Sunday, May 11, 2008

Article from the Columbia Missourian: Three friends travel the nation, spreading the “wisdom” of their large creation


KANSAS CITY — Although the purpose of the 1982 "twine-a-thon" in Cawker City, Kan., was to make sure the ball of twine was truly the biggest, it ended up being the inspiration for the world's largest ball of three-quarter-inch videotape.

Twenty-six years later, "proud co-creators" Randy Mason and Don Mayberger share custody of the odd, record-setting ball and are happy to show it off.

"We thought, 'We oughta have a big ball of somethin','" Mason said, adding that the videotape ball has grown to a "back-surgery-inducing" 68.5 pounds.

While mulling their quest for a world record, Mason and Mayberger tried to pick a medium unlikely to draw competition. As employees of a cable station in Lawrence, Kan., at the time, they chose videotape and started winding up old tape from the station.

"It's a stupid thing, but it's our stupid thing," Mason said.

One spool contains 60 minutes worth of videotape and weighs 3 or 4 ounces, meaning the ball contains somewhere between 275 and 350 hours of video.

"We always hope that someday in the future, scientists will devise a way to just play the ball of tape," Mason said.

Creating the big ball was one challenge. Getting it some good publicity was another. Mason and Mayberger tried to get the ball some national notice on "The Late Show" with David Letterman but failed twice. Finally, in 1995, the ball made its TV debut on "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations," a show created by Mason, Mayberger and co-worker Mike Murphy and produced by Kansas City Public Television. The show chronicles the adventures of the trio as they travel around the country with their impressive sphere of videotape. Although it initially was intended to be a one-time special, they have now produced 66 episodes.

"The core is celebrating people's creativity," Mason said. "Real creativity goes beyond training and the joy that it can bring, and that shows up in so many different ways."

Mason, Mayberger and Murphy are known to their viewers as the "TV Weasels." Mayberger said the name fits because they enjoy receiving free items like T-shirts and hats from the places they visit. But more than that, he said, "the show is so much fun that we almost feel like we're weaseling fun out of the universe."

Sometimes, Mayberger said, viewers recognize the Weasels and shout things like, "Hey, you Weasels, where's the ball?"

"It's kind of like a freak of technology and nature," Mayberger said. "And it makes people shout stupid stuff at me from the sidewalk. And anytime strangers can do that, I'd say that's an example of the power it has."

The Weasels say the ball travels well, though it sometimes suffers the indignity of being covered with potato chip crumbs. Mason and Murphy sit in the front, while Mayberger rides in back of the vehicle with the ball.

"Yes, it is (a good companion)," Mayberger said. "I have to say, it never complains - it's a friend of mine."

The Weasels recalled a trip to Florida, where they were trying to cajole an artist into talking with them. He showed little interest until he saw the big ball of videotape. That's when he recognized the Weasels from their show and became enthusiastic about talking to them.

"It was the greatest moment," Mason said.

The road can sometimes be threatening, though. During a visit to Hermann, the ball nearly rolled down a hill into the Missouri River.

"You really have to deal with this gravity thing," Mason said.

If the videotape were able to record its adventures, Mason said, it probably would have some wisdom to impart. "The ball would say, 'When you don't realize what's out there, you miss a lot,'" Mason said.

The television show — and the videotape — gives the Weasels a good reason to get off the beaten path and show people's creativity while laughing but not mocking.

"If a big ball of tape can let us do that, we'll keep winding," Mason said.

Mayberger also said he would like to keep the ball going so as not to disappoint its fans.

"People are more interested in seeing the ball than us, often, so I guess we just have to maintain its celebrity status and keep it," Mayberger said.

Winding up 68.5 pounds of videotape isn't easy.

"It's all about the tension on the tape because it's a slick substance, and it will easily unwind if you aren't pulling tightly," Mayberger said. They use adhesive tape to keep it together and have to wear thick gloves when winding.

"Gloves are required because, like paper cuts, videotape cuts are not what you wanna have," Mayberger said.

Mayberger said the ball gets heavier faster than it gets larger. The bigger it gets, the more challenging it is to add to it.

An eighth-grade science class in north Kansas City once challenged Mason and Mayberger and created a videotape that was bigger, but only for a week. Mayberger quickly added 12 pounds of tape to the Weasels' ball.

Erika Nelson, who met the Weasels and saw the ball during a 2003 filming session, was inspired enough to create the world's smallest replica of the world's largest ball of tape by using micro-cassette tape.

"One of the fun comments from (Mayberger) was, 'Oh, you can't keep your ball of tape wound either,'" Nelson said. "The same trials and tribulations with the big ball apply with the small ball."

Nelson was able to take a picture of the two balls together years later, which she said "is just a crowning achievement of absurdity when you're talking about the world's largest things."

Nelson said the videotape ball is different from other examples of world's largest things in Missouri because the Weasels travel with it. Although you can go see it, there's a chance it might come to you.

"They've given it a personality," Nelson said.

To see the world's largest ball of videotape, call Kansas City Public Television at 816-756-3580.

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