Growing up in Brooklyn, Brett Raymer dreamed of being a famous athlete.
Knee injuries then led him to take a slightly less obvious path to stardom.
He started running an aquarium business.
Raymer’s fame fixation is a never-ending source of amusement and good-natured ribbing for Wayde King, his brother-in-law and partner in the Las Vegas-based Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, and co-star on “Tanked,” which kicks off a batch of new episodes at 10 p.m. Friday on Animal Planet.
On the show’s origins: “A lot of people came in to our shop and said: ‘Hey, you guys got a good personality. You guys should be on TV.’ And that was definitely one of Brett’s dreams. He’s very lazy and wants to be a star and all that.”
On their recognizability: “So many people say that we’re TV stars. I don’t think we look at each other that way. Maybe Brett does.”
On balancing their celebrity customers with everyday jobs: “I feel like a client’s a client. I think Brett feels a celebrity’s more important.”
For the record, Raymer disagrees on that last point. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t enthralled by their famous clients.
“It’s just so surreal when you see some of these guys that you’ve been watching on TV for years,” he says , “and they’re, like, really excited to have you in their house.”
“Tanked” episodes have seen King, 46, and Raymer, 43, create elaborate, custom aquariums for the likes of Dwyane Wade and Kiss . They built a Houdini-themed tank — complete with a life-size, submerged Houdini — for Neil Patrick Harris at Hollywood’s Magic Castle. They even put a “Jaws”-themed shark tank in Tracy Morgan’s basement.
But, with all due respect to the garrulous duo, the real stars of “Tanked” are the tanks themselves.
A phone booth. A refrigerator. A jukebox. A pinball machine. A hot rod. There’s not much the pair — along with co-star Robert “Redneck” Christlieb and the rest of their 58 employees — can’t turn into an aquarium.
Just don’t ask them to choose their favorite.
“I don’t think any one’s our favorite,” Raymer says. “All the tanks we build are our favorite, because you know what? Everything we do makes people smile. Anytime we can make someone smile, that’s our favorite.”
They’ve had plenty of opportunities to do just that by continuing to top themselves with outlandish tanks.
“Now, since the show hit, the theming part is a whole ’nother ballpark for us,” says Long Island native King. “It’s very creative. It’s fun. It’s cool. It brings a whole ’nother thing to aquariums. We feel like Orange County Choppers did that with motorcycles. We did that with aquariums.”
Another difference, now that “Tanked” is in its third season, is the volume of inquiries that flood the shop, at 3451 W. Martin Ave.
In addition to what King calls the “hundreds and hundreds of emails a day” containing questions about everything that could possibly be found inside an aquarium, he says ATM receives a minimum of 50 to 100 requests a day for price quotes on projects. Each quote then takes between 15 minutes and an hour to complete. The big jobs can take a week to budget.
The cost is another surprise for many potential customers. While they’ve built everything from a 5-gallon aquarium to a million-gallon dolphin pool, King says most of their tanks range from $15,000 to $200,000.
The 75,000-gallon saltwater aquarium they created for a Dallas church cost $4.5 million and took 2½ years.
“I don’t think they realize, you know, from beginning to end what it takes to build an aquarium. ... It can take four to six weeks just to do the theming aspect of it,” King says. “Coral inserts are all hand-done from scratch. That can take four to six weeks.”
Viewers likely don’t comprehend the amount of effort involved because they see at least two new tanks each week. But for every one of those episodes — roughly 45 minutes without commercials — the production crew will shoot 60 to 80 hours of footage.
And with “Tanked” in production 11 months out of the year, keeping King and Raymer on the road up to 18 days a month to accommodate the shooting schedule, it’s getting harder to run the business while being reality TV stars.
“It’s not easy,” King admits, “but when you get a shot and a TV show, you try to do the best you can on both ends.”
So far, the hard work is paying off. Since the series debuted, ATM moved into new headquarters, doubling in size from 17,000 to 34,000 square feet. Earlier this year, the company produced its 10,000th tank since opening in 1997.
The public is certainly noticing. In addition to the two tour buses a day that stop by the shop, random fans from across the country descend on ATM at all hours.
“Six in the morning, 10 at night, 11. People are knocking on the window. People wanna take pictures,” King says. “ ‘I just drove in from Kansas.’ ‘I’m from Ohio.’ ‘We just took a shot to see if you guys were here.’ ‘We went out for a few drinks. We wanted to come by and say hi.’ It’s day and night. It’s funny. It’s cool. It’s definitely different.”
He’s even starting to embrace the fame, including a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show,” that’s accompanied the series.
“It’s exciting,” King says. “It does take a lot of your time. You know, you go to the movies, you gotta go at least a half-hour before. You go to the airport, you gotta go an hour before. (By) the time you get up to the gate, you’ve taken 50 to 100 pictures. That part’s exciting. I don’t think it’s bothered anybody. I think everyone here likes it. I really do.”
Thanks to the success of “Tanked,” he and King now consider themselves “good friends” with actor James Woods.
“The last time we saw him, he comes running across the room, pushing people out of the way,” Raymer recalls. “He goes, ‘Fellas, you don’t even understand. My grandkids love you. I need to take pictures of you.’
“And all these other celebrities, they want pictures of us. It’s kind of a surreal feeling, you know?”
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.