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VOL. 46 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 16, 2022

Old kids on the blocks

Two TN ‘Grandpappies’ try to piece together a win on TV’s LEGO Masters

By Lucas Hendrickson

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For so many and for so long, the opportunity for fame coming out of Nashville involved very small increments of creativity. Note by note. Riff by riff. Beat by beat.

For Kerry Woo, 67, his path to potential public notoriety is being built brick by brick.

Tiny plastic ones, at that.

The longtime Midstate resident is one of 24 competitors on the new season of LEGO Masters, which premieres on Fox (WZTV, channel 17 in Nashville) Wednesday at 8 p.m.

LEGO Masters, hosted by actor/executive producer Will Arnett (Arrested Development, The LEGO Batman Movie), pits 12 two-person teams of experienced LEGO builders against the clock and each other in a series of challenging builds. The compositions are then judged by expert LEGO Brickmasters Jamie Berard and Amy Corbett on a variety of criteria, with the show’s final team taking home $100,000.

The teams’ playground/competition arena/torture chamber would be a wonderland for LEGO fans of any generation…and a nightmare for anyone who struggles to make a decision in, say, picking out socks of a morning.

Contestants had at their creative disposal more than 5 million LEGO pieces, featuring 3,300 different types of elements and a minifig wall (that’s LEGO parlance for the small human figures that can bring a build to life) with more than 4,000 different face and body types.

Such a monumental task should only be undertaken by someone with years…nay, decades…of creative experience with the tiny Scandinavian exports, right? Not in Woo’s case, who’s only been building with LEGO seriously for less than three years.

Kerry Woo, 67, of College Grove, left, and Patrick Durham, 75, of Knoxville are the two-man team known as “The Grandpappies” on the Fox show LEGO Masters.

-- Photograph Provided

“When he was younger, my son had a set that was like a little stage that I put some speakers to, that kind of thing,” says Woo, who has spent the past decade as a freelance photographer, specializing in events and architectural shoots. “I went to an architectural photography conference in Las Vegas and saw this guy named Mike Kelly. He talked about how everybody should have a personal project they should focus on.

“He’s an architectural guy in L.A., but he does aviation photographs, as well. So he’ll go out and photograph planes taking off and landing at LAX airport,” Woo continues. “And then pretty soon he had maybe, you know, a hundred planes coming in and outta the sky and Photoshop ’em all together.

“But he talked about that as his creativity and as a revenue source. And so I thought about, you know, November and December are kind of normally kind of slow, maybe I could dabble a little bit in LEGO.”

Woo went about honing his brick-assembling skills much the same way many folks do, through existing kits and gathering sets of bricks from friends and neighbors whose children had “outgrown” LEGO and were just taking up space in basements and storage spaces.

In early 2020, having adopted LEGO as his primary hobby, Woo came across a postcard from the Nashville Public Library about their 10th annual LEGO contest, which sparked an idea that sent his creative and competitive mind into overdrive.

Woosterville

-- Photo By Kerry Woo

He put together a densely packed cityscape using some of Nashville’s most recognizable buildings (complete with construction crane on one) he titled “Woosterville,” and entered it into the contest. It became a crowd favorite on display and netted Woo a couple of wins in the competition and a clearer vision of how this side of his creativity could emerge as he contemplated what he calls “semi-retirement.”

Woo came to Nashville in the late 1970s as a sales rep for Warner Elektra Atlantic, and would later go on to a long stint with AT&T as a trainer working with teams on how to best sell the company’s early-day internet business products. But, as is so often the case with creative souls, the corporate world ate away at him, and Woo found his outlet behind a camera.

“People don’t quit bad companies; they quit bad managers,” Woo notes. “I always carried a camera with me everywhere, and at some point I wanted to go professional.

“I love architecture. When Google came along, I was able to build my brand on top of another brand. Being a Google photographer, doing the 360 virtual tours, I was able to sell it like street maps, but for inside your business,” he says. “So it gave a lot of access to hotels and things like that. I’d photograph the lobby and a couple rooms, and because I had the rooms for the day, I’d practice lighting, go out on the balcony and shoot outside.

Woo focused on the event side of his now-primary hustle, but long days on his feet shuttling from place to place encouraged him to pivot to the architectural side of his shooting, something underscored when the pandemic emerged.

