Q&A: Tom Zaller of 'REAL BODIES'
Tom Zaller, CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, launched a Titanic exhibition in Las Vegas in 1998 and has been providing daytime experiences around the world ever since. He recently observed the first anniversary of Imagine’s human anatomy exhibition REAL BODIES opening at Bally’s, and took time to speak with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about the 8,000-square-foot journey through life and death as expressed with anatomical, cultural and emotional narratives.
We just passed the first anniversary of the opening of REAL BODIES. What was the exact date you opened?
I want to say it was August 27, but I should probably know that. Late August 2016.
Did you keep track of how many visitors you had in the first 12 months?
The turnout’s been great. Obviously, I’ve been involved with human anatomy exhibitions all over the world for many, many years. … I’ve been really happy with the success of REAL BODIES at Bally’s. We’ve seen continued growth month over month with the show. I had never done an exhibition in center Strip like that. I’ve usually been at the north or south end of the Strip, but I really have enjoyed this audience. We’ve got a great audience and it continues to grow every day.
Can you estimate how many people come on a heavy traffic day, or a moderate traffic day?
I guess it could range anywhere from a couple of hundred to over a thousand. The range is pretty broad. There’s a lot of seasonality to it, but yeah the show’s doing really well. We’re really happy with the attendance, and particularly the reaction to the show because we’ve done so many human anatomy exhibitions over the years all over the world and this was a new concept that we developed, and the comments are unbelievable. We’ve got a guest book at the end of it and they’re just so positive. People who have seen other versions of other shows around the world, even in the city, have been like “Oh my God, this is so much better. It’s so much more thoughtful, such a nice design. The specimens are so impactful and credible.” So it’s been very, very positive in that regard for sure.
How interested in anatomy were you before you got involved with exhibitions?
I was a biology major in college, but I never finished college. (Laughs) I’ve always been interested in life, but until I started doing these exhibitions in the early 2000s it was not something I studied. Once I saw the impact that these exhibitions have on people, certainly I’ve been more and more inspired to share it all over the world. I think at our core we’re storytellers in what we do with all of our exhibitions, because everybody can relate to this, because it’s us. It’s our body.
So even though you didn’t finish your education you managed to apply it.
Yeah, I wanted to be a mountain rescue guy and help people get down from mountains or off cliffs. And I ended up going on the road with bands and live entertainers, and doing big theatrical shows. Somehow I ended up in exhibitions, and then a lot of the exhibitions that we do at Imagine are science-based exhibitions, and a lot of the choices that we make about what exhibitions we do are my choices because I’m the owner of the company, so yeah I think that science foundation, that biology-foundation understanding of how things work is apparent in what we do.
Did you get started at the Rio in 1998?
Yeah. The first exhibition I did at the Rio was the Titanic exhibition. Back then we were a small company out of Ohio who owned the show at the time, besides working at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters Convention). It’s in Las Vegas every year. It’s a big trade show at the exhibit hall, where the big names go and they have their products for the year.
Was that where you began to see increased demand for daytime experiences?
I was a kid then. It was a different time, but as I’ve been in Las Vegas and have been operating there for many years now, the thing that I recognize that the casinos always like about us is that we can drive that day business, both 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., because people come to Las Vegas, they’re looking to be entertained. They go to the pool. They go to the shows. They go out and have a good time in the evenings, but in the daytime they want something cultural, some kind of cultural entertainment. I think that we offer that, and that’s really nice because for the casino owner we drive traffic into out property to see out exhibitions. And for the visitor we provide something that you don’t see every day in their own city.
What distinguishes REAL BODIES from previous anatomy exhibitions you worked on?
I guess I had a new vision for how to tell a story. The wow factor is always going to be seeing a preserved piece of anatomy, be that a full body specimen or an individual organ, but I felt we could do it better than I had before, and I got together with my team and I felt I wanted people to understand … with anatomy, there’s a systems approach that you use by going by circulatory, muscular, nervous, digestive, and so on. I wanted to do it in a way where we talk about more of an emotional connection, and a spiritual connection and sort of a historical connection to our body and where we came from as people, and how cultures see different things—how people see their body or their cultural history in different places around the world, so that was the approach. I also liked the idea of including local artists. I liked the idea of making it a bit more four or five dimensional, that there’s air movement, scent and smell. Just being a more visceral experience than I had done before.
