The Robot Hut
If you love robots -- big, bulky space movie robots -- then life will not be complete until you visit The Robot Hut. There's just one problem. John Rigg might not let you in.
John Rigg builds flawless replicas of metallic sci-fi superstars such as Gort (The Day The Earth Stood Still), Robby (Forbidden Planet), and B-9 (Lost In Space). In the fall of 2000, he moved his collection into The Robot Hut -- a barn-sized building on his property -- and welcomed visitors. But he quickly learned that he didn't have time to build robots and show them to everyone who had a casual interest in them. Now he only opens the Hut to people who are as passionate about robots as he is -- and that's a pretty high standard.
John became obsessed -- there's really no other word for it -- with robots thirty years ago, when he began buying toy robots that he remembered from his childhood. He kept on buying robots, and might have ended up running a toy robot museum -- he has over 3,500 in the Hut -- but he found that he wasn't satisfied with just collecting. So he started using his mechanical skills to turn old toy robots into new, custom toy robots. When that wasn't enough, he ratcheted up his involvement again and began inventing and building his own toy robots: robots made of wood, robots powered by steam, by air.
Then John got bored again, and that's when he began building full-size replicas of movie robots. Some of them he built again and again until they met his standards. When we asked him why he hadn't just bought them from other robot-building hobbyists or companies, John shook his head. Their robots weren't good enough.
John proudly showed us his replica of Doctor Satan, a 1940s movie robot that looked like an industrial boiler with legs. "Rivet for rivet," he said, "this guy is on the money." John was equally proud of his hand-built Johnny 5 from the "Short Circuit" movies. It can mimic all of the original robot's facial expressions, powered by John's own system of servos, relays, and solenoids.
John pressed a button on a custom remote -- one of many in the Hut -- and Robby the Robot sprang to whirring, clattering life. "Welcome to Altair 4, gentlemen," Robby said. "For your convenience I am monitored to respond to the name Robby." John told us that it took him ten years (and a lot of trial and error) to build this particular Robby. His first version, "just a collection of crap, basically," cost him $300 to build. He recently sold it for 20 times that much.
We walked down an aisle lined with toy robots to the back of the Hut, and John tapped some commands into a computer. His Machine Man Band leapt into action: two big robots, packed with musical instruments, that can play 160 different songs. John, of course, designed and built the Band himself. "It's kinda loud; you can't really turn any of this stuff down," he shouted over calliope toots and cymbal crashes.
In the next aisle stood "Robo-Rigg," a life-size cast of John Rigg's face with moving eyes, mounted on a robot body. "It's just a tank cover from a motorcycle and some dryer vents and mixing bowls and light bulbs and toilet plungers and screen door closers on the back of the legs and Dustbusters for feet," said John, casually. Robots that resemble people really don't interest John, but for an undisclosed fee he built two similar robots for a rich man and his son. "The guy actually had better moving eyes," John recalled. "The kid, his mouth could open, so I even had to do the teeth."
Next to Robo-Rigg is one of John's most celebrated creations -- a full-size working Robby-piloted car, another prop from Forbidden Planet. Although Robby sits in the driver's seat, the car is actually driven by the passenger with foot pedals. In years past, John would zip around the roads in his neighborhood in the car -- until he crashed it into his mailbox. Now it's a permanent exhibit in the Robot Hut. We asked John if his neighbors had a nickname for him. "If they do, it's probably not a good one," he said.
Spending too much time inside The Robot Hut can make your optical circuitry overheat -- there's so much dazzling mech to scan. Still, John insists that he strictly limits himself in what he collects and builds, or else he'd need a building three times as big as the one that he has now. He's frank about his likes and dislikes (R2D2 is good, the Transformers are bad) and offers no apologies for his tastes. It is, after all, his collection, and there's probably none better in the world that the public can see -- if they're lucky.
As for visitors, John follows the same system used at Subterra Castle; e-mail him, and he'll let you know if you can come. "I don't want to get people too excited," he said with a laugh. "They have to convince me that they deserve to be here."