San Antonio-based Texas Scenic Company (TSC), one of the country's leading theatrical system integrators, has a Depression-era success story at the tip of its solid roots. The company was created in 1936 by A.J. and Martha Beck, the maternal grandparents of the company's current president, Glenn C. Martin III. Previously, Martha made pies, which her husband would sell at the military base near San Antonio. But her talents also extended to sewing, so one day the couple decided to make some advertising curtains. Today, the company's sophisticated stage curtains (proscenium, masking, acoustical, contour lift, Austrian, cyclorama, etc.) can trace their ancestry to a roll drop that read something like: “Buy Lone Star Beer” or “Shop A-1 Pharmacy.”
“My grandfather would drive to every little town down the road selling ad curtains to little communities,” Martin explains. “They would paint ads on the roll drops that would come down over proscenium openings and install them. That's how they started this business. Then clients started asking for other curtains for their stages.”
Most of the towns A.J. visited had schools, and that's where their client base really began to grow. “From the beginning, the school market has been our core market,” Martin says. “We started out with small schools that needed curtains, and our business grew from there.”
In the 1950s the day-to-day operations of the business fell to the Beck's daughter and son-in-law, Mildred and Glenn Martin Jr. (Millie and Big Glenn). They should be credited with laying the foundations for the first major growth of the company. That period of growth culminated in Hemisfair ‘68, San Antonio's hosting of the World's Fair. This resulted in TSC designing and building their new plant in northwest San Antonio.
“There is not a school district or theatre organization in the state of Texas that my parents didn't support in one way or another.” Martin says. “Today, TSC provides scholarships and awards to various organizations. We would not be here today without the steady hand of my parents.”
The company gradually added rigging, lighting, and control systems to its services. “For instance, we would have a job at a high school to install stage curtains,” Martin says. “And we would find they needed pipe battens to hang light fixtures. This led to a natural progression to provide the pipe batten and the ability to raise and lower them. It didn't take long for us to realize that we should also provide the light fixture and a method to control it. As the years went by, we found that we could offer our expertise to architects to assist in the design process for all of the stage equipment in an auditorium.”
Although Martin remembers working with his family since he was a boy, he started his professional life as a teacher and football/baseball coach in a local high school. “I thoroughly loved teaching and coaching,” he says. “But one summer, my father asked me to return to the company and 34 years later, I'm still here.”
Over the years, a series of top technical and business minds joined TSC; many continue to work for the company today. Richard Mecke, for example, came on board in the early 70s. A childhood friend and neighbor of the Martin's, Mecke worked summers at TSC until he graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in engineering technology. Big Glenn then offered him a full-time position. Over the years, Mecke took over the supervision of all manufacturing and installation for TSC that continues today. “Richard took the training and experience my father provided him and guided TSC to our next level of growth,” says Martin. “I'm fortunate to have him as my vice president and partner in this company.”
John Owens, vice president of sales, joined the company in 1978. A Texas Tech graduate, he also taught school for a couple of years before returning to graduate school. At the urging of his college friend Joe Leard, a TSC employee, Owens joined the company. “Working here is a nice blend between theatre, construction, and architecture that allows me to follow my interests in building and the theatre world,” Owens says. “I really enjoy the work. It's nice to do something you enjoy for a living.”
Owens cites the Fiesta Texas project in the late 80s, along with Rice University's Sheppard School of Music, as pivotal projects in the company's development. “Until that point, we hadn't been doing jobs of that stature,” he says. “It was a stepping off point for us, because we were able to show the industry that we were capable of handling larger jobs and playing with the big boys. We did a good job with it, and the consultants and owners were happy. These two projects began the transition of TSC to large consultant-driven projects.”
“It's been an interesting ride,” Owens says. “As we have done a lot to advance theatre technology in our region by assisting architects and engineers in specifying more sophisticated systems to increase the capabilities at schools and other venues, the industry has forced our company to adapt to its growing needs.”
