Plenty of people have weird stuff in their basement. Robert Speca has around 200,000 dominoes.
He’s a professional toppler, a vocation that has been given new life this past year thanks to an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, Master of None that ends with an epic domino felling. Speca set up that shot, and many others from TV and movies.
“What you see there for that 30 seconds took four days [to set up],” says Speca.
“Toppling” is the art of setting up a bunch of dominoes so that when the first is felled, the others fall in quick succession. Speca, who has been toppling professionally for 41 years, is the Beethoven of dominoes — his displays are elaborate and laboriously assembled. The largest required 111,111 dominoes and toppled for 35 minutes once set in motion. He can set up about 1,000 dominoes an hour; sometimes it takes days to complete a display. He topples for charities, store openings, weddings, music videos and television. He has invented techniques with nicknames like the “Tarzan Swing” that require dominos to go up steps, swing on strings or travel up an elevator. His Rube Goldberg-esque inventions sometimes employ pulleys or slides. Over the years, he has developed a technique for carefully spray-painting dominos so that they act like pixels, creating pictures as they cascade. He has set and broken the Guinness World Record for toppling.
Speca started toppling as a teen in the ‘70s, buying as many dominoes as he could afford and commandeering the family basement. Rather than getting annoyed, his father, who worked in the recording industry and had Hollywood connections, saw potential. He tapped a friend who coordinated talent for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and in 1975 Speca made his television debut, plinking out Carson’s name in dominoes, sending pieces up and down ramps, and swirling through a double-helix pattern, prompting one member of the delighted audience to exclaim “Good lord!”
Over the years, Speca has identified the ideal environment for toppling.
“You need the floor to be a flat hard floor like a basketball court, or sheetrock or particle board or wood,” says Speca. “I tried it on a miniature golf course. It doesn’t work.”
The main hazard is keeping them up until the exact moment they’re supposed to go down—a gust of wind, a carelessly moved wire on a soundstage or a rowdy mall-goer can ruin hours of work. Occasionally Speca has been the culprit, sabotaging his own setup. To mitigate this frustration, he builds in “breaks”, picking a few dominoes out along the way to create a firewall and adding them back in just before show time.
Speca is a part time toppler; in his regular life he’s a public school teacher in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but his side gig has taken him places many teachers wouldn’t end up. This year he set up a display for Master of None. The display, which featured a domino-pixel cat as its centerpiece, was shot on three different stages. Speca created a set that was glued in place, then arranged an identical one to topple on the show.
Once, Speca collaborated on a display for a music video that involved bowling balls, guillotined mannequins and explosives.
“I smelled like gunpowder by the time I left there,” he says.
For Speca, the thrill comes from setting up the displays, but for his audience the payoff is fleeting.
“My mom would say it’s like making a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas dinner,” says Speca. “You work for two days on it and everyone eats it in half and hour.”