His companies have done work for clients ranging from Vegas casinos and Disney to Winston Community Center and Reustle Winery, and that may not even be the most interesting part of Tom Pappas’ story.
Story by Dick Baltus Photos by Thomas Boyd
Somebody oughta make a movie about this guy.
Seriously, you sit down across the poker table from Tom Pappas in his mini-casino of a man cave high atop the highest hill in Winston, all set to converse about his work for the likes of Disney and Caesar’s Palace and the local YMCA, etc., etc., and the first sentence out of his mouth has him wrestling a bear at age 6.
Suddenly the line of questioning has turned, and though it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly that Pappas, old school as a chalkboard and dry as an eraser, doesn’t relish talking about himself, you keep egging him on because, come on, if this conversation starts with bear wrestling, who knows what other plot twists lie ahead?
So you probe, and Pappas responds, telling the short version of a long life story that, besides the bear, includes a cast of characters from Andy Griffith to Elvis and a list of activities from commune living to racing motorcycles, dragsters and horses.
And now you’re thinking about how you’d cast this movie that needs to get made, and already it’s clear this can’t be some modern day, high-def production with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts. This has to be a throwback Quentin Tarantino deal, “In Technicolor,” and you have to reach back in time and cast Ron Howard’s little brother as the bear wrestler (stay tuned, there’s a good reason for that) and maybe the young Lee Marvin as the “racer of things.”
You’ll figure out who plays the mature guy working on the Cheesecake Factories once you steer Pappas toward that part of the story. If you do. And you probably will. You’d better, you keep reminding yourself. Remember, that’s why you’re here.
But really, who responds to a guy saying he wrestled a bear with something like, “Super, but what about the plastering thing?”
The bear’s name was Victor, and he was owned by Tuffy Truesdale, whose name alone might be worthy of its own movie. Pappas’ dad was a plasterer by trade, but also a former Olympic-caliber wrestler who spent time grappling professionally as the “Masked Marvel.”
This is back in the early ’60s, when the Pappas family was living in Southern California. Dad had lots of connections in the Los Angeles area, including Truesdale and his docile bear, who took a liking to young Tom. Before long, the 7-year-old Pappas was traveling with his dad and Victor to local schools, car dealerships, movie sets and other locations for wrestling exhibitions. One thin dollar got you a chance to wrestle a bear.
“Victor had to pin you in order to get a treat, and I gave him the treats, Pappas remembers. “They didn’t feed him a lot, so he liked me because I’d feed him when nobody was looking.”
Fame came calling for Victor in the form of a movie deal, and since Pappas was his buddy, he also earned an audition for a starring role in a production called Gentle Giant. He got the part, much to his surprise.
“I couldn’t act,” Pappas says.
Sometimes it pays to know the right bear.
In those days, studios would film several productions adjacent to one another, and Pappas remembers watching Julie Andrews come down the chimney as Mary Poppins and meeting stars like Ken Curtis, who played Festus on Gunsmoke, and Andy Griffith, whose TV son, future director Ron Howard, wound up befriending him.
“Both Andy and Ron helped me out a lot,” Pappas remembers. “Ron and I had the same acting tutor, so he kind of showed me the ropes.”
One day, the production moved to the beach, where another movie was being filmed. Curious to see a bear on a Southern California beach, the movie’s star, a young guy named Elvis Presley, wandered over and struck up a conversation with Pappas.
“Elvis said, ‘If I put you on my shoulders and take off, is that bear going to attack me?’” Pappas says. “I told him, ‘Oh yeah.’ Elvis says, ‘Do you mind?’ He didn’t get 50 feet with me before Victor tackled him.”
Who knows how Pappas’ life might have changed had he wound up in the starring role of Gentle Giant? Before filming finished, Pappas’ dad packed up the family and moved to Oregon.
Howard’s younger brother, Clint, took over for Pappas and later would reprise the role in a TV series called Gentle Ben.
From age 8, Pappas grew up on the Christian commune his dad opened in Quines Creek.
“It was basically a rehab facility,” says Pappas, who still owns the property, which is used by a program he supports that helps children with autism. “At one point, there were 200 people there. I remember actors like Michael Constantine and David Soul coming up just to get away. I grew up meeting a lot of interesting people.”
His dad was teaching him to plaster, and by age 13 he had become “pretty good.”
At 16, he became the youngest journeyman plasterer around and during summers would travel to L.A. and work on houses.
Pappas was hospitalized for 15 days following yet another crash, losing 65 pounds in the process. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he says.
Pappas didn’t plan to plaster all of his life. He’d always been a Disney fan, and his goal was to someday “work for the mouse.” On one trip back to L.A., he met a contractor doing work at Disneyland in Anaheim. One day Pappas showed up at the entrance to the park, walked in with the rest of the contractor’s team, and went to work.