“When COVID hit, I worked it out to where I was deemed ‘essential’ with my work for the state, so I could photograph inside the buildings,” Woo says. “Everything was shut down, but I was one of the only photographers working.”

This paddle-wheeler is the most recent project he’s been commissioned to build.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

The world slowing down also gave Woo more of a chance to work on LEGOcrafting. He continued to create small builds for fun and larger ones for creative clients, such as a model of the 505 Nashville building for developer Tony Giarratana he created after having photographed the building.

He developed a regional following on LEGO user groups and was approached by a casting director about being involved in the second season of LEGO Masters, but declined because he felt he was still too much of a rookie.

But when news of a third season broke, Woo reached out to a Tennessee Valley LEGO users group on Facebook to see if there was interest from anyone else about participating, since the show had moved production to Atlanta the previous year.

“I put it out there, ‘Anybody gonna do this?’ and this guy named Patrick (Durham, 75) out of Knoxville called me and said, ‘By the way, are you a grandfather?’” Woo remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got three grandkids.’ And he said, ‘I’ll call you right back.’”

Those phone calls set in motion the two making their way through the casting process, which involved trips to Atlanta and Zoom calls and an extremely thorough background check and application process, but the pair impressed casting directors and showrunners, and the Tennessee-spawned Season 3 team of “The Grandpappies” (a term Woo assures he’d never used in his life) was born.

“What I love about the LEGO community is that it is so vast,” says executive producer and showrunner Pip Wells. “We really are lucky to have such a wide range of every age, every background. And because (Kerry’s) also an artist, his skills and the way he sees things were fascinating.

College Grove resident Kerry Woo, a contestant on LEGO Masters Season 3, talks about his experience on the show.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“Just having him and Patrick as a team, as some of the oldest contestants that have been on the show and their love of building with their grandchildren, it added so much heart to that sort of story,” she continues. “I mean, he is such a huge part of the LEGO community anyway, he’s already such a superstar.”

The process of creating a competition reality show can be draining for anyone, and the LEGO Masters experience played out over seven weeks earlier this year in Atlanta, something Woo says very quickly developed into a routine.

“They call it a competition, but I never felt that way, because when you all kind of quarantine together and you can’t go anywhere and all you do from 6 in the morning to 9 at night is just crank on these projects,” he says. “Saturday’s all interviews, Sunday is laundry day. All you’ve got is each other, so we were just like one big tight-knit family.”

And while he studiously avoided even a hint as to how The Grandpappies fared overall, Woo noted he had a pretty simple goal going in. “I wanted to be not the first person voted off, but I really wanted to finish in the top three.”

Post-reality show life can really go one of two ways for people: They embrace their momentarily celebrity and run with it or step as far away from the lights, camera and action as possible. Woo says he intends to lean toward the former, albeit gently, as the show prepares to air and his visibility will inevitably be raised within the LEGO community.

“I think you’ve gotta hold that celebrity opportunity loosely,” he says. “You have this opportunity to be a good influence on kids and adults. I gave a talk at a Williamson County Library art event recently and said, ‘Parents, you’ve gotta let your kids be creative, whether it be painting or LEGOs or whatever. Otherwise, they grow up and their only chance at creativity in their daily lives is PowerPoint.”

The creativity spark LEGO gives Woo has only grown after his TV show experience, something he continues to be eager to share and hone.

“I’ll have a big baking sheet out and I’ll dig out parts and start separating them and see this one part and think, ‘Huh. Here’s a little angle piece I’ve never seen,’” he says. “I constantly get inspired like that, just finding one little piece that triggers the whole thing.

“You can just stand at the LEGO store and see a little car seat. They’re blue, you probably only need one or two. But then you think, what if I build a little hockey stadium?” Woo continues. “I don’t have to build a whole Bridgestone Arena, but I can build one little piece of it. I’ve got these black tiles and these little hockey goalies, I can build just this little cross section. I know it’s midnight, but I think I can slap this together in an hour and a half, take a picture, throw it on Facebook, call it a night.”

While Woo continues to be open to those serendipitous moments of creative flashes, Wells thinks there’s one scheduled this week that will make Woo’s LEGO journey worth it.

“One of the reasons this show really appeals to me is that it’s something you can sit and watch with your family,” she says. “I think once he watches his grandkids watch him on TV, it’ll be a very special moment.”

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