was space themed, though I couldn’t really figure it out. The hired workers aren’t exactly "booth babes" — they’re more like roving entertainers, walking around in character and adding some carnival-like flair to an event that already seems like a performance.

This year’s theme is "The Wonderful Gizmos of Oz." All the principals are there, and they’re all very much in character. The lion is waving his tail near the bar on the other side of the room, not far from two munchkins who are handing out lollipops in front of a candy house.

After doing a quick round of handshakes and pleasantries with PR reps, I start chatting with Tala — partly because I’m desperate for a real conversation, and partly because I’m curious about what it’s like to be a human decoration at an event like CES. She and her fellow Ozians are all Vegas veterans. Actors, dancers, singers, stilt walkers — people who make a living from behind a curtain of some kind. For me and others, Pepcom is an annual oddity. For them, it’s a Monday.

A few minutes after Tala snaps the photo, she’s telling me about how she met her engineer husband, the ballerina dreams she had as a child in Montana, and her late twin brother, who had Down syndrome and was killed in a car crash when he was 13. We’re interrupted when another man comes over and asks for another photo. He sidles up to her, and she smiles again.

The Wicked Witch of
the West

I find Terri Gandy swirling around the showroom floor with a broom, letting out cackles and pretending to melt. She’s been living in Las Vegas for about 15 years, and she’s not very happy about it.

"There’s nothing for me to do here," she tells me, breaking far enough out of character to describe her discontent, but not far enough to stop talking in a lilting screech. Her skin is caked in green and she won’t stop cackling. It’s a little uncomfortable.

"There’s nothing for me to do here."

Terri came here from California to make things work with her estranged husband, who moved to Vegas after they separated. They met, ironically enough, at a production of The Wizard of Oz (he was a Winkie, she an understudy to Dorothy). They divorced not long after she joined him in Vegas, he skipped town, and she struggled to find work.

"I didn’t know there was a height requirement here," she says, in a slightly softer screech. "If you’re not 5-8, you’re walking out the door. It’s all long legs here, they want the showgirls thing."

Today, Terri works full time as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and does pageant consulting on the side. Her older brother, a world champion baton twirler, lives in Colorado.

If she had to do it all over again, she probably would’ve stayed in California. She spent 10 years there working the rides at Disneyland, and to hear her talk about it is like talking to a nine-year-old: eyes bright, wide, and a little watery.

"Those were the happiest days of my life," she says, the screech now dulled to a murmur. "Everyone who has worked there for a period of time... it’s a different kind of magic, I can’t explain it. And we miss it."

She still entertains the thought of returning to Disneyland — wiping the slate and winding back the clock — though she feels a little reluctant to start anew. Disappointments aside, she seems to find some comfort behind the mask that Vegas offers.

"Some people say that when you go back it isn’t quite the same. I don’t know that."

The munchkins

Las Vegas has been kinder to the munchkins, real names Dimos Greko and Kaaren Kragerud. They’re husband and wife, and they’re voraciously in love with one another. If they wanted to adopt me I wouldn’t say no.

Blonde-haired and bubbly, Kaaren works full time in sales and marketing at the Tommy Bahama restaurant here. She’s not really into acting — that’s Dimos’ thing — but she’ll occasionally accompany him to gigs like Pepcom "because they’re fun and you meet people." Her eyes are soft and her laugh is infectious.

Dimos, 40, has been acting and performing for decades, first on children’s TV in Greece and now, as a singer in Vegas. He’s also an ordained minister, and regularly does weddings dressed as "Little Elvis." He admits to missing the rest of his family back in Athens, but his life and love are in Vegas now. For him, performing isn’t so much a job as it is a moral imperative.

"I like to give happiness to the people and that’s why I choose to be a minister," he shouts, thickly accented, over the roar of TVs and drunk people. "Because it was better to give happiness in this life. Life is short, like us."

The Tin Man

I find the Tin Man adjusting his costume at a cocktail table full of empty bottles and a few chicken bones. He’s been walking around the same room for hours now, but his posture is still perfect and he’s in a chipper mood. His name is Michael Dean, and he has the holy trinity of Vegas jobs: actor, model, and personal trainer. Tonight, he’s covered in what appears to be cardboard boxes, silver spray paint, and scotch tape.

