LINING the Strip, billboards the size of aircraft carriers herald the faces of headliners like the battle flags of nations: Elton John, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton.
But on one weekend in November, a star whom some would describe as the biggest in all of Las Vegas sat wedged into a decidedly nonpower central booth at Caesars Palace Cheesecake Factory, unmobbed and unnoticed by the vast hordes of tourists trooping through. In the last couple of years the shy, quiet 20-year-old's face has probably been watched by more people than that of any other headliner working the Strip. With 15 million views on one site alone and probably at least that many from the multitudes of copied and pirated versions circulating the Internet, Gary Brolsma at one point had more Google searches for his name than did "naked women," the Web's platinum standard.
In December 2004, before the dawn of YouTube, the then-18-year-old Brolsma sat in front of his computer in his parents' home in Saddlebrook, N.J., and whiled a few moments by performing an energetic lip-sync into his webcam to an obscure song by the Romanian pop band O-Zone. He then posted the video to a user-generated site called Newgrounds so he could share his creation with a few friends. Two weeks later, his grandmother awoke him one morning saying there was a TV news crew at the front door and his answering machine was filled with messages from reporters demanding interviews. What followed was one of the first viral video explosions in Web history, as the "Numa Numa Dance" video was forwarded, linked to, imitated and parodied.
And nearly two years later, he found himself at Caesars Palace, flown in by HBO's Comedy Festival for "Viral Videos Live," a night of onstage video reenactments of the groundbreaking works of the new medium. Assembled together on one stage in a rejiggered conference room would be the stars of the new era, headlined by the young man who just a week later was to be awarded a lifetime achievement award at age 20, Mr. Numa Numa Dance himself. About 200 people were in the audience.
A few hours before showtime, Brolsma felt relaxed enough to disappear among the hoi polloi and enjoy a cheeseburger with his managers, who have flown from Minnesota. Next stop was Hollywood for "Jimmy Kimmel Live," where he appeared Nov. 21. Last month, Brolsma released a new video on a website put together by the managers (NewNuma.com), which is also sponsoring a contest with $45,000 in prize money for the best fan-created Numa videos.
All this, however, is merely a setup for a top secret Gary-centric project in progress. "All I can tell you," said his manager James Egge, "is that it won't be released for more than a year, and it will be shocking." Pressed, he insists the shock will not involve nudity on Gary's part.
Brolsma, for his part, seems quietly amused by the spectacle his project created. He tells how after the initial burst of interviews he decided to stop giving interviews, which led to a series of what he labels "wrong" articles, driven chiefly by a New York Times story that claimed he was depressed about his stardom. "I was just ignoring everyone and just went on as before. I was overwhelmed by it, but I was fine," he said. However, Brolsma did admit, nodding his head sagely, that the marriage proposals continued to flow in. "A lot of women say, 'If you come to my state you can stay at my house,' " he said. He insisted that he had not followed up on these offers and remained unengaged.
The stars of cyberspace
THREE hours later, Brolsma gathered with his fellow Web sensations backstage in a small lounge created by curtain partitions in what otherwise seemed to be a service hallway. Yes, the assembled group has been seen by, according to event organizers, a combined total of 300 million people. But the effect was less like a green room conclave of superstars than awkward strangers waiting in a doctor's office. Seeing them gathered together was somehow stranger and more thrilling than seeing a cluster of film stars at a Hollywood function. These people are not just stars but phenomena, having exploded from nowhere and nothing through the Web ether onto the world stage.
Slowly, the frost thawed and the titans of the new age began to make shy acknowledgments of their peers. Along one wall, Stephen Voltz, who has captivated millions with elaborate fountains created by dropping Mentos in Diet Coke bottles, chatted in his lab coat about video hosting services with Charlie Todd, from Improv Everywhere, a New York-based website that recently created mass havoc when they sent a team of hundreds to move in slow motion through a Home Depot store. Along another wall, the Urban Ninjas, two young men in full martial arts costume, famed for dazzling leaps from the tops of buildings, nodded to Marco Tempest, the Virtual Magician, master of head-scratcher camera-phone-taped tricks.
Talking with each superstar, it becomes clear that despite coming from wildly different disciplines, each of them has walked a remarkably similar path to fame and that this path is likely to become the road map that many more will attempt to follow. Voltz's tale is in many ways similar to Brolsma's. Voltz, whose calm, intense gaze and serious countenance make him very believable in his on-screen scientist role, recalls that he was merely keeping an eye open for unusual projects for the Maine theater he directs when he stumbled upon the news that a Mentos pill dropped in a Diet Coke bottle could produce an explosion.
"I said, 'This is something we could do,' " he recalled.
Like many Earth-changing ideas, this one came in the cabin-bound dead of winter. Maine's bitter cold prevented the stepping into wide open spaces necessary to realize the exploding Diet Coke and Mentos dream in all its grandeur. So Voltz and his partner Fritz Grobe spent long hours indoors experimenting with the concept. "I kept saying," Voltz recalled, "we're not spending more then 70 bucks on soda, not more than 50 on Mentos. But there was always budget creep." Tinkering with exploding soda bottles through the long months, creating mass synchronized explosions, Voltz, like all revolutionaries, was tormented by the thought "Is this really cool or are we totally nuts?"
With the spring thaw, he got his answer. In June he was finally able to stage his first large-scale outdoor experiment. Dressed in lab coats, Voltz and Grobe built a symphony of dozens of synchronized explosions, bursting, waving and circling in patterns reminiscent of the dancing water fountains outside the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. On June 3, a Saturday, they posted the video on their own site, EepyBird.com, and at the video hosting site Revver.
"I figured we'd put it up, tell our friends, and in July we'd proceed and do something else with it," Voltz said. One of Voltz's friends posted a link to the tape on the popular online aggregator Fark.com. By midday, tens of thousands of people had visited EepyBird.com to watch. On Monday, "Late Show With David Letterman" called. On Wednesday, NPR. It was soon reported that EepyBird.com was the third-fastest-growing site on the Internet. To this day, it is Revver's most-watched video (and not incidentally has earned the EepyBird team $35,000 through the site's profit-sharing arrangement). Follow-up videos garner audiences in the millions.
Onstage, the show was a range of the little, little screen skill sets that, shocking as it seems, translate fairly well to the live setting. What has made each of these acts succeed, inspiring people to watch them over and over and pass them along to friends and link to them on their sites, is the ability to create some sort of performance so shocking or jarring or hilarious or even so annoying that it leaps out of a 1-inch screen, cuts through the clutter of a billion Web pages and IMs pinging and the boss walking by, and forces people to stay for two full minutes.
From the cleverness of Improv Everywhere's mass pranks to the rapid spectacle of the Urban Ninjas feats, to the Virtual Magician's clever use of the online medium to make a train car full of passengers disappear, to catchy satirical songs like the Gray Kid and Daniel Stessen's Justin Timberlake parody "PaxilBack," to the completely infectious exuberance of a naturally shy and awkward young man like Gary Brolsma lip-syncing his heart out, backed up by a row of semiclad dancers, to a Romanian pop song -- as culture producers, the stars of the new era may not be, say, Joan Didion, but they are, and with each successive wave will continue to be, originals.