O n the best afternoons, on his way home from elementary school in Salt Lake City, there would be snowbanks and sunshine, and snow melt that rushed down the hill on 1500 East. The boy would kneel down and start rearranging the dirty piles of snow, making spillways and sluices and dams that took the water this way and that (including into large puddles that cars had to maneuver around, but oh well).
All of that was more than a half century ago. Still, all these years later, Mark Fuller is captivated by water and what he can make it do. “The closest thing the world has to a fountain genius” is the way The New Yorker described him a few years ago.
Fuller HBS’76 and his team at WET in Sun Valley, California, are the creators of famous water features including the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Olympic fountain at the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, and the largest fountain in the world, the 12-acre Dubai Fountain in the United Arab Emirates. This December, WET is adding two new water features in Dubai, including one at the Dubai Opera House, and several large projects in Asia that Fuller says he can’t talk about yet because he’s been sworn to secrecy.
It’s hard not to gush about what WET creates: the playful arcs and spouts that light up the night, the sensuous fans of water that look almost human as they sway and twirl, the jets that pulse to music and leap 50 stories into the air. As if the water was happy just being itself.
Fuller built his first permanent water feature, a three-foot-by-nine-foot pond, in his parents’ tiny backyard in Sugar House when he was in junior high. That success (i.e. his mother was thrilled) was followed by his first fountain.
“The floor of my basement was covered with garden hoses,” remembers his mom, Faye. “His Dad would shake his head and say, ‘Do you think anything will come of this,’ ” referring to not just the mess but also his son’s passions. “And I said, ‘Of course it will.’ ”
That first fountain, created with his grandfather, was a long concrete planter box next to the house and was powered by an old washing machine pump. “Mark always wanted to embellish everything,” his mother says, recalling how the next step was to put in electric lights. Can’t be done, said a woman at some store they went to. “So of course Mark went ahead and did it. He made them out of tomato juice cans.”
By the time he got to Highland High School (class of ’69), Fuller says, he was a classic nerd, a slight young man who did not excel in sports—but who today, as an illustrious alum, has a spot of honor in Highland’s showcase cabinet that also celebrates its all-state jocks.
At the University of Utah, he was a civil engineering major but stayed an extra year so he could take all the classes that intrigued him. He was president of the exhibition ballroom dance team. One year, for the theater department’s outdoor production of Agamemnon, he made a fake-stone altar that shot out a giant ball of fire when he pushed a button on a wireless garage door opener.
Here’s what he told an audience this past spring when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the U: Ever since he was nine years old, he wanted to work at Disneyland. “This is what it must be like to be God, to create worlds as you imagine them and have the technical ability to do so,” he remembers thinking. And right out of graduate school at Stanford University, he did in fact work at the theme park. But perhaps the real Disneyland in his life, he said, was the University of Utah—“the Disneyland of knowledge and wonder and the endless possibilities that can be realized through the rich and near boundless intellectual riches on this campus.”
Fuller took enough theater classes at the U to nearly get him a double degree. He was initially attracted to the theater because he thought he could meet some pretty actresses. But he stayed because he liked the technical side, inspired by Bill Barber, then technical director at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, and Ron Crosby, the theater’s set designer, and director Clyde Vinson.
“He was always very creative and persistent; he always came up with new ways to do things,” remembers U emeritus professor of physics and astronomy Haven Bergeson. Mostly, Fuller worked with Bergeson outside of class, spending time helping with cosmic ray experiments in the Silver King mine in Park City, and designing a thing they named Prometheus, an electrical device that flickered as if it were a flame.
But the pivotal moment at the U came one day in a civil engineering class. He was sitting at the back of the room with his friends Dave Ayer HBS’76 MAr’79 and Lee Sim BS’76, watching an audiovisual about fluid mechanics, when all of a sudden a man on the screen was talking about laminar flow: the ability, under the right circumstances, of water to flow in a solid, glass-like rod. Hey, said Fuller, maybe we could do our senior honors thesis on that. The typical topics, he says, were things like sewage treatment plant design and storm culverts, but what he wanted to do was create his own really cool fountain.
They ended up making a 10-by-20- foot, four-stream arcing fountain out of cylinders and screens and hundreds of soda straws they cut into tiny pieces. They convinced a friend’s father to contribute a few hundred dollars, and then later to install the finished product in the Conquistador Apartments on 3300 South, making it the unlikely home of the first permanent laminar flow fountain in the world. It was removed when the building was remodeled years later. Who knew the kid was going to become famous?
Could there be a better name for a job than “Imagineer”? That was Fuller’s first job title after getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford in 1978; he was hired at Disney to develop rides at the California park and then create new works for the opening of the EPCOT Center in Florida. That’s when he came up with the Leapfrog Fountain outside the Journey into Imagination Pavilion.
