This all began with Jesse Richuso and Joe Meno.
Jesse was a UNC student in 2004. He worked at Morehead, and he won a student fellowship to create a program he called “LEGO Lab.” Do you remember it? LEGO Lab was based in the room where the “Zoom In: Science at the Extremes” exhibit is now. On Saturdays that year, Morehead visitors were able to experience the LEGO Lab and create some amazing projects.
Joe heard about LEGO Lab, and that caught his interest. Joe was active with a group called NC LUG — that stands for “LEGO Users Group.” Joe and his friends were adults who had maintained, even expanded, their childhood fascination with LEGOs. Joe called us and asked if there was any way he and his friends could exhibit some of their larger projects at Morehead, as part of the LEGO Lab.
There really wasn’t room to exhibit LEGO models alongside the LEGO Lab activities. But we knew that the LEGO Lab had been really popular with Morehead visitors, and it was hard to resist Joe’s boundless enthusiasm for all things LEGO, so we agreed that we would set up some tables in the Morehead Banquet Hall for the NC LEGO Users Group to exhibit some of their favorite models. We also worked with Joe to plan a LEGO model building contest, using basic LEGO bricks that Joe provided.
We set a date — the first Saturday in February 2005 — and named our event “LEGO-palooza.” The LUG members brought dozens and dozens of models. Joe brought a huge plastic tub filled with LEGO bricks for the contest, and we spread them on a sheet on the floor, with a single table nearby where children could place their entries in the contest. We didn’t really know how many people to expect, but we thought maybe 150 people might stop by during the day. Boy, were we wrong.
A News & Observer reporter mentioned the event in an article about the “Magic Tree House Space Mission” planetarium show. It was just one sentence. Yet on Saturday morning there were so many people in the LEGO-palooza entrance lobby, waiting to enter the Banquet Hall, that they nearly trampled UNC student worker Davida Vinson as she opened the doors.
They filled the aisles. They surrounded every exhibit table. And they kept coming.
The LEGO Users Group members were so busy answering questions and keeping watch over their exhibits that they never had time to take a lunch break. The first table filled with contest entries, so we set up another table. And another. And another. We ran out of LEGO bricks soon after 2 p.m. — the children had built 500 models to enter in the contest, all within about three hours.
By the time we closed the doors, we were exhausted — and excited. Clearly, we had a winner. In fact, I think that LEGO-palooza was responsible for the first blog entry ever posted by anyone about any Morehead activity (Paul Jones blogged about his visit with his son Tucker).
Fast forward to 2010. A lot has changed since that first year. LEGO-palooza is now a two-day event that routinely draws 1,200 or more visitors. We’ve added new activities (BrickFilms!) and dropped others (“farvel” — Danish for “goodbye” — to the contest and the LEGO play space). We’ve experimented with LEGO “classes” for families, with timed tickets and with age-group-specific activities. Lesson learned: Keep it simple, and focus on the exhibits.
And so we have. If you’ve been to LEGO-palooza, you’ve seen an amazing array of LEGO models over the years: Sabrina and Signe Gravett’s “Star Wars” collection, Mike Walsh’s trains, Joe Evangelista’s spaceport, Carin and Jane Proctor’s neighborhoods, Cyndi Bradham’s castle, Jennifer Poole’s “Hogwarts” collection, Taylor Poole’s “Batman” collection, Joe Meno’s robotics demonstrations and many more. (My personal favorite remains a kinetic LEGO machine that Rafe Donohue exhibited several years ago.)
Some of the LUG members have joined forces (and their impressive supplies of LEGO bricks and other goodies) to create huge original environments, ranging from space stations to amusement parks to western frontier forts. The NC LUG membership has added new members with its high visibility at LEGO-palooza, and LUG friends based in other states have traveled to Chapel Hill to exhibit their models, too.
That brings us to LEGO-palooza 6 — mark your calendars now! It’ll be Saturday, March 13 (11 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Sunday, March 14 (1-4 p.m.). It’s free, as always, and it’s a great adventure for children ages 4 and older, accompanied by parents or caregivers. No tickets, no reservations — just be here.
And as for the guys who instigated this phenomenon? Jesse’s now in grad school in Georgia. Although his LEGO Lab is gone, the LEGO camps that came from it are still popular on Morehead’s Summer Science Camps schedule. And Joe has turned his love for LEGOs into a career as editor of BrickJournal magazine. He passed the coordinator’s torch to Carin Proctor for a few years, and now Joe Evangelista is taking a turn as torchbearer.
If you’ve never seen LEGO-palooza before now, make this the year. And if you’ve been here before — well, if you love LEGOs, there really isn’t any other place you want to be on March 13-14.
It's not just a toy, it's an addiction.