Rigging the neck of his instrument with gunpowder, Leap can create the pyrotechnic illusion that his guitar shoots bombs.
But that's not all. The ponytailed suburban politician can also transform a guitar into something even more useful.
To make one, the 34-year-old saws off the guitar's neck and mounts in its place a light socket and a shade. A microphone stand attached to the butt of the instrument grants stability and a thoroughly musical look.
And no shit: Strumming the strings dims the light.
Leap holds two patents. A Fender model sells for $499.
But cash isn't all that stokes Leap. He gets most excited talking about a couple of lamps he gave to members of Poison when he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform with the band at a 1999 Sandstone Amphitheatre show. Leap won a competition held at America's Pub to join the band while it played its big power ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." For the occasion, he teased his hair and wore tight pants with stars up and down the legs. "That was a lot better than politicking," he says, watching a videotape of the moment.
Leap knows that the band's singer, Bret Michaels, kept at least one lamp. Watching an episode of the MTV show Cribs, he spotted his handiwork in Michaels' home office.
That's right, a Kansas City elected official with a connection to MTV's Cribs.
You'd think that would make Leap just about the biggest thing in little Merriam.
Well, he does tend to get the most television coverage. But it's for reasons other than his ongoing obsession with guitars, loud music and flash powder. In a town with more than its share of political wackiness, Leap stands apart for more than his Tasmanian Devil biker jacket. He won his council seat while suing and being sued by the city. And last month, vandals broke the windows of his store for the fourth time in six months. He suspects that he is not the victim of a random crime. "I don't have any enemies except political ones," he says.
Even before Leap made the scene, civic affairs in Merriam operated at a higher level of tension than in most communities. Two council members were recalled a few years ago; another faced weapons charges.
Boundary-locked by Overland Park, Shawnee, and Kansas City, Kansas -- a compact car among semis -- the town feels cloistered, ready to rip a seam. The Merriam City Council often plays to a packed house. "I'm apt to refer to the council meetings as the Greatest Show on Earth," Kevin Buchta, a councilman of seven years, says. "I've heard on occasion people say, 'I came just to see what was going to happen tonight.'"
And what's turning Merriam City Hall into the big tent?
A squabble over whether to narrow the town's main drag.
Cutting down Merriam Drive to three lanes and doing away with on-street parking would create wider sidewalks and more reason for shoppers to stroll the city's principal artery.
It's not exactly the stuff of stadium overhauls or huge bond issues, but in contentious Merriam, it's enough to set neighbors and business owners at each other's throats.
And in the middle of it is Leap, the headbanging politician who apparently never got the memo about how leaders are supposed to, you know, bring people together.
For the past two years, Leap has raised hackles by putting up folksy dioramas in the front window of his store, Mechanical Art, that skewer his political opponents. Leap wants the on-street parking to stay. He has depicted those who would take it away as turkeys, Pinocchio and, of course, the Grinch Who Stole Merriam Parking.
Vandals have expressed their displeasure by breaking the store's windows, which has attracted television and print reporters and the kind of coverage that other small-town councilmen rarely receive. That attention, in turn, has only inflamed Leap's opponents, who wonder if the media-savvy Leap is throwing rocks at his own windows in the middle of the night.
All this over whether to widen some sidewalks.
Across the street from Mechanical Art, on the east side of the 5800 block of Merriam Drive at the heart of what passes for the city's downtown, stands the Leap family business, Total Comfort Heating and Cooling.
Leap's father, Bill Leap, started Total Comfort 26 years ago. He still spends much of the day in the field, making estimates. Pedestrians passing the store's window might see Dan Leap sitting at one of the four industrial-sized desks that form an L in the front room. Paperwork and dusty office equipment cover the desks' surfaces. A wall brims with file cabinets, training manuals, a coffee maker and a collection of Lennox model trucks.
Bill Leap learned the fine points of ventilation after choking on stench. After a stint in the Air Force, he married Dan's mother, Kathi, and tried raising hogs. "We couldn't eat because of the smell," he says. As their son does, Bill and Kathi Leap oppose the plan to widen Merriam's downtown sidewalks.
Total Comfort is a prosperous small business. Bill Leap's crew of workers expands and contracts with the seasons. Dan works at the shop, taking calls and contorting sheet metal in the back room. Bill half-jokingly says he gets only an hour's work a day from his son. Politics take the rest. "I got a really excellent gig," Dan admits, his voice sounding just like the actor Randy Quaid's.
At 5 p.m., Dan Leap crosses the street to Mechanical Art, which he opened in 2000. His girlfriend unlocks the place earlier in the afternoon, after working a shift at Adrian's Café in Overland Park.