“They didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t get paid,” he says. “But I wound up working there for a couple weeks, carving rocks and wood.”
Around the same time he was sneaking into theme parks to work for free, Pappas started turning his passion for motorcycle racing into a professional pursuit. He turned pro at 16 and wound up his first year as one of the top 10 novice racers nationwide.
If he was gifted at one thing, he says, motorcycle racing was it. “I think it was because I didn’t know what fear was.”
He’d eventually learn when a bad crash sent him to the hospital. He was banged up bad, but would recover and get back to racing. But he crashed again in five of his first six races back, all at speeds over 60 mph.
“It was because of the fear,” he says.
Pappas kept battling it, ultimately deciding to change to what he saw as a less-dangerous racing classification. On the night of his first race he told a friend pushing him out onto the track that he no longer felt afraid.
“Six days later I woke up in UCLA hospital,” he says.
Pappas was hospitalized for 15 days following yet another crash losing 65 pounds in the process. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he says.
In 1994, Pappas’ dream of working for the mouse became reality. A decade earlier, his concrete, masonry and framing company, Victory Builders, had landed its first large job, building the new Garden Valley Mall in Roseburg. Walmart was soon calling, and more large commercial jobs followed.
Pappas’ work can be found up and down the LasVegas Strip as well, from Bellagio’s registration lobby to poolside at Ceasar’s Palace.
During his travels for work, Pappas had befriended a man who had owned and sold a company called DMI, which had contracts with Disney. “I asked my friend if he thought the guy who bought his company would sell it to me,” Pappas says. “He said, ‘He’s kind of ornery, but I think he’d sell it if he likes you.’”
Pappas has been living his dream ever since. Over the last 20 years, his company, still called DMI (Victory Builders continues to do work locally) has worked for most of the Disney parks around the world. DMI has cast molds of most the Disney characters, from Mickey to Minions, and has done exterior work for attractions ranging from the Tower of Terror and Guardians of the Galaxy to Star Wars and The Incredibles.
DMI’s work can be found up and down the Las Vegas Strip as well, from Bellagio’s registration lobby to poolside at Ceasar’s Palace. And Pappas’ company has played a major role in every Cheesecake Factory ever built.
You look around Pappas’ man cave and beautiful home and see replicas of his work for Vegas casinos and other projects all around. The dome in the cave replicates one in Bellagio. The gazebo by the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed pool is the same as the one at Caesar’s. He gets to keep and repurpose all the molds DMI makes other than those for Disney.
The Pappas spread is all impressive enough to have attracted film crews from TV shows Million Dollar Rooms and MTV Teen Cribs.
Down the hill and out in Douglas County communities, there are many other signs of Pappas’ work. The cave at Reustle Winery. The current Roseburg YMCA remodel. The Winston Community Center, whose volunteer organizers praised Pappas for just about everything, from his motives to his efforts to keep the project under budget.
“He wanted the job so his employees would be able to work in Douglas County near their families, rather than have to travel out of town,” says one volunteer, Janet Morse. “He always adds something extra to any project. We were grateful to receive a custom-painted ceiling in the exterior entrance, which features a beautiful, cascading waterfall and other hidden objects. It’s not only beautiful but it’s fun!”
Back in the man cave, you’re starting to think about that screenplay, trying to figure out where you put the drag racing, which Pappas got into for a while around 2004 and was promptly named the National Hot Rod Association’s rookie of the year. And the horse racing. That happened while he was working on a project at the Santa Anita track in Southern California.
“By the third or fourth change order I said to the guy, ‘Why don’t you just hook me up with a trainer and a horse,’” Pappas says. Now he has two. Gary Stevens, the famed jockey who rode in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit, rode for Pappas for a while. Of course he did.
There’s also got to be a lot more room in your movie for Pappas’ wife, Bonnie, whom he calls “the brains of the outfit” and whom you’re thinking is probably the angel of it too, given the motorcycle crashes, etc.
They met in seventh grade, but “didn’t want anything to do with each other,” Pappas says. That changed the summer before their senior year. They married a year after graduating, almost 42 years ago.
One son, Pete, runs Victory Builders; another, Nick, now heads DMI. A third, Jimmy, runs a local excavation company, and their daughter and son-in-law, Jennifer and David, run a fishing resort in Alaska.
Now you’re thinking maybe this can’t be just one movie. There’s a whole lot of ground to cover. Maybe there’s a sequel. Maybe it’s a trilogy, given Pappas shows no signs of slowing down. Shoot, for all you know, he’s just getting started.