Your brother John Zaller works with you on REAL BODIES. How long has he worked with you?
He’s worked with me for 17 years now in various roles. In the last 17 years I’ve been with four companies before this one and mine. Technically the first three were one getting bought by another by another, so it was all kind of the same group. I hired John a long time ago as a writer for me because John, I think, at his core is a researcher and writer. He’s a trained writer, that’s his thing, but he’s become much more of a visual designer/creative person for us. At his core, what John’s great at is taking sometimes really complex subjects and distilling them in a way that you can present them in a 60-word panel. You can get the understanding of how a digestive system works or how the circulatory system works, but also visually represent that and create a narrative around that. So John and I always start with a narrative. We talk about an idea. I tell him I want to do this, this and this. I think I want to incorporate that, and we start with a narrative. So he writes up a treatment. We write the treatment like as if you were walking through, so it’ll say, “You approach a set of doors and the doors will swing inward,” or “The room will be filled with smoke” or “The lights will be turned on in blue” or whatever, so we can see what the narrative is saying. So yeah, John and I have been together forever. We go through this process where we go through the narrative. We then go from the narrative to digestible bites of information. We then do renderings. We do a whole package on what the pieces are, floor plans and more detailed renderings until we can get to a place where we say “Okay, here’s the visual look and feel,” and then we’ll go to build that visual look and feel. And the guy with who we build it is my other brother Paul, who’s been with me … actually, I started working for Paul when I was 13 years old doing production and lighting and staging and rigging. There’s a bit of a family affair on that side of things for sure.
So you have the benefit of a pre-existing intuitive bond. You know the way each other thinks, and less explanation is needed, I guess?
For sure. We also know all of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. First of all, I have no doubt that my guys, my brothers, my team, will ever stop until it’s done. We get ourselves in all kinds of crazy work-related situations where we always get it done, so their dedication and commitment to what we do is incredible, so it’s really nice. I didn’t know the conversation was going to go that way, so it’s nice to think about what a great team I have, in particular with my family members. … One of my sisters works for me, my sister-in-law works for me, and my father-in-law worked for me.
Was there a first element you came up with?
I wanted to introduce the exhibition with a coffin, which was a little weird for some people, but I was like, “The reason we need to see this is because we’re looking at dead bodies.” For as much of a wow factor that is, or a fear factor that is, it’s the core of what allows us to see this whole thing happen. And also, a big part of the exhibition is talking about life and death, and what better way to do that with a symbol than obviously a coffin? And so talking about where we came from, who we are and how we got there, and how other cultures around the world see that. So death was one of the big moments for me, then later on we touch on it again. I really wanted to recreate an ossuary, like you have under the churches in Europe where the bones have all been dug out of graves and brought downstairs, and basically was done to get the church more space or land, but they got decorative with it. And we also talk about how different cultures bury their dead. They’re just such interesting concepts. If you’re from Anywhere, U.S.A., we have our certain traditions that the various religions do, but people in other parts of the world look at it completely different. They look at their spiritual relationship to the Earth or to life and death in a different way. So that was a big element I think, was we can do this because we have these specimens. They wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t death. What is death? What does death mean to us? How do we make better lifestyle choices to prolong our life? What do we think about when we think about death? And then you get into all kinds of other stuff like, instead of talking about digestion we call this gallery “Hunger,” and we talked about foraging and harvesting food, what it was like to be a hunter and a gatherer. And then the reproductive gallery we call the “Love” gallery. When you’re reproducing, typically you have a relationship with somebody, and that relationship’s formed from love. Then we were like, “Let’s write love letters in the exhibition.” It kind of evolved from there.
I figured there was one concrete idea that pushed it all forward.
The thing that I wanted to express in every room was our relationship with our body, whether that be spiritual or physical, emotional, whatever that is, and how you can tell that story in each one of those spaces. At the core, this is an educational anatomy exhibition. You’re there to learn about how the human body works. Not just the connection of how we perceive the other parts, besides just the physiology and the physical attributes, and the systems and the chemistry, but how spirituality was the core pillar behind it all.
Bally's, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, last tour at 8 p.m., $29.95, $18 children 3-12. 702.777.2782