Part gallery, party heavy-metal supply shop, part PG-rated Spencer Gifts, Mechanical Art exists mainly to show off Leap's guitar lamps. It also peddles incense; framed and autographed pictures of Ted Nugent; Sha Sha shoes; purses built from license plates; and novelty items, like Juicy Mullet gum (the package of which announces: "It's frikkin' tasty!"). The jukebox for sale might be one of the few outside New Jersey to carry six Bon Jovi CDs.
Mechanical Art shares a retail gene with head shops, but it doesn't stock anything in the way of one-hitters or urine cleansers. Leap abhors drugs, and he rarely drinks.
Leap's apartment above the store keeps up the hard-rock theme. All four of the pinball machines set against one wall celebrate rock acts (Nugent, Kiss, Guns N' Roses, the Rolling Stones). The kitchen appliances and cabinets are painted black with licks of orange flame, like a Trans Am's hood. The circular bed is wired to the same kind of mechanism Leap built for a drum riser, allowing it to spin 360 degrees. "He's like MacGyver," his amiable girlfriend, Shannon Wolf, says. They met cruising one night in Olathe and have dated for 13 years.
Leap lived with his parents in Shawnee until he moved above the shop. Living at home seems antithetical to the rock-and-roll lifestyle, but for a long time Leap played in a Christian rock band. The outfit, JC Roxx, took its name from the way a member of the '80s Messiah-and-mousse band Stryper signed his autograph. Leap learned to play guitar from Harvey Jett, a former member of Southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas who became a youth minister.
Leap's current project, Pompous Jack, is not overtly Christian and at the moment lacks a singer. Leap hasn't had much luck with singers over the years -- as a breed, they've proven to be flaky. He dabbled in the country scene after meeting a vocalist he found agreeable, but their friendship outlasted the musical partnership. "He's a rock and roller," the singer, Kevin Barnes, says. "He wasn't happy doing it."
The shop is a result of Leap's inability to find musicians who take the creative process and the business side as seriously as he does. "That's why I started doing the guitar lamps, because I don't have to depend on three other guys to make my vision happen."
But Mechanical Art is not a hub of activity. One hand can track the daily customer count. Leap sells most of his lamps by mail. To supplement his income, he teaches 15-year-olds to play guitar, half an hour for $10.
But the slow business allows Leap to concentrate on another obsession -- Merriam Drive itself.
The town's main thoroughfare is a dull place. Most businesses are like the heating and cooling shop, utilitarian stores unlikely to attract much foot traffic. An exterminator works out of the shop three doors down from Total Comfort. A moving and storage company occupies a red-brick schoolhouse built in the late 1800s. Automotive-related businesses (body shops, parts stores, etc.) dominate the strip. Even the bar, Talladega Tavern, has a racing theme.
Apart from the schoolhouse, it's hard for a stranger to imagine the downtown that might have existed before the advent of freeways and the arrival of Wal-Mart. A painting of Merriam Drive circa 1940 shows a café, a grocery store, and a pool hall. How best to recapture those quainter days is a question that has consumed Merriam in the past few years.
Voters approved the concept of bettering the "Downtown Historic District" when they passed a one-eighth-cent sales tax in 2000. The money has built a farmers market and paid for monument signs. But arguments over further changes have separated the locals into two factions.
One group thinks that handsome sidewalks will attract more pedestrians and more business. Another group thinks that narrowing the street for the sake of nonexistent foot traffic makes little sense.
Leap and his father belong to the latter group. They dread losing on-street parking, which will vanish once the sidewalks expand to a width of 13 feet. "Nobody uses the 8-foot ones we got now," Leap says as he stands at Total Comfort's front window and looks at the empty pavement. "They think it's going to be beautiful and all these people are going to walk. But where are they going to walk to? We got automotive-repair places. We got termite-treatment places. We got heating and cooling ... people do come in here and buy filters, but, you know, they park here, come in, get what they need and leave. It's a 5-minute deal."
Moments later, he walks out Total Comfort's front door with his docile Dalmatian, Roxy. As soon as her paws hit the pavement, Roxy squats in the catcher's position. "See, there's a use for the 13-foot sidewalks," Leap says as the dog pees on the sidewalk.
Leap has served on Merriam's City Council less than a year. He first ran in 2001, finishing third in the primary. "I didn't try very hard," he says.
At the time of his first attempt, Leap was a board member of the Downtown Merriam Partnership, a nonprofit economic-development group. "It was going along great," he says. "We didn't have any problems, and I thought it would be neat to get on the council."
Partnership President Shelly Plekowski, who has become a Leap critic, called him "a very innovative guy" in a Kansas City Star Neighborhood News story about Leap's "creative touch" in business and in the community. (The photo of Leap that accompanies the story shows him strumming a guitar while seated half inside his DeLorean, the car's trademark winglike doors reaching for the heavens.)
