Missing digit turns into simple math (Animatronics Technician)

Since I entered therapy last year, I no longer give anyone the finger. But today it’s my job. Atlas has shed the middle digit of his left hand. He’s the nine-foot animatronic star of "Fall of Atlantis."

Erupting hourly in an otherwise tranquil Forum Shops water feature, "Atlantis" is one of two fountain shows designed to draw shoppers to the ends of the mall, for lack of the anchor stores that usually do this. Dazzling an estimated 25,000 onlookers daily with fire and water effects, it is the best Caesars Palace fountain show since comedian Shecky Greene accidentally plowed his car into the one out front and informed police, "no spray wax" (at least, according to the late Buddy Hackett’s frequent retelling).

"The wear and tear is brutal," explains Jon Harms. "You not only have fire and gas, you have saltwater, which corrodes everything."

Harms is the entertainment director of the mall, and the lead animatronics technician of 13 who fix body parts, mold new skin and replace hydraulic cylinders — sometimes 24/7 — in a workshop beneath the "Atlantis" fountain and its adjacent 55,000-gallon aquarium.

"Hisssss!" screams Atlas’ forearm. The figure’s defingering has caused a leak in the 120 pounds of air per square inch that move its eyes and fingers. (More than 1,600 pounds of hydraulic pressure does the heavier lifting in the robot, which weighs 2,500 pounds.)

Only two Allen-head screws will reconnect Atlas to his severed finger. But first, his clothing — attached by eight other screws — must be unfastened and a silicone hand skinned.

"Careful," Harms says as I remove a Fiberglas shirt cuff.

The finger — one of Atlas’ 90 moving and twitching parts — was found three days ago on the platform that lies below me. This morning, in the same spot, a circle is formed by the five Allen-head screws I have so far dropped. Atlas sustained the injury by repeatedly beating his hand against his throne.

"Their movements can be unpredictable," Harms says. "They hit themselves constantly."

In addition to Atlas, the show stars two other robots, Gadrius and Alia, who are mythical even for mythology. (King Atlas was mentioned by Plato, but this son and daughter were invented just for this show.)

All the robots are lifelike from a distance although, up close, Alia looks like she could have auditioned for Frank Marino’s "Divas Las Vegas" drag show and not received a callback.

"A lot of sculptors — especially if they’re male sculptors — will put their own face on their work," Harms explains.

Harms began his own career as an artist 30 years ago.

"The starving part kicked in pretty quickly," he says.

Also a gifted electrician, he moved into Christmas-display robotics and eventually found himself at Disneyland, refurbishing the original characters for the "It’s a Small World" ride. Then came Universal Studios Hollywood and Treasure Island. Since "Atlantis" opened in 1997, for Harms, it’s been a mall world after all.

Harms says he loves the gig, although he never forgets its one constant potential downside: painful death.

When the show was installed, for instance, one of its designers — Larry Lester of Valencia, Calif.-based Lester Creative — discovered why Harms has since referred to the characters as "pretty backhoes." Lester occupied a boom lift in front of Gadrius when the electronic signal was first sent to ignite the character’s sword. Unfortunately, that signal also sent interference to the computer controlling Gadrius’ torso.

"Now Larry is a very big man who really can’t move very fast on a boom lift," Harms explains. "So imagine a big man screaming as a giant, nine-foot character tries to impale him with a flaming sword."

However one may wish to die, chances are it’s not in a manner that will make Jay Leno’s monologue.

"Behold this vision!" Atlas commands. "The story of Atlantis will show you the truth!"

The first show of the day has begun on schedule, at 11 a.m. Atlas has risen from the workshop, through a specially cut shaft in the fountain, to set the story in motion and put my repair to the test.

According to the story, the good king can’t decide which of his bad children should inherit his throne. So Gadrius and Alia go Eric and Julia Roberts on each other. He summons fire, she great plumes of water in addition to the law firm of Apollo, Poseidon and Schwartz.

In the end, the winner is (as always) the Cheesecake Factory, whose neon sign gets ogled by hundreds of observers simultaneously working up eight minutes of hunger at a time.

Although Atlantis remains as doomed as ever, the show goes off without a hitch. Atlas hits his marks — and no innocent bystanders with flying middle fingers.

Three days later, however, a press release arrives from the publicity firm that represents the Forum Shops. "Effective immediately," it reads, the fountain show "is being discontinued for refurbishing until further notice."

Uh-oh.

"You broke it!" read an email sent to me by R-J entertainment columnist Mike Weatherford.

A more careful perusal of the release, however, reveals that it’s the "Festival" fountain show that’s closing. That one opened five years before "Atlantis" on the opposite end of the Forum Shops and was seriously outdated. Harms and his crew will work on whatever replaces it.

Thank you to a different finger — the fickle one of fate — for sparing me yet again.

To watch the video, go to www.lvrj.com/animatronics. Fear and Loafing appears on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan’s previous adventures are posted at www.lvrj.com/corey and www.fearandloafing.com. Have a Fear and Loafing idea? Call (702) 383 -0456 or email clevitan@ reviewjournal.com.

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