Ben Salzman is the kind of guy you might find delivering sandbags to a hotel loading dock at 1:00am, working on financial speadsheets, or helping out in the shop, whatever it takes to get the job done — the job being general manager of Scharff Weisberg's new lighting company, a position Salzman stepped into in September 2001 to get this new division rolling. And since orders started rolling out the door last spring, Salzman has been busy, never knowing what might pop up on a given day, which is actually what he likes best about the challenge of starting a new business. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux peers past the loading dock to see what the 31-year-old Salzman is up to these days.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did you get started in this business?
Ben Salzman: By accident. I was a typical drama geek (of the backstage variety) in high school in Putnam Valley, NY. Then I attended SUNY Purchase, where I completed the theatre design/technology program. While at school, I met lighting designer David Grill (another Purchase graduate), who had returned to SUNY to light a show. David helped me get my first professional position: touring with Des McAnuff's production of The Who's Tommy. To this day David enjoys reminding me that he helped me land my first job in spite of the fact that I thought he didn't like me. I later moved to the shop side of the business, thinking it would mean a more normal 9-to-5 schedule. I could not have been more wrong!
ELG: How large is the lighting division at Scharff Weisberg?
Salzman: We're still growing every day; that's the exciting part of being with a new company. We are capable of handling everything from a large industrial show with many moving lights, to a single podium with two lekos.
ELG: What are the biggest challenges you face in your new job?
Salzman: Everything. Seriously, it's the logistical details; putting systems in place, getting an order to the shop, invoicing, paying the vendors — everything that makes the company run. The challenge is keeping the details transparent to the customer. It's funny, when Josh Weisberg and I were talking about starting the business, he told me how hard it was going to be; he was right. It's like changing a tire on a car while it's moving.
ELG: What is it that attracted you to the job in the first place?
Salzman: I've always wanted to be part of a New York lighting shop, and the opportunity to start one with Josh Weisberg and Peter Scharff was too good to pass up. From my past experience with them I knew their commitment to customer service and product quality matched mine.
ELG: What is your favorite project to date?
Salzman: Starting Scharff Weisberg Lighting. I get the same rush seeing this company succeed as I did standing backstage at a Broadway show knowing I was part of it. As I mentioned before, it can be difficult but the gratification is enormous.
ELG: What about one project that really stands out?
Salzman: It's hard to pick a favorite project, but one show that really stands out in my mind is a party we did for P Diddy during the MTV Music Awards this year. It had all the challenges we face every day — lots of technology, not enough time, too much to do. It even had go-go dancers we suspended in cages above the crowd. All of this through an 8' loading door in 12 hours. This is the fun part, figuring out how to get it done despite the obstacles.
ELG: Does this new company fill a specific niche in the New York market?
Salzman: We identified a need in the marketplace for a lighting shop large enough to support an extensive inventory while providing personalized service. We also saw the benefit of making these services available to Scharff Weisberg's current clientele — those who use the company's sound and video services. Scharff Weisberg Lighting is being built to be a successful independent lighting business and an important resource for work that originates in-house. We think that there's a need for a company like ours that can service those segments as well as the typical “dry hire” rental market.
ELG: How do you see the lighting industry evolving over the next few years?
Salzman: I think technological advances will continue to allow designers to better realize their creative vision onstage, similar to the way moving lights did when they first hit the scene. Our job is to stay nimble enough to make new technology available as it's developed. We see opportunities for products that cross over traditional lighting technology boundaries — such as LED and video — to increase in importance. Scharff Weisberg has been at the forefront of emerging technologies in sound and video for a long time, so its natural for us to move into these areas aggressively. A good example of this is our recent purchase of four High End Systems Catalyst moving-mirror video projection systems.
ELG: How do you stay abreast of new technology and in touch with designers?
Salzman: The obvious answer is trade shows and magazines. We also spend a lot of time talking with the manufacturers. Our goal is when someone calls and says “How do I do X…,” we can provide a solution.
ELG: Is there anything you really want to do in life you haven't yet done?
Salzman: Learn to ski. It's on my task list for this winter.