Leap broke with the partnership when it voted to endorse the plan that would devour on-street parking. Parking on side streets and in small lots would seem to be plentiful, but the Leaps believe that even a short walk will tax customers. "Everyone in retail knows parking is the main issue with your business," Bill Leap says.
Critics of the Leaps say the family is thinking less of customers than of their own needs. "My feeling is, Dan's mother wants to park in front of their business," says Dave Carrel, who owns an auto-parts store next door to Total Comfort.
"It's their personal parking," Billie Denton, a former council member, says.
Another reliable source of community angst -- the property dispute -- is also at work in the Leaps' battle with the city.
The discovery of an ancient surveying error showed that an entire block of Merriam had been drawn up with a 3-foot discrepancy. Businesses were asked to swap paper titles to correct the error, but Leap refused, saying that he was the only property owner who wouldn't gain something in the correction.
Councilman Jim Wymer, however, believes Leap has tried to exploit a meaningless mistake. "His comment was, 'I got the city by the balls.'"
Negotiations dragged for six months. Finally, the city filed a quiet title lawsuit, asking a judge to determine a boundary line. Denton says Leap and his attorneys kept increasing their demands. "I said, 'That's it. Take it to court.'"
A judge has since ruled against Leap. He is appealing.
Leap and his parents were also losers when all three sued the city over a contract involving the development of vacant downtown properties. A minor panic ensued when locals found out that one of the tenants the Leaps were considering was a tattoo artist. But the city ultimately rejected the Leaps' contract on a piece of property because the family tried to insert changes to it after winning the bid. A judge sided with the city. The Leaps are appealing.
The disputes, Leap says, were not his only motivation for running for office. He says the council needed new blood. "It seemed like they just rubber-stamped things. I just thought I could do better than what was up there."
But he's found another outlet for his frustration with the city: his store windows.
As a child, Leap decorated the windows of Total Comfort with Christmas displays he built out of wood and metal. His yuletide Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, whose seesaw was powered by a record-player motor, merited a newspaper story. "Young mechanical wizard," The Shawnee Journal Herald called the 11-year-old. "Boy genius."
The grown-up Leap created his first political window in late 2002, not long before he entered the council race. He dressed a mannequin in witch's garb and, to simulate flight, attached it to a garage-door opener. The dummy had a name: Billie the Witch.
The witch was obviously meant to represent Billie Denton, who had voted against selling the Merriam Drive properties to the Leaps and had voted for filing the lawsuit after a settlement over the property line wasn't reached. She also held the seat that Leap, as a resident of the 2nd Ward, was eligible to contest.
After the witch took flight, Plekowski, president of the downtown partnership, sent board member Leap a letter. "Carefully consider the effects of your actions before executing them," Plekowski wrote. "We also ask that you refrain from taking any actions that undermine the goals of the DMP and the progress of its revitalization project."
Leap responded with a letter that accused Plekowski of "verbal terrorism." He wrote: "When American democracy is under attack after the events of 9/11, it is incredible that an American citizen would threaten the free speech constitutional right of a fellow American." The letter warned of litigation.
He also sicced a lawyer on a Denton supporter who produced a flier that noted (accurately) that Leap LLC's incorporation papers list a Shawnee address.
Even political friends say Leap can be too impulsive. "Some of the things he's done are the kind of things my wife has talked me out of doing," says John Hill, an architect who lost the 2001 Merriam mayoral race by two votes.
After Plekowski protested the Denton parody, she became the subject of one herself. Leap arranged five plastic turkeys in a semicircle in his window, adorned one of the birds with a blond wig and put a toy car at its feet.
The fair-haired Plekowski owns an auto-body shop with her husband.
"Dan's turned into a media circus," she says.
But fighting the establishment plays well in Merriam. In 1999, a slate of candidates opposed to the city's sale of condemned property to a BMW dealership turned out four incumbents. (The new regime never dialed down its opposition and later was sent packing by voters.) And Leap's youth and good humor separate him from the workaday gadfly.
He's no crank. He prefers fact sheets to intricately drawn conspiracy theories, sly jokes to frothing attacks. To beat Denton, he knocked on doors, held get-to-know-the-candidate coffees in his apartment and jammed the blues with his band while circling the block on a trailer. "I'm not bragging, but I think it was 69 percent of the vote or something," he says of his election return.
Before the election, Leap also made sure that residents were aware that Denton had voted to accept bids from a fencing company that her husband, Burl, had sold to a grandson. Leap strung a banner across his store window that read: "What's Grandma up to? Find out Monday on KCTV5 @ 10:00 p.m. News."
Leap's critics marvel at the way the media seem to do his bidding. Councilman Wymer, a friend of the Dentons, says objective research would show that the fencing company saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. But such research loses to the snappy, telegenic narrative of a rock-and-roll councilman who believes that he is the object of a vendetta. "I'm starting to get a little pissed at some of these reporters for not investigating it a little further," Wymer says, sitting at his kitchen table. He keeps a stack of antacid tablets within reach and handles them like casino chips.
