Child's Play

The enduring charm of the Life Size Game of Mouse Trap and Circus Contraption

The sound of distant applause and laughter rises on the wind, causing shallow wrinkles in the heavy silence hanging over the southeastern edge of Hunters Point. The wedge of a yellow-orange moon spreads slowly across the San Francisco Bay as strains of music and a silver-gray mouse skitter across the darkened street. The outline of a 16-foot rocking horse looms in the shadows -- silent, headless, vigilant, and oddly suggestive of the scene below. From a distance, the installation resembles a derelict carnival on the edge of the universe, but upon descending the steep grade of Earl Street one realizes the event is less like a carnival and more like a spectral cartoon: In the sallow glow of dim floodlights, a claw-foot bathtub hangs 12 feet in the air, a flight of crooked stairs spirals into nowhere, a colossal hand crank awaits a ham-size fist, a giant mallet threatens to fly through the air, a massive safe-deposit box dangles above an indicative X, and a clique of man-tall mice scurries among the mechanisms, the creatures wiggling their noses with fretful concern.

"It's inhuman to mice, don't you think?" squeals a large female mouse with buckteeth. "You can see that, can't you?"

"It's a crime!" hollers her male companion with a flick of his suspenders. "A crime, I tell you! We'll sue."

"You're all plague carriers," says a bystander dismissively. "It's about time someone took care of the mice problem in this town."

"About time is right," says another.

Since its first public exhibition (see "Samples," Music, April 3, 1996), the Life Size Game of Mouse Traphas become something of a San Francisco legend and a quixotic adventure for the man who built it: 37-year-old Mark Perez.

Fully embracing the principle set down by original Mouse Trap designer Rube Goldberg(the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, sculptor, and author from San Francisco whose "inventions" became synonymous with the idea of maximum effort put forth to achieve minimum results), Perez has devoted countless hours in pursuit of fun, frivolity, and the realization of a better Mouse Trap.

"I love it," says the former nurse and high school dropout who taught himself to weld. "Chain reactions, the transfer of energy, the whole thing. I want to take it on the road."

Perez once told me that the life-size version of his favorite childhood game "practically built itself." Eight years and four months later, I find him in a military tailcoat, wandering among the marvelously large structures, still making final adjustments. The result is impressive and ridiculous: a brightly painted industrial game board of bowling balls, counterweights, levers, chutes, ramps, and swinging apertures, as dangerous as an abandoned construction site and about 40 times as enticing.

"It'll work," he says with all the confidence of a mad character from some Jules Verne novel. "It'll work."

"Will it work, ladies and gentlemen?" shouts a well-dressed Haggis the Bookie, waving a briefcase.

"It'll never work!" shouts a heckler from the crowd gathered on the overlooking hillside.

"Care to put your money where your mouth is?" asks Haggis.

I put up a fin as the Reverend David Apocalypse emerges from a straitjacket dangling from a modified, stiff-legged derrick crane. Using a torch, Perez lights a towering propane-powered lamp connected to a giant boot. Lucky contestant Jay Brommelturns a double-spool crank, which releases the truck-spring-loaded hammer, which connects with the boot that kicks the bucket that drops the bowling ball onto the "crazy stairs," where it stops dead, on the second step.

"That has never happened before," says Perez, shaking his head.

Not to be let down, a wild-eyed, slightly drunk Mouse Trap supporter leaps onto the scaffolding, climbs up the stairs, and gives the ball an imperceptible nudge. As the crowd holds its collective breath, the sphere begins to roll, inch by inch, building only the slightest bit of momentum, until it lands in a metal basket and is suddenly, triumphantly, hurled through the air by a counterweighted arm, into a wooden gutter that drops the ball into a steel hand that shoots it into a 350-pound cast-iron bathtub, before it falls 12 feet into a bucket fastened on a seesaw that sends a deep-sea diver plunging into a puddle that releases the 2-ton safe from the top of the 30-foot crane, with a tremendous, ground-shaking, bone-rattling thu-rump!

The crowd erupts into thunderous applause.

"We're going to drop the piano next," promises Perez, his handsome face beaming as he points to a piano lying in the dirt just a short distance away.

Hiding their childlike glee, one group of educated onlookers immediately launches into discussions of physics, engineering, Milton Bradley, and the merits of cheese. The rest of us consider the probability of seeing another run before the cops arrive.

"There will be a live gunshot in this show!" warns the sign outside the Circus Contraption'sGrand American Traveling Dime Museum.

"It's like being a kid again," chuckles Reno transplant Hannah Goetzl as she sinks into one of the couches arranged on the perimeter of the bordellolike set of Cell Space. The lights dim to a sepia hue, and the marvelous Circus Contraption Orchestralaunches into a tango-laced melody led by a spindly-legged devil with a sousaphone.

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