“The one thing I think we recognized right away was that Mark was willing to take a chance,” recalls Marty Sklar, former president of Walt Disney Imagineering. “He wasn’t afraid of trying something nobody else had done before.” The Leapfrog Fountain used laminar flow, but instead of the water just moving in a solid, arcing rod, Fuller figured out how to make it jump from one spot to another.
After an offer from a Dallas developer to create a fountain at a new shopping center, and with work at EPCOT slowing down, Fuller and two of his colleagues, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson, started WET (Water Entertainment Technology) in Los Angeles. But it was hard at first to convince other venues that a fountain would be worth their investment, and at one point they were so broke that 13 of Fuller’s credit cards had maxed out.
The problem was this: “Fountain” conjured up a bit of gurgling water that was often secondary to the statues and rocks around it. What Fuller, as CEO and chief cheerleader for WET, had to do was convince people that fountains could be playful and daring and emotional, and an asset to a building site—that fountains could in fact be a destination in themselves. Because water, he says, is “the world’s most magical substance.”
WET was the first to create the now ubiquitous fountains that spout up from pavement, and many of the innovations in fountain design that have followed. “I can say this humbly, I think,” says Fuller, “that modern fountains and their omnipresence are contributable to us.”
Everything changed for WET one day in 1995, with a phone call from Steve Wynn, who was creating the Bellagio Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip. Wynn’s landscape architect had seen the EPCOT Leapfrog Fountain and thought the two men should meet. The result was a $27 million contract to create what filmmaker Steven Spielberg later told Wynn was “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on Earth.”
Before the Fountains of Bellagio were officially opened to the public in 1998, there was a chain link fence around the lake, which meant people could peek in at the initial tests of the elaborate fountains. “The crowd was cheering and clapping,” Fuller remembers, “and Steve [Wynn] turned to me and said, ‘Do you realize there’s not a human performer out there?’ ”
Instead there were more than a hundred swaying streams and a thousand bursting jets of water, all precisely choreographed in time to music. (You can find many such displays on YouTube; one of the most spectacular is a nighttime fountain show choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the fountain in Dubai.)
All this spectacle is achieved using WET-designed and manufactured water devices (“shooters”), plus nozzle-clad robotic arms (“oarsmen”) that can move the water in any direction. To create the oarsman, Fuller had to first visualize what shapes it might make, so he had one of his engineers don a raincoat and then hold a hose over his head while twirling around on a spinning office chair.
“He’s the Willy Wonka of water,” says Fuller’s personal trainer, Eric Fleishman. “I’ve rarely met someone who is consistently in such a bubbly mood.”
Fleishman, who mostly trains Hollywood actors and their families, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, also oversees the free fitness programs at WET, with a list of classes that includes not just the usual yoga and aerobics but also boxing and ballroom dance. For those employees who tend to be more sedentary, Fuller sends trainers to their desks for workstation workouts.
WET is “a living museum of all the things I think are important,” he says. Employees get to take free classes in everything from physics to improv comedy, and work in a state-of-the-art space called “the Idea Playground.” The staff of 350 includes mechanical engineers, architects, animators, textile designers, graphic designers, choreographers, chemists, model builders, machinists, and optical engineers, who are all encouraged to brainstorm together.
Fuller owns more than 50 patents, but these days, he says, what he mostly does is “flit around pollinating” the ideas of his staff. One day not long ago, though, he was driving home to his wife and kids and had to pull over to the side of the road to write down five new ideas for an upcoming project in Shanghai.
“Make something that’s never been seen before,” Wynn told him when he hired him to create the Fountains of Bellagio 20 years ago, and the trick now is to keep doing that, to continually come up with something more surprising. Fuller’s fountains incorporate fire, and there is a water feature at the Las Vegas City Center that uses columns of ice that rise up, sculpted by tiny jets of water, and then submerge back into a black pool. But even the small projects are satisfying to create, Fuller says. “It’s not at all about the size. It’s about seeing people enchanted.”
The City Creek Center mall in downtown Salt Lake City has three WET fountains, including one in front of Nordstrom that performs small music-and-water shows and is entrancing but will probably never get a million views on YouTube. “This is my Norman Rockwell fountain,” Fuller says.
This is what he imagines: It’s Christmastime, a light snow is falling, and at dusk, some tired shoppers stand in front of the fountain with their packages. They see the water jumping up in the air, as if the water were a kid on a trampoline, and they smile.
Here’s maybe what it comes down to, all this inventing and choreographing and designing with water, he says: “I like making people feel more glad to be alive.”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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2 thoughts on “A Big Splash”
Great story! Can’t thank the U of U enough for the great education I received. My Master of Public Administration degree led to my current position as Registrar of Voters for Marin County, California.
This was a very intriguing article. I have marveled at many of these water features without knowing their connection to my alma-mater. Thanks for the story!