Michael, 33, says he’s always wanted to be an actor. His role models growing up in Vegas were Superman, Zack Morris, and Bruce Lee, in no apparent order. So far, he’s been working small character gigs like the the one he’s getting paid for tonight, though he says he’s starring in a new movie coming out this summer. It’s called Edible, and it sounds intense.

"I can’t really talk about it, but I’m inventing a towel."

"I play the lead star — he’s a killer, his name’s Raymond," he explains. "It’s kind of like Ted Bundy or Dexter meets Saw. So it’s mental and at the same time physical. It’s an interesting twist."

He has a steady girlfriend and seems excited about his acting career, though he’s been working on a side project, as well.

"I can’t really talk about it, but I’m inventing a towel," he says. "A beach towel that no one’s ever seen before, something completely different. All I can say is it’s special and I’m sure you’ll want one."

The scarecrow

It took a while to pull Dorothy and the others away from the cameras, but I find the scarecrow standing alone by the central buffet. His name is Scott Hitchcock, and he claims to have stolen (and returned) more than 7,000 watches in the first year he lived in Las Vegas. I couldn’t confirm that, but I can confirm that he’s a charming man with very expressive eyebrows.

A native of upstate New York, Scott moved here in 1997 to pursue a career in magic. In the early days, he worked as a professional pickpocket alongside his best friend and neighbor, a man named Chappy Brazil. He was in love with the city, he says, though things took a turn in 1998 when Chappy was killed in a motorcycle accident on Industrial Road. A police car had been called to a scene and began driving down the wrong side of the road, its lights darkened and siren off. It struck Chappy and he died instantly.

Sarah the Psychic Dog was their ring bearer

It took years for Scott to get over his friend’s death. "Anytime I would hear a siren, I had the instant knowledge that I was just about to die," he tells me through white facepaint. "It was just one of those things where it’s like, that doesn’t make any sense."

He recovered through what he only describes as "self-treatment" and soon met the woman who would change his life. They were each handing out flyers at the bottom of a hotel escalator to promote a show later that night. They began chatting and were married months later at a wedding full of circus performers: Two stilt walkers served as their flower girls. Sarah the Psychic Dog was their ring bearer.

The death of Chappy still weighs on Scott, now 42, though doing magic shows and occasional acting gigs has proven therapeutic. He’s happiest, he says, when he makes other people happy. And he seems happy now.

"For 10 years, I went without wearing a wristwatch as a little tribute sort of thing to Chappy," he says, pausing to flash a scarecrow smile for a camera. "Then after 10 years I was like, ok, Chappy understands that. I made my point."

The lion

The lion is standing in front of a giant speaker in a far corner of the ballroom. It’s getting late, and the room is starting to exhale. The buffet’s still simmering and glasses are clinking, but the crowd’s thinning out, and the lion seems ready to drive home.

"My name is Matt Donnelly, and I’m playing a lion," he says, channeling an AA first-timer. "A giant lion."

"You don’t get into entertainment unless you’ve got some need. It always comes from somewhere."

I can’t see much of his face — it’s covered in paint, whiskers, and a giant mane — except for his grin, which is toothy and wide. He speaks with a self-effacing, "Hey man" cadence that borders on the Lebowski. He seems like he’d be fun to get high with.

Matt came to Vegas in 2008 after doing his rounds on the New York improv circuit. His longterm girlfriend landed a role in Jersey Boys here, so he followed her along, and they got married three years ago. Those small gigs include a lot of character work — one time he got paid to be a "pirate ghost on a Segway" — as well as a weekly podcast he co-hosts with Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. But he says his personal "Oz" lies elsewhere.

"I would love to be a sitcom dad," he says. "A dad on a sitcom. Like John Goodman, Tim Allen, Bill Cosby, that type of thing."

For now, he’ll have to settle for being a real dad. He and his wife had a baby boy four months ago, and he’s still in that new-parent fugue state — a mix of bliss, weariness, and terror. He’s handling it well, but like many of his castmates, the act conceals darker memories.

As we’re talking about his childhood, Matt tells me about a family vacation to Disney World when he was five. At one point, he and his mom went down a waterslide together, with Matt perched in her lap. On the way down, she had a heart attack and died, and he remembers everything vividly. I don’t really know what to say in response, and a few seconds pass in very awkward silence. Then, he suddenly bursts out in laughter.

"You don’t get into entertainment unless you’ve got some need. It always comes from somewhere."