Talk about having the king's ear. Gary Fails spent several years working nights as the production electrician for Broadway's Circle in the Square, all the while keeping his day job as president and founder of City Theatrical, the Bronx-based manufacturer of lighting accessories. Fails worked with dozens of lighting designers during that period, and he made the most of it.
"Every time a designer would walk into the theatre for a new show, whether it was Tharon Musser or Richard Nelson, I'd say to them on the first day of load-in, 'By the end of the week, you have to give me five new product ideas.' It was a joke, but they'd do it, they'd each give me five good product ideas. I was the production electrician on 28 Broadway shows, and that depth of knowledge, from the designers, the shops, the stagehands, the producers, was impossible to duplicate in any way. Almost everything that went in my catalog came from an idea from a designer."
Little wonder then, that City Theatrical products have been so popular among lighting designers. Fails founded the company in the mid-80s after spending over 10 years on the road for a variety of tours in a variety of roles, and several more years in the metal shop at Four Star Lighting. "I learned the very arcane craft of sheet metal," he says. "And if you want to know about lighting and manufacturing, you need to know about sheet metal."
Fails spent about six years at Four Star, all the while working nights on Broadway. He offered to expand the company's metal department and begin manufacturing accessories, but when they weren't responsive to the idea, Fails rented a small garage in the Bronx and started to make lighting accessories. "Four Star, Bash, and Production Arts were my main customers," he recalls. "We were basically a metalworking job shop, providing custom metalwork. If they needed 50 top hats, we built 50 top hats. Not 51 or 100, we built 50."
At LDI97, the company won a booth award and an Expendable Widget award for its BlackTak(TM), a self-adhesive black aluminum foil. BlackTak also was cited as a "Widget We Love" by TCI in 98, and EFX/Plus2, an FX projector, won LDI98's best scenic effect product award.
One of the major turning points at City Theatrical was Electronic Theatre Controls' introduction of the Source Four, which opened up a market for a wide range of new accessories. "I freely acknowledge a debt to [ETC president] Fred Foster," Fails says. "Anything that's happened to me is because of his foresight. We have a close working relationship with ETC, and they've been helpful to me in every way since the beginning. I've always sought him out for guidance as to where the industry is going and where I can fit into it and what I can do for them."
That's a good thing, because one of City Theatrical's most recent projects may mark another major turning point, not only for Fails and ETC, but also for the industry as a whole. Late this summer, City Theatrical is expected to bring to the market the AutoYoke, a DMX-controlled unit designed to work with all 19-50-degree ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (For more info on the product, see accompanying sidebar). Shown in prototype at last year's LDI, the units should be ready to ship by the end of this summer. But the story of how the company came to manufacture this product is a classic.
"This idea had been done as long as 20 years ago, before there was DMX or any way of controlling it by sliders," adds Fails. "It had been in Europe quite a while ago, putting fresnels in TV studios on pan tilt yokes. It even predated the Vari-Lite era of the mid-80s. We got into this through our relationship with Brian MacDevitt. He asked us if we could develop an incandescent moving light; his desire was to have a moving light with the same color temperature as the rest of his light plot, something that didn't have an arc source bulb, but that stood out with bright, brilliant, blue light. He basically wanted a Source Four that he could move from one spot to another. No one had done it, but a German manufacturer was working on a yoke, and we were licensed to distribute the product in America. Unfortunately, they never were able to bring it to market."
This turn of events was particularly problematic for Fails, because City Theatrical had shown the prototype at LDI in Phoenix. Faced with the demand the company had created, Fails felt he had to put this technology into place with his company, or risk stimulating the market and having another manufacturer come in to fill the need.
"We were concerned that if we didn't get a yoke on the market, some other manufacturers would say, wow, there's a demand for this, let's get one out there," he notes. "So we went into an intense, difficult, expensive, very compressed product development cycle, starting in the fall of 98, and we should be finished in the late summer of 99, when we'll truly enter the market with the product."
This is a big move for a relatively small company like City Theatrical, but if Fails succeeds, it could put the company in the big leagues. It's already forcing the company to increase infrastructure--City Theatrical recently took over garage space next door and is upgrading computer, phone, and manufacturing tools--and Fails is eyeing new space in the South Bronx neighborhood for next year. He's also learning how to retain his production electrician roots while weathering the ins and outs of owning a small business.
"We've grown five times over in the last five years, and our business plan takes us through five times more growth in the next five years," he explains. "I realized about two years ago that my biggest task was to increase my business knowledge, so I began studying hard with [the Industrial Technical Assistance Corporation, or ITAC] this state-run non-profit group aiding small manufacturers in New York, which has given us a lot of assistance. They've taught us about running a business, planning for growth, and planning for the future.
"My job now as a business owner is to increase my skills to keep up with the pace of growth of the business, to be able to move the business forward," he adds. "I'm a stagehand, not a businessman. So I'm learning as I go." So far, so good.
The AutoYoke is designed to bring fast, consistent, and reliable movement to the Source Four ellipsoidals. Two options will interest many: Auto Focus and Auto Iris. Eight- or 16-bit DMX control is standard and the software has a proprietary "smoothing settings" feature for optimal movement with DMX consoles. Accuracy of movement is less than 0.1 degrees or 0.5" at 20' throw distance, and there is an optional Auto Calibration (at power up) feature available. The AutoYoke has a pan, tilt, travel limit, and invert feature and a fully functional onboard user interface. The LED screen is oriented so that it is readable from the ground, while the unit is hanging from a batten or truss.