It’s April Fools’ Day, and Penn & Teller are everywhere. The comedy-magic duo looms from Las Vegas billboards touting a multiyear engagement at the Rio; they’re grinning from a Hollywood Reporter cover marking their 30th year together; and the season premiere of their Showtime series airs this evening. And Penn Jillette, the taller, more vocal half of the equation, is taking it all in from the comfort of the Slammer.
That’s the name of his concrete-block compound in the Mojave Desert 10 miles southwest of the Vegas Strip, a quirky 7 1/2-acre homestead that’s as hard to pigeonhole as its owner. From the road it looks like a prison, from the side a ski chalet and from the back an ocean liner cruising across a sea of sand. The inside is a crazy quilt of color, a cacophony of art and architectural detail that resembles Pee-Wee’s Playhouse recast as a college dorm, with secret rooms tucked behind bookcases, drawings of serial killers, a fire pole and a home theater with what might be the world’s largest leopard-print beanbag chair.
Although some people might feel uneasy spending their downtime in something reminiscent of a state correctional facility, Jillette’s made-to-measure manse is a perfect fit for his outsize personality and towering 6-foot, 6-inch frame. The kitchen counters are six inches higher than those found in most homes, and the steps of the spiral staircase are an inch and a half longer and three-fourths of an inch higher to accommodate his longer stride.
“It’s very much a tailored suit,” said Santa Monica architect and longtime friend Colin Summers, who designed the Slammer after closely observing the way his client moves through a living space.
Even the distance between the master bedroom (linked to the rest of the house by an outdoor catwalk) and the kitchen was meticulously planned. Jillette says he hired a Vegas stripper to take a stroll au naturel in the wee hours of a January morning to see how far she’d be “willing to walk for a bowl of cereal in the morning.” He situated his bedroom -- all sliding mirrors and leopard prints -- where she stopped walking.
The kitchen is divided in two -- the side with the blood-red kitchen sink, cabinetry and outline of a knife-wielding Ray Teller on the floor is Jillette’s, and the side with the topographical rendering of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on the floor is for visitors.
Jillette purchased the original structure, an 1,800-square-foot A-frame, in 1994. “Actually, Teller found it,” he said. “He saw it was for sale and told me about it. He said the stupidest thing he’d ever seen was an A-frame in the desert.” Jillette installed his budding architect pal on the premises, and the transformation to Cell Block A began. The result is what Jillette calls “prison paradise -- from the outside it looks like you never want to go in, and once you’re in, you never want to leave.”
He built on the jail theme with furnishings that include a prison-issue toilet and a “line-up” wall against which all visitors to the Slammer are required to have their photos taken. (A 1920s-era electric chair from Sing Sing, usually among the jailhouse holdings, is on loan to a museum.) Though his father worked as a prison guard at the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Mass., Jillette claims that had little bearing on his choice of a theme. “I just had the idea that I wanted it to look like a prison from the outside, and we kind of ran with that.”
But the jailhouse vibe doesn’t seem to deter visitors, with the 4,500-square-foot Slammer functioning as a kind of flop pad for his friends. “It has three bedrooms, but when we have wacky events here, people sleep everywhere, kind of like they’re college students. People who get divorces come and live here for a year,” he said.
There’s such a revolving door that Jillette’s created a “Slammer Guide,” a 40-page three-ring binder that functions as a user’s manual for the house, giving pointers on everything from pizza delivery to dealing with the neighbor kids. The guide also lays out some important house rules, chief among them a strict no recreational drugs or alcohol policy. Jillette says he’s never had so much as a cup of coffee, a sip of alcohol or a cigarette in his life. There’s also a prohibition on religious talk (“this is a proud atheist-skeptic household” notes the guide) and a complete ban on bathing suits.
The two-story house has 18 rooms (nine on the first floor, nine on the second), each one reflecting a different facet of Jillette’s eclectic nature.
The strangest is a dimly lighted postage stamp of a room that Jillette calls the Smokin’ Monkey Lounge. It’s home to a tank of GloFish (the California-banned genetically modified zebra fish that glow under ultraviolet light) and a collection of smoking monkeys. The Slammer groundskeeper’s gallbladder sits in a biohazard bag next to three jars containing vaguely human-shaped objects that Jillette refers to as “pickled punks” (a sideshow term for the oddity-preserved-in-a-jar type of attraction).
The bookshelf-lined hallway leading to the upstairs guest quarters contains a few more surprises: a framed tattoo on human skin, a bracelet of human teeth, and rows of books, videos and CDs.
“He wanted to make it so wonderful a place to be that when people came into town to visit, they wouldn’t want to gravitate back to the Strip, they’d want to stay at the house,” said Summers.
His private office sits at the highest point in the building, a guard tower. It is swathed in pink paint (Jillette chose the ubiquitous color because he likes it and “thinks it’s funny”), with a sink and a urinal side by side in the corner. Jillette spends four to five hours a day here, working on new tricks, his TV show and various other writing projects (his first novel, “Sock,” a love triangle tale told from the point of view of a sock monkey, is due out in July). “It’s where I spend all of my time,” he says. “The rest of the house could crumble. This one room is all I need.” Suspended from the ceiling, a human skeleton seems to be gazing out the window. “It’s real,” he said. “It’s an Indian woman.”
The Slammer is also home to an extensive art collection, including 300 to 400 etchings by Chicago-based artist Tony Fitzpatrick.
“I was the one who set him up with his art studio,” explained Jillette. “In appreciation of the money I gave him, he promised me one copy of every etching he did for his entire life. He expected to do two or three a year and he’s done hundreds. They were expected to be worth next to nothing, now they’re in MOMA,” the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Behind the Slammer is a grass and concrete courtyard, a 75-foot-long one-lane-wide swimming pool (“I like to do laps,” Jillette says) and a fishpond modeled on a Pepperidge Farm Goldfish cracker.
Plans include making the Slammer a haven for more than just humans: He’ll fence in the 2 1/2 undeveloped acres around the house and turn it into a preserve for the endangered desert tortoise. And, ever the skeptic, he looks forward to the opportunity to finally validate or debunk Aesop’s celebrated tortoise and hare fable.
“There are some rabbits out here,” he says with a grin. “So we will be able to see that actual race happen out the window.”