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Short Takes

An Art Form Based On Domino Theory

June 18, 1989|DICK RORABACK

He calls himself a "Domineer." Right now, he's a New Jersey lifeguard, in training for his 75th marathon. Running is his real love. This week, though, he'll assume his other persona for an appearance in Torrance's Del Amo Fashion Center. What he'll be doing there is what's been paying the freight for a decade: setting up rows of dominoes and then knocking 'em down. "Hey," he says, "it's a living."

He's Bobby Speca, 32, and you may have seen him on Carson or "That's Incredible" or in the Guinness Book of World Records. Once he set in motion a spectacular chain reaction of exactly 111,111 dominoes, falling not just in a row but up ramps and around corners and down elevators and off mini-high dives . . . "The setup took two weeks," he says, "and the topple took 32 minutes. I've subsequently lost the record--some fellow in West Germany has done something like 280,000--but I'm still the patriarch of the art, and the only guy who makes a living out of it."

For commercial enterprises, Speca charges 15 cents per domino, plus expenses. For the Del Amo opening of STOR, a furniture outlet, he'll publicly set up 11,111 dominoes Friday; knock them down Saturday from 11 a.m. to precisely 11:03; conduct a workshop from noon to 1; judge a toppling contest for a while, and be home in time for a Sunday run.

Since he was inspired by a high school math teacher, Speca has expanded his arcane art to include configurations with Darryl Dawkins-like titles: the "DNA Double Helix," "Delayed Dynamic Dozen," "Bahama Tom Inverted Cascade Slide for Life"--all, of course, with tongue in cheek, bank statement in black and the secure knowledge that Billy Crystal has asked him for his autograph.

A down-to-Earth dreamer with Mensa credentials and degrees from Penn in astronomy and physics, Speca has toppled outsized dominoes underwater and speculates on what would happen in outer space ("You'd have to magnetize the bottoms . . . ").

Mainly, he is one of those rare people who love what they're doing. "If I look back and think, 'Gee, all I did was the Iron Man Triathlon 30 times and a couple hundred marathons, and throughly enjoy life,' will I feel guilty? Nah."

Serious Episodes With Comedy

The idea occurred to television writer Ruth Bennett when she was "back in the Midwest, reading in the papers about a case in Detroit, and another in Ohio where they actually burned down a house." Bennett--longtime producer and writer of "Family Ties" who left to do her own show, "Duet"--had wanted to write one more script for "Ties" before it went off the air, "and I wanted it to be something with some weight to it."

It turned out to be a rousing two-parter dealing with the problems faced by a black family moving into the Keatons' all-white neighborhood, a move contested not only by overt racists but by "well-meaning" whites placing property values over human worth. It was tricky but it worked, so well that it garnered for Bennett the first Blanche Rosloff Award, presented this month by the Westside Housing Council.

"It's not the sort of thing that happens in every neighborhood," Bennett concedes, "but it's still happening enough to keep the council busy in West L.A. As a matter of fact, they're fighting three cases right now."

Dealing with tough issues through comedy--thus assuring a wide audience--is "a difficult art," says Bennett, who's also done a piece on alcoholism for "Ties," another on illiteracy for "Duet." "It's a real balancing act. You have to make sure that you don't belittle your subject, that you don't poke fun in the wrong places." For Bennett, it works just fine.

Mourning Death of a Salesman

Susan Tanner called. Dad had died. Dad was Harry. Harry Tanner. Oldest--and arguably oddest--car salesman in America. Maybe the world.

Harry would have been 89 this week. In April, he was Salesman of the Month at Claude Short Dodge in Santa Monica. He had worked through the middle of May, when the cancer he had licked came back to get him. "It was almost as if he'd rather die than not work," said Susan. "He had a horror of being a useless, crotchety old man in robe and slippers on the front porch."

Even besides his appetite for literature, Harry was different, no doubt about it. "An oddity," Susan called him. "Selling cars is hardly one of the world's most revered professions, but Harry was that rare kind of salesman whom people trusted. He never cheated anybody. He always tried to give a good deal to people who wouldn't ordinarily have an edge in the economic system--the young, the ethnic minorities."

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