Though Wymer may see it otherwise, Leap's press isn't always glowing. As a candidate, he told The Kansas City Star he was involved in only one lawsuit with the city. But the Star's reporter found a docket entry for a second, the suit over the 3 feet. Confronted with the omission, Leap justified not mentioning the dispute on the grounds that the city was suing him.
Leap's crusade sometimes comes down to so much hairsplitting. Since breaking with the downtown partnership, he has continually challenged its legitimacy. He scours its member rolls for businesses that have closed and checks its petitions for invalid signatures. "I'd say I spent four hours on this," he says, looking over a pro-downtown-plan petition with 986 signatures. He was skeptical of 260 of them.
Leap recently tried to thwart the hiring of a new downtown coordinator, a thirty-hours-a-week city employee, on a technicality. In creating the position, the council stipulated that the downtown partnership have fifty members by January 1, 2004. Leap, who calls the coordinator the partnership's "tax-paid gofer," says he's prepared to show that at least five of the fifty had not paid their dues. "It's got all their phone numbers," he says, holding the list of fifty. "I'll call every one and say, 'Hey, have you renewed?'"
When Leap brings up the matter at a council work session, Michelle Daise, the city attorney, tries to keep the council's focus on filling the position. (When the previous coordinator quit at the end of last year, Leap threw a party. Wymer is surprised she hasn't filed a lawsuit, claiming a hostile work environment.) "I don't think you need to hang your hat on whether the DMP met fifty members, all right?" Daise says.
After the meeting, Leap chats with his parents and with Norman Morris, a Merriam resident who videotapes council meetings and is eyeing Kevin Buchta's council seat. They lament that Leap's investigation into the member rolls appears to have been for naught. "Not a single person -- there were seven DMP members [at the work session] -- not a single one of them said I was wrong," Leap says.
The chamber is nearly empty. Anita Marie Maggio, John Hill's wife, passes the Leap party on her way out the door. She offers advice. "They are not going to change the vote," she says. "When you finally figure it out, there are some things you have to let go of and fight for what you can. If you don't do that, you're just beating your head against a brick wall, and you did what I did for years, and that's not sleeping when you leave here because you're so mad."
"Oh, we sleep just fine," Kathi Leap says.
"Do you want to beat them up?" KCTV Channel 5 reporter Robb Yagmin asks Leap as they stand in the vestibule of his store, flakes of shattered glass under their shoes.
The vandals have struck again. It is February 18. The night before, metal nuts cut through the glass above Mechanical Art's front door and a second-floor window. A steady stream of television, radio and print reporters, alerted by Leap, has taken notice. Police are investigating.
Leap believes he captured the perpetrators on tape. (He installed security cameras after a previous window-busting.) The video shows a dark-colored Chevrolet pickup truck pulling into the alley next to his store at 9:45 p.m. Two figures appear to be seated in the truck. There's movement in the cab before the truck pulls in reverse, pauses in front of the store and then speeds away. It's Leap's theory that the man in the passenger seat used a slingshot to fire the nuts, first from the alley and then from the street. The truck's license plate is not visible.
The nuts, Leap points out, are small. The observation delights Shannon Wolf, his girlfriend.
For all the turmoil in Merriam, Leap says he's taken aback by the latest incident. His current window display, after all, encourages puppy adoption. "We don't have anything to offend anybody, and they still do this bullshit," he says.
Leap's critics cannot help but notice the sympathetic media attention he receives with each pane of broken glass. "Of course, there are those who believe there is no such thing as a coincidence," says Rick Williams, owner of K.C. Strings in downtown Merriam.
Wymer thinks a genuine enemy struck Leap's store last summer. But about the vandalism against the shop in January, Wymer says, "I personally think he broke that door on himself because of the coverage he could get."
Burl Denton says of Leap's broken windows: "Who do I think is behind it? Him."
But Leap says he'd rather focus on "art and cool stuff and rock and roll" than answer reporters' questions about vandalism. Moments later, Wolf asks Leap if he thinks the camera crews have finished filming the chips of broken glass. Go ahead and sweep it up, he tells her. "It's been a hectic day," he says.
Upstairs in his apartment, as he prepares to watch the evening news (Channel 5 was going to do a live shot at 6), Leap seems to waver between defiance and ruefulness. He expresses vague regret that he rejected an earlier offer from the city to resolve his property-line dispute. "My lawyer advised me not to sign it," he says.
Then again, his father had posted a new sign in the window of Total Comfort, agitating against the street-narrowing and the people who support it.
"The war's back on!" he says, surveying the block.