Depending on the day, a step inside Jason Cooper’s North Las Vegas plant means entering a dreamscape or a living nightmare.
You might find medieval castles destined for campgrounds near Houston.
You might find a 20-foot shark’s head with space in its mouth meant for a DJ booth.
You might even find giant butterfly wings that will share a stage with singer Mariah Carey at Caesars Palace.
These projects and more owe their creation to Gist Specialties, Cooper’s fabrication company with a reputation for music festival and theme park props.
“We take a napkin sketch and turn it into a reality,” Cooper said.
Origins in Pahrump
Cooper can be found at his desk next to a large printer in an open office or wandering the floor among his nearly 100 employees inside an old auto parts plant near the intersection of Civic Center Drive and Alexander Road.
His constant companion: a phone piece hooked to his ear for calls.
Cooper, 41, grew up in Pahrump and inherited a knack for working with his hands from his father, a carpenter and truck driver. As a teen, Cooper helped his father build a house from the ground up.
“I got to drive the tractor,” Cooper said.
He got his professional start in welding and worked with the Acton family, known for their work on theme parks such as Disneyland, Carowinds in North Carolina and part of Six Flags in Houston.
In 2002, Scott Acton, grandson of the original Acton, branched from the family to start Trevi Manufacturing, specializing in cast stone products for homes and gardens.
Scott Acton brought Cooper on board. The company went from $350,000 to $12 million in annual revenues by 2004, according to publicity material from Acton’s current company, Forte Specialty Contractors.
Acton sold the business in 2007 to private equity firm Ampersand Ventures. The next year, the business declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which property is sold to pay creditors, and closed.
By that time, Cooper had gone into business for himself. He picked up some new work during a scramble to fill outstanding orders from the Trevi closure.
With Gist, Cooper diversified, getting into millwork and specialty metal work.
“Casting is now a small percentage of what I do,” he said. “Once you have all the materials, it’s just what you fasten it into.”
From snow tunnel to shark head
His big break into the music festival scene came courtesy of what can be called a “snow tunnel.”
The prop was an integral part of a Bellagio Conservatory holiday set thought up by then-conservatory director Andy Garcia.
Garcia said he had heard of Cooper’s work and remembered him from Trevi.
“One of the things that got my attention was his attention to details,” Garcia said. “Even though he has a project manager and a team, he was there with me ensuring the installation and testing were all done right.”
In 2014, Garcia called Cooper in for a meeting and closed the door to his office, a rarity for Garcia. He told Cooper he was leaving Bellagio for music festival producer Insomniac, based in Los Angeles.
“His eyes had this keen look, like when you look through a window on a new toy,” Garcia said.
Garcia has since recruited Cooper and Gist for music festival work.
The Gist-made medieval castles stood on the campgrounds of the new Middlelands festival that debuted earlier this month near Houston.
The 20-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide shark’s head traveled to Los Angeles for Wasteland 2016.
Gist has done stage work for Insomniac’s best-known music festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, and the Coachella festival in California, one of the highest-grossing music festivals in the world.
Gist’s work for Insomniac has traveled as far as Japan and India.
“There is always a piece of Las Vegas, a piece of Gist, going with Insomniac all over the world,” Garcia said.
Cooper’s next work for Insomniac will see the light of day in June. But Garcia is keeping the details a secret.
“It’s just monumental,” Garcia said of Cooper’s work. “It’s all to amaze and give people three days of joy, so they say, “I was there.’”
In 2014 and 2015, festival work made up 70 percent of Gist’s annual sales. Today it’s about 30 percent, with 50 percent owed to work for theme parks. Most of his other work is for trade shows, he said.
His field is plenty competitive, but he prides himself on an ability to help designers find practical ways to bring stage creations to reality. Recruiting labor can also be tough in the valley, which means he’s constantly looking for more hands.
Cooper said he needs more welders and can hire about 10 new people. He advertises on Craigslist and will look as far as Idaho.
“It’s easy to find welders, but tough to find fabricators,” he said. “Can a guy look at some drawings and then fabricate that?”
The next big market he want to break into is aquariums. He also thinks he can do more trade show work.
He has been in his current site for five years but is interested in a new property, two stories, that will provide more room for work.
“There’s never enough space,” he said.
Contact Wade Tyler Millward at email@example.com or 702-383-4602. Follow @wademillward on Twitter.