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May 08, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

An Eye for Detail

Reporter works on Fremont Street Experience

Check out the Video
Corey fixes bulbs


Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan, after searching fruitlessly for a broken LED module on the Fremont Street Experience in broad daylight, removes and replaces a perfectly good one.
Photo by Gary Thompson.

How many maintenance workers does it take to screw in a light bulb at the Fremont Street Experience?

Zero, because there are no light bulbs. Three years ago, they were replaced by light-emitting diodes. It used to take one worker, though. And it still does (the same one, in fact).


Ron Ischer toils from midnight to dawn each day, ensuring that the world's largest LED screen provides perfectly detailed views up the nostrils of showgirls, space aliens and Britney Spears. (Every hour from 8 p.m.-midnight, the Viva Vision screen displays one of 10 different seven-minute shows, straining the necks of 16 million viewers a year.)

"I go to sleep in the afternoon, miss dinner, and wake up and go to work at night," says Ischer, 43, who has also maintained a 21-year marriage and raised two children despite the batlike hours.

"It was hard, but I managed it right," he says, squinting not unlike a vampire as sun rays streak in from the canopy's east end.

The only thing I do from midnight to dawn is sleep. So I asked Ischer if he could put off most of this morning's work until dew has formed. Reluctantly, he agreed.

A test pattern rolls in waves of red, green and blue across the four-block long screen.

"I guarantee there are at least 50 bad LEDs right now," Ischer says.

What makes a good LED go bad is heat and rain.

"The public would never see a bad one," Ischer says. "But that's my job — to fix things before they see them."

Whenever he spots a telltale black dot in one of the colors, Ischer maneuvers his crane below the problem diode and removes the module housing it. Back at his office, he plugs it into a testing grid and makes the necessary repairs.

"Are you gonna bungee jump?" we're asked. An apparently drunk man resembling Jerry Garcia observes as Ischer hooks my safety harness onto the crane. The passerby is delighted when I confirm his suspicions. (Characters like this are too interesting not to try and keep around.)

Covering Fremont Street in order to save it was an idea hatched by architect Jon Jerde in 1992, when the area marking the 1905 birth of Las Vegas looked more like its grave. Neon icon Vegas Vic lost his view of the sky three years later.

The city and a consortium of casinos — led by Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget — initially dropped $70 million on the canopy. In 2003, it spent $17 million more to go LED.

"Let's go where it's a little darker," Ischer says, directing the crane's arm out of direct sunlight. Every trip up to the canopy consists of three separate movements, corresponding to crane segments called the jib, boom and riser.

"You enjoying the height?" Ischer asks as we pass the halfway mark (45 feet). Jerky bumps mark the engagement of each new extension.

Although I'm 20 times lower than when I washed the Stratosphere's windows, heights are still an issue for me. Perhaps it's because I'm so low to the ground to begin with.

Ischer grins. This level of danger is a joke to a guy who once climbed inside the old Vegas World sign to fix Bob Stupak's neon signature during a windstorm, as the sign swayed four feet back and forth.

"I've worked on signs that weren't built for service, that's for sure," says the Chicago native, who's been hanging from roofs since high school, when his parents moved to Las Vegas and he got a job with Nevada Illumination.

Oddly, Ischer says, he used to suffer from acrophobia.

"When I was 8, my brother had to come get me out of a tree," he says. "But I just went up one day to fix signs and it didn't bother me. I think the money was the motivation." (Ischer will say only that his job pays "very well," adding that a newbie like me would start at $10 an hour.)

"OK, let's find a broken diode," Ischer says as we rise up to within grasping distance of the 90-foot-tall screen.

There are 12.5 million diodes in all — 12,500 times more points of light than spoken of by the first President Bush. Even at night, it's hard to spot a bad one. But that's precisely what Ischer's job is.

My mentor stares intently at the red, blue and green patterns. He has never done his job in daylight.

"When you're up close, the focus is too much on one spot," he says, deciding to lower us 20 feet. This widens our perspective. But it also increases the background sunlight.

"This is insane," Ischer says. Needles in haystacks laugh at how hard bum diodes are to see under these conditions.

"Are you gonna bungee jump or what?" screams drunk Jerry Garcia from below.

Ischer presses the button on his walkie-talkie. His assistant clocked out hours ago. He's hoping to catch someone in the computer room (from which the screen is run by 11 machines). If the test pattern freezes on a single color, bad pixels are easier to spot.

"It only takes one mouse click," he explains to a security worker named Rebecca. "Don't hit it until I tell you."

As the color red rolls across our heads, Ischer issues the command. The screen freezes successfully and Ron stares again — even more intently, as though attempting to damage a diode through telekinesis.

"You have to have a trained eye," he says. Another minute passes. Still, nothing. Ischer's trained eyes threaten to pop.

"This is crazy," he says. He lifts us back to the canopy. Then, ignoring the old adage, he decides to fix something that ain't broke.

"This would be the way you change a broken one," Ischer says, directing me to unscrew and then shimmy the white plastic block out of the canopy. (When it pops loose, it's still attached by a ribbon, so no one below need worry about receiving an LED module-shaped dent in their head.)

I examine the perfectly good module, then plug it back in. This Fremont Street experience satisfies neither of us.

"I just know there's one out," Ischer says as he lowers us yet again. "You're making me a liar now."

The crane's base lurches forward on its wheels, westward from the front of Fitzgerald's. But we are still 70 feet in the air. Ischer could have lowered us all the way to the ground first. Instead, he has decided to perform the equivalent of driving a fire truck from the top of a fully extended ladder. The jerky bumps we felt before are pond ripples in comparison.

"This is a dangerous piece of equipment," Ischer says as we wobble like Courtney Love on a red carpet. "If you hit the wrong controls or the ground's not level, you can put yourself in a very bad situation."

Ischer, who is smirking, can only be doing this to exact revenge. I apologize for exposing him to daylight and beg him to stop his infernal machine.

"You need the darkness as a backdrop," Ischer says. "Otherwise, I'd love to work days."

I agree, and promise not to make him look bad in this article. Our forward roll ceases.

"Jump already!" screams Jerry the drunk. For a second there, I almost considered it.


Click here to check out Levitan's Web site: www.fearandloafing.com.



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