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Clash of the Lego masters

Meet the competitors jockeying for a job as full-time model builder at Legoland California. Photos: Going for the Lego gold

CARLSBAD, Calif.--It's about 8:30 in the morning Monday and Sarah Hall is deep into something many Lego fans would consider a fantasy.

The 23-year-old insurance claim processor from Louisville, Ky., is one of 23 finalists for a job as a master model builder at Legoland California here. Each has been given an hour to grab as many Lego bricks as they want from dozens of clear-plastic bins containing a particular size and shape of brick.

Legoland competition

And while anyone who visits Legoland can choose bricks from these bins, the public has to pay for them. The finalists get to just grab them, fill their bins and walk away.

On Tuesday, the finalists will go head-to-head in a two-hour "build-off" in which each will be tasked with building a model based on something he or she thinks would fit in well at this theme park north of San Diego. And they'll get to use the bricks they've grabbed from the bins.

"It's pretty fun and it's kind of nerve-wracking (picking bricks from the bins) because you don't know everything you need, but the colors are pretty awesome," said Hall. "I've never had all these. I've just had the basics. So it's nice...It's like a candy shop."

Ultimately, just one candidate will nab the master-builder spot, an honor that will require moving close enough to Carlsbad to be able to work full-time at the theme park creating the models that make up the scenery. Though Hall is working at an insurance company in Louisville, she thinks of herself as an artist and spends much of her free time writing "whimsical" stories about people and then illustrating them herself.

Also among the artistic pursuits she takes seriously is building with Lego, which she says she's been doing since age 6.

"My favorite (model) was a tree house," she recalled. "It wasn't very big because I didn't have a lot of Legos. You have to imagine a lot."

"You can create anything you can imagine. It's an incredible artistic medium."
--Gary McIntire, candidate for master model builder

But playing with Legos is mostly an indoor pastime, and Hall takes her time outside at least as seriously as her art. So, she said, she regularly goes for bike rides and hikes, and her favorite activity of all may be kick ball.

One Lego fan twice as old as Hall and much further along in his career, yet an equal at the competition here, is Arthur Gugick, a 46-year-old high school math teacher from Cleveland.

Gugick said he teaches whatever math classes are thrown his way, including classes for those with very poorly developed skills. For kids in those classes, he said, he resorts to trying to make math fun through real-world demonstrations.

Thus, he explained that he often trots out a Rubik's Cube and seeks to impress his students by solving the toy behind his back. Of course, he said, he only does the final step of the iconic puzzle blind. But the stories his students tell change vastly over the school year, he said.

"'He did it all behind his back in less than a minute,'" he said his students claim when they tell the story.

Gugick, born and raised in New York City, estimates he owns a quarter million Lego bricks and once built a model of the Taj Mahal out of 15,000 of them.

And while he appreciates the talent of the current and former Legoland master model builders, he wondered how many of the awe-inspiring creations--dragons, realistic-looking cityscapes, elephants, bridges and the like--are a function of available tools more than pure ability.

"I have to ask if these (master model builders') skills are that much better than mine," he said to another finalist while on a tour of Legoland on Monday, "or if it's just the resources they have. Where I'm paying 10 cents a brick, they're probably paying 10 cents a bushel."

Meanwhile, one finalist sees playing with Lego as a way to validate what he once felt was a "sad and lonely" childhood obsession.

"Damn the consequences. This is cool. So I don't hide it."
--Mikhail Blokh, actor and Lego builder

A 29-year-old from Los Angeles, Mikhail Blokh said that the plastic bricks were his "fantasy place" as a child with few friends.

Today, the would-be actor--"which means that I have an office job"--doesn't trumpet his Lego addiction, but he's far from ashamed of it.

"It was one of those things, as a teenager, you don't talk about publicly because you think people are going to make fun of you because you still play with toys," Blokh said. "Once you become an adult, suddenly being a dork becomes cool. (So) damn the consequences. This is cool. So I don't hide it."

Since moving to L.A., Blokh has become a regular camper, frequenting California's Joshua Tree desert, and he's quick to talk politics and share his "pretty defined opinions about most things" with strangers.

But when it comes down to it, there's no doubt Blokh is a Lego fanatic. In the biographies Legoland issued for the competition finalists, he stated that the best thing about getting hired as a master model builder would be "Lego, Lego and more Lego."

Perhaps one of the front-runners for the job, however, is Gary McIntire, a 25-year-old construction professional from Highland, Utah.

A Lego addict since he was 4, McIntire said the best thing about Lego is that "you can create anything you can imagine. It's an incredible artistic medium."

And he said he appreciated that medium from an early age, explaining that as a kid, he built an entire Lego town in his bedroom, as well as spaceships and a Batmobile. But his favorite Lego constructions ever are a giant volcano moon base that erupted smoke and a 5-foot-tall candy cane.

Of course, McIntire does other things as well, beyond work and Lego. He said he and his wife run a DJ business, and he can often be found as "DJ Rocket," spinning techno beats at house parties.

In any case, among the 23 finalists here, there's no shortage of vibrant personalities with interesting and impressive backgrounds who consider themselves artists at heart, regardless of their day jobs.

Among the group, which ranges in age from 19 to 46, are a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer, an assistant to a member of congress, a tattoo artist, a theme park assistant manager, several students and teachers, a bank customer service representative, an electrician, a fishing lure assembler and even a current Lego store employee.

And while they all want to be hired as the next Legoland master model builder--even though several conceded it would require taking a pay cut--many would be happy just ensuring they don't get stuck in dead-end jobs.

"I couldn't stand to not be creative at my job," said Jason Poland, a recent college graduate from Houston, who, aside from fashioning Lego creations, draws cartoons in his spare time.

Others couch the opportunity to be a finalist for the Legoland job as a kick in the pants to move on with their free-spirited lives.

"If I don't get this job, I'm going to move to California anyway," said Hall. "Maybe sand kick ball is way cooler than grass kick ball and I don't even know it just yet. I might just have to find out."

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