Before there was "Real Steel" and "Transformers" there was "Blue Bomber" and "Red Rocker," the Rock'em Sock'em robots. If you're like me, you recall getting your block knocked off on rainy afternoons with the coolest joystick-operated dueling mechanical robot boxers ever invented. These were the days before video games, when men were men and robots were made of plastic.
The game debuted for the Marx Toy company in 1964, and they're still around, now produced by Mattel. Anyway, I hadn't thought of Rock'em Sock'em robots much until this past Halloween, when I was wandering through Harrah's Lake Tahoe and, lo and behold, there were life-sized versions of Red Rocker and Blue Bomber. And they were passing the time exactly as I imagined that battling robots would during down time: enjoying a couple of beers.
Of course they were drinking them through straws, as the helmets were kind of restrictive.
I took a few pictures with my cell phone, but I never got a chance to talk to the men behind the costumes. Until now.
Turns out that one of them is from South Lake Tahoe. The other, Sean Nichols, is from Santa Rosa, and he's the one who actually built them. Below he explains how.
Please be aware that this interview includes one of my favorite quotes ever: "In 2010, I sewed together a skunk costume, but was unable to create a spraying mechanism in time for Halloween."
Lake Tahoe Action: I assume that you are in one of the costumes - which one? Who is the other guy?
Sean Nicholls: I manned the "Red Rocker," while my buddy Bobby K. controlled the "Blue Bruiser."
Q Did you build them together? Anyone else in on the project?
A Unfortunately, we live pretty far away from each other, so I had to do the construction alone. I turned my garage into a robot laboratory, and spent all of my free time working on these costumes. I tried to keep it simple and use any recyclable materials I could find. I got some help with the glowing LEDs from a local electronics shop, and had to buy over a hundred dollars of colored duct tape. Working on lunch breaks and after work, it took me about two months to complete. Luckily my buddy is the same build as I am, so I was able to simply duplicate all of the body parts I made for myself.
Q Where do you live? Were you both just visiting Tahoe?
A I live in Santa Rosa, California. Bobby lives up in Lake Tahoe. Two years ago he invited me to the "Freakers Ball" Halloween party, and that's what started the whole process.
Q Why did you decide to do this? Just for the contest?
A We spent our Halloween at Harrah's in 2011, and decided to enter a few costume contests. Our costumes were good, but not good enough to win. There was one group of costumes that won every contest that we entered, and I wanted a piece of the prize. I made it a goal of mine to win the costume contests the following year, so I got to work. It was time-consuming, but in the end, we won first place in two costume contests.
Q Do you have an engineering background? Or are you just creative?
A My friends would tell you I'm creative. I do not have an engineering background, it would be nice, but math is not my strong suit. I did take a 3-D design class at Santa Rosa Junior College, but mostly I just enjoy a good challenge. Nothing beats that feeling of accomplishment.
Q What do you do for a living?
A I work full time selling appliance parts, not my ideal career choice, but it pays the bills. I run the shipping and receiving department, and that is where I collected all the cardboard to build these suits. I do a lot of painting, illustrating, and airbrushing on the side, and I am currently working on a clothing line called Hella Gnarly Apparel.
Q Have you built any other costumes?
A Over the years past, I have constructed a few other costumes. In 2008, I constructed three proton packs using cardboard and old broken parts I found lying around the workplace, then got some jumpsuits, ironed on names, and two friends and I were the Ghostbusters. The following year I decided to be Shredder from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I made the shoulder pads, shin guards, gauntlets and spikes all out of cardboard and paper mache. I then painted them silver and airbrushed on the detail. I also wore that costume to Bay to Breakers in San Francisco. In 2010, I sewed together a skunk costume, but was unable to create a spraying mechanism in time for Halloween. Two years after the release of "Where the Wild Things Are," I bought a ton of faux fur from a local craft shop and sewed together a "Max" costume, and wore it to the Freaker's Ball. Which brings us to 2012, the year of the robots.
Q What do you like most about Rock'em Sock'em Robots?
A After this build I could go the rest of my life without seeing another Rock'em Sock'em Robot, but hey, nobody can hate robots. My favorite part of the game would be the spring-loaded heads of course. I had plans to make our helmets pop up, but I didn't start the project early enough to complete them.
Q What was the reaction from people at Harrah's? Did you wear them anywhere else, like to the grocery store?
A People's reactions at Harrah's were priceless. We could barely walk for more than six feet before someone stopped us to get a picture. When one person stopped us, more people would start lining up to snap a photo. I told my friends, with a paparazzi following like that, I now know what it feels like to be famous. We couldn't even go to the bathroom without people asking to get their pictures taken with us. At one point we got surrounded by four security guards, and they made us remove our helmets for "security reasons." You wouldn't believe how many people would walk past us and scream "Transformers!" or "Real Steel!" Luckily I only had one drunk guy come up to me and hit my helmet, he didn't do any damage, so I didn't have to knock his block off.
I've walked around town in them, but I haven't worn them to the store yet. As clumsy as I am, I'd knock over expensive wine, or trip over an old lady.A few of my friends are planning a photo shoot with the costumes, and my band will be using them in an upcoming music video.
Q Plans for next Halloween?
A Next year I definitely want to go bigger and better, but these costumes are going to be hard to beat. I have a few ideas up my sleeve. Let's just say, I plan on going back to Tahoe for Halloween 2013, and I plan on winning.