One such adaptation has been to work directly with owners on new construction and renovations. ”We help design and expand their systems or put in new equipment and the latest technology, be it networked lighting control or dimming, automated lighting or motorized rigging upgrades to existing counterweight systems,” says Owens.
Gary Henley, vice president of marketing, has been working in the entertainment business for over 30 years. He started at TSC in 1982, left for a few years, and returned in 1992. “When I started here, I was in charge of our rental department along with our front office boxed goods and expendables sales,” he says. “When I came back in 1992, I was a sales person covering the West Texas territory, with the intent of growing new markets for the company outside the state of Texas. Over the years, that evolved as I took over responsibility for marketing.”
Henley reassigned his Texas territories and began working exclusively on projects outside of Texas. The growth over this period resulted in the opening of a new office in Frederick, MD. In addition to his marketing duties and work on large projects, Henley also oversees the website sales (www.texasscenic.com).
The company has retained its moniker since the very beginning, even though its core focus has broadened and changed over the years. “Since 1936, our name has always been Texas Scenic Company,” Henley says. “We've been out of the scenery business for over 50 years, but a lot of folks still think we're a scenery company, and a lot of people think we're just a curtain and rigging company. We sew many yards of curtains every day here, and rigging represents a large part of our business, but our abilities are certainly not limited to curtains and rigging. Orchestra lifts, custom acoustical tuning devices, along with lighting, dimming, and control are a part of our daily project scope. Our strength lies in our ability to provide the customer with one source for all of their stage equipment needs.”
In addition to the sales staff, the company draws on the experience of several other talented executives. Vice president of engineering Hien Luong works closely with Mecke to handle the hundreds of projects the company installs annually. Luong is a 30-year industry veteran who is a favorite among the theatre consultants. He is in charge of all engineering and works closely with the project managers to ensure a successful project.
TSC recently hired chief financial officer Ron Fairchild, who takes care of the banking end of the business. “Ron is the only person in our executive management team who came to us from outside the theatre industry,” says Henley. “We needed someone experienced as a CFO in the construction industry to help us manage our growth.”
Chief operating officer Steve Surratt worked at the company from 1979-85 and returned to TSC last fall, after having worked in the lighting world at Colortran, Vari-Lite/Irideon, and then ETC. “After getting my degree from Texas Tech University, I decided to look at the manufacturing and sales side of the theatre business and was fortunate to come to work at TSC.
“TSC is in a transition period now,” Surratt continues. “It's a third generation company, but the day-to-day business operation of the company has been turned over to me. Glenn and his parents ran the company for 60 plus years. We have just started an employee stock ownership program, so the employees will gradually be taking ownership of the company. We are very fortunate to have a low employee turnover rate. We're well above the 10-year average for most of our employees. The experience of our employees is our largest asset and a driving force in the growth of our company.”
Surratt also notes that TSC has changed drastically since his first tenure at TSC. “When I started in the late 70s, a $100,000 project was a big deal. Today, seven figure projects are not uncommon. The Borgata in Atlantic City and the DeBartolo Center at the University of Notre Dame are the latest examples of large custom installations we have recently completed.”
The Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa is the first new casino to open in Atlantic City in 13 years. It's an opulent building that includes the casino, spa, and luxury guest rooms, as well as a myriad of restaurants and a couple of nightclubs. TSC got involved in working on the ballroom and a smaller comedy club/multi-purpose theatre at the urging of consultants at Auerbach Pollock Friedlander and collaborated closely with Steve Friedlander and Grace Gavin. “The work we did there was very customized and individual to the project,” Henley explains.
Yet, it was very similar to a lot of the work that TSC does, according the Mecke. “It was a big job, and when you look at the ballroom, it's not strictly a ballroom where you come in and have a banquet and a speaker stand set up to do presentations. They wanted it to be set up as a multi-purpose facility. So, if they wanted to bring a rock-and-roll band or a Frank Sinatra-type singer in, they could have those types of shows.”
