For production company, the show goes on

Sandy turned off the lights, but City Theatrical has rallied to rebuild itself

January 07. 2013 3:00AM

By Beth Fitzgerald

City Theatrical's products have lighted the pinball parlor in the rock opera “Tommy” and illuminated state dinners at the White House. But the company went dark after Hurricane Sandy flooded its Carlstadt factory, leaving behind more than $1 million in damage.

Gary Fails expects to see benefits in the disaster Sandy created in his Carlstadt factory. 'We have to grow our way out of this,' he says. — AARON HOUSTON

When Gary Fails, its president, gathered his staff of 30 to begin the hard job of cleaning up the mess and rebuilding the business, they rose to the occasion like theater people who know the show must go on.

"The way we came together, the spirit that came out of this, was incredible," said Fails, a former Broadway stagehand who founded the company in his Bronx, N.Y., garage in 1986, before moving it to New Jersey in 2007.

City Theatrical makes accessories the entertainment industry needs to bend, shape and control beams of light, from a simple metal cylinder that keeps spotlights from blinding the audience, to wireless technology that makes computer-programmed lighting effects dance across Broadway stages. "We make devices that make lighting fixtures work better, and make the job of the lighting designer more artistic," Fails said.

Five weeks after Sandy, City Theatrical resumed production. The company's metalworking and electronics assembly machines, damaged when 39 inches of muddy water poured in from the nearby Hackensack River, are being repaired or replaced, but as of last week, Fails said, the company had returned to full production — and is "running two shifts to catch up on the backlog."

But the damage dealt the company a major financial setback, as its flood insurance won't cover everything.

"We have to grow our way out of this," Fails said. "I believe the positive benefits of the flood are going to be enormous and unexpected." Ruined machines were replaced with new ones to deliver more efficiency, "and we've gained a spirit on the team that we never had before," he said. "I think we will find out that the flood was an awful thing that became the turning point for growth."

His growth strategy includes selling more wireless lighting controls to the architectural lighting industry, which uses them to manipulate exterior light-ing on office buildings, courtyards and city promenades. City Theatrical already does some of this work: its product controlled the lights on the Tower Bridge over the Thames during the London Olympics. Architectural lighting is a much larger market than the theatrical market, Fails said, and could provide a significant source of new business for the company in the years ahead.

Shortly after the company moved to New Jersey in 2007, it began working with the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, a nonprofit that brings consultants to the shop floor to improve efficiency and train employees in methods that reduce waste of time and materials.

Jeff Hoffman, an account manager for NJMEP, said the nonprofit has worked on a half-dozen projects with City Theatrical, some funded by state Labor Department training grants. He said Fails "is investing in his people by pulling them out of production so they can learn new concepts. It's a huge investment: It benefits his workplace, and the people get an opportunity to improve their skills." Hoffman also said City Theatrical is notable for the flexibility of its work force: "They have been unbelievably interested in improving their manufacturing process."

Sales are about $6 million a year, with about 20 percent coming from overseas, with exports the fastest growing area of the company at about 30 percent a year. The company has an office in London, and its products are used in theaters across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Steven Schweer is branch manager of the theatrical supply company Norcostco, in Fairfield, a dealer in City Theatrical products. He's also an independent scenic designer who often uses City Theatrical's products. Last summer, he used the wireless system to run the lights during a production at the Crossroads Theater, in New Brunswick.

He said City Theatrical's strength is innovation. "They make nice gadgets that solve the needs of the designer. They will fill a void, and do it with a quality product."

During a production of "Man of La Mancha" at St. Joseph's High School, in Metuchen, Schweer used a City Theatrical image multiplexer. "It let me take one image and multiply it out to become six. So I had six windmill arms going around, at different locations on the stage, with only one projection. It was really wild: when Don Quixote was tilting at windmills, they were coming to him from every angle."

City Theatrical has eight engineers on staff, and Fails said lighting manufacturers "come to us and ask us to develop accessories for their products." The company does design and manufacturing work for several major companies in the industry, including Philips Color Kinetics.

Fails said that in the early days following Sandy, the staff began each day by forming a circle, holding on to each other, talking and praying. "It produced this unbelievable closeness that I believe will be what really moves us forward as a company," he said.

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com


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