The ballroom was originally designed to accommodate an afternoon banquet and then be stripped and changed over for a full-blown nighttime show. “They could also go in and have a banquet with a whole show up on the stage in there and the next night, they can flip it around and have 3,000 seats and a concert format,” Mecke says. “I know they've done this a number of times. It's essentially a large banquet hall with a stage at one end. The stage has a stage lift that allows for a 4' or 5' stage, or it can be brought level to the banquet floor, so you can actually have banquet seating on it.”
A series of three lifts makes up that stage area, which is 120' wide by 27' deep. Three different stage units make up that unit. “That gives them the capability of building up any type of stage presentation,” Mecke says. “They also have a moving proscenium — basically, they're like giant barn doors on either side of the proscenium. So, they're able to swing these doors into place and cut down the width. These doors are 25' wide, so they're able to take approximately 48' of the overall width out of that stage opening and turn it into a semi-proscenium type stage.”
TSC also supplied a large portable platform system that the building's technicians can set up. “If they want to turn it into a very large thrust stage, they can take it out and protrude out another 30' in front of that stage,” Mecke explains. “They now have a very large extension that can be put on the front of that, if they want to play a concert in the front of the proscenium or something else.”
Up above, the ballroom sports a large, open ceiling, featuring a specific architectural look; needless to say, that posed some challenges when it came to the lighting. “When you do that and you want a stage on one end of your facility, you have no way to light in a typical theatrical style,” Mecke notes. The solution was a series of three catwalks and a ceiling that can, essentially, be moved via a series of motorized linear hoists — basically linear screws — that are raising and lowering 140' wide by 10' panels. “It's really the architectural ceiling that's being raised and lowered,” Mecke continues. “All the architectural lighting and equipment is built into them, so they can raise and lower these ceiling units to create lighting positions. When it's a ballroom, they lower the ceiling back down, and it makes it look like it's just a big formal ballroom without any kind of theatrical look.”
There are also six motorized hoists that raise and lower speaker clusters throughout the ballroom, so the venue can be turned into a concert facility by dropping down the speakers. When they aren't needed, they can be pulled back up into the ceiling. The sidewalls have six pockets approximately 3' deep and from 48' to 70' wide, into which TSC inserted a series of white, black, and silver lame acoustical curtains. “They're along all the side walls of the ballroom, so they could acoustically treat the room as well as change the color,” Mecke explains. “The venue can change the characteristic of the room architecturally and acoustically by adjusting these different panels throughout the room.”
TSC also provided a large Austrian main drape as well as a large curtain package and a large chain hoist package. “This is so they could bring road shows in and fly the show's equipment,” Mecke says. “All of the project's equipment is controlled by a custom microprocessor-based computer control system. A handheld control system allows them to call up a show and walk through it step-by-step and set up that show as they are bringing in the equipment.”
For the Comedy Theatre, TSC put in seven motorized line shaft sets used for moving lighting and general equipment. It also has a small microprocessor control system and a large Austrian curtain. “These were all custom pieces of hardware that were built specifically to fit the Borgata project,” Mecke says. “From the time we started bidding these projects to the time we finished them, we were able to marry what the consultants wanted with what the general contractor had put into the job.”
Turning to a more traditional theatrical venue, TSC recently completed work on the newly opened DeBartolo Center at the University of Notre Dame. “The DeBartolo Center is a fine arts complex — a wonderful, interesting project that we did with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer architects, Theatre Projects Consultants, and Turner Construction,” says Henley. “Our work is in multiple spaces there, including a concert hall that has motorized custom reflectors, which can be reconfigured to tune the room along with all kinds of acoustical curtains on tracks that go up and down the side walls.”
TSC spent two years working on this project. “For the main theatre, we provided 40 counterweight linesets, a motorized fire curtain, and a full complement of stage curtains for the stage,” Mecke says. “For the TV studio complex, we provided a pipe grid, curtains, and a track system. They also have a teaching facility, which also has a pipe grid and curtains. Plus, there is a small motion picture room. They have their own theatre where students come in and watch movies. We had a motorized track system and a motorized masking system for that facility, with a small microprocessor that allows them to build presets for the different sized images of different movies. They can go from cinema to regular format, and if someone came in with a 16mm, they can mask down to the smaller size.”
The main concert hall is a large concrete building that had lots of acoustical tuning designed into the facility. “The building is very live, very reverberant, and they designed acoustical tuning that allows them to soften the room,” Mecke says. “They can go from a very small group to a very large one, all within the same concert hall. On the sidewalls, we had 20' by 9' moving panels with absorption, and we had 48 of these panels following the roofline of this building, which is on a 60-degree angle. The panels are all motorized, which allows them to move these panels up and down to acoustically treat this room as they need to.”
The sidewalls are also outfitted with a series of acoustical tuning panels. These are also motorized, so they can be lowered or raised. “These particular panels are, again, tied back to a microprocessor control where they can build presets, so they can build a memory of 10 or 20 shows or settings for the different acoustical events that they want to do in this room,” Mecke explains. “They can have it very live or very soft or very mild — whatever they want to do or however they want to call it.”
On the stage, TSC installed a custom acoustical reflector package, which is supported from a series of six motorized hoists. “When the project bid, they were originally designed to be made out of glass, but in the end, because of weight, they were made out of a clear, laminate plastic with a light frosting on it,” Mecke says. “This shell has a very opaque look, so they can bring it down, and you see the framework through this shell unit. The acoustical reflector package is controlled by a microprocessor-based control system. In the orchestra shell, the ceiling pieces are also microprocessor-based. They are tied into the controls, so they could actually build presets in them also.”
Sarah Prince, director of technical services for the facility, has high praise for TSC's work on the project. “Texas Scenic did a great job,” she says. “They were very attentive and very detail-oriented. It's a pretty complicated system, and they engineered it very well. To their credit, the user-interface is very simple, so it was an easy learning curve because of the system they designed. Stu Pribil, their main installer, has been great about checking on how things are going. That attentiveness has been rare on this project with other contractors, so I really appreciate that.”
“Projects which represent the scope of work of The Borgata and the DeBartolo Center are very satisfying when you have completed the work and look back at the finished project” says Surratt. “The amount of engineering and project management required to complete these jobs are substantial and afford us the ability to learn how to improve on the next project”
The current Texas Scenic Company is not only much different from its original incarnation, but it's also unique among other dealers. "We have also made the transition from procuring equipment to manufacturing equipment — we're truly manufacturers now,” says Surratt. “We're probably very different from your normal dealer. We do have sales of theatrical boxed goods and expendables, such as gel and lamps, which represent a substantial side of the company, but our main focus is the design, manufacture, and installation of stage equipment for new construction and renovation in performance spaces. Our ability to do turnkey projects is what really separates us from the other dealers in our industry."
There are currently 93 employees at TSC. “We've got five salespeople who cover the US and sell the projects,” Surratt explains. “Then it comes back to the office and our engineering department, which has project management, drafting, and, of course, engineers. Once it's been engineered and approved, we send it to manufacturing. We have our own sewing room, so we manufacture all our curtains in house. All installations are performed by our employees.”
The company remains incredibly busy working on a wide variety of projects. Current projects the company has in the works include: the Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, AZ, the Purdue University Visual and Fine Arts Center in West Lafayette, IN, and The News Journal Center in Daytona Beach, FL. “These are all multi-space, multi-function facilities where Texas Scenic is doing the curtains and the rigging,” Henley says, “but we're also doing the orchestra shells, the orchestra lifts, the lighting, dimming, and controls.”
“I've got good people who make this company work. If it were left up to me, I'd be a fishing guide down in Corpus Christi,” Martin concludes, “but thank goodness I've got people who know what to do and how to do it. They're the lifeblood of this company.”