The show goes on for Bridgeport-based Global Scenic Services set design firm

By Phil Hall

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When approaching the headquarters of Global Scenic Services Inc., there is little evidence from the outside that anything whimsical is in the vicinity. Indeed, the hulking 45,000-square-foot production warehouse, behind a remote-controlled barbed wire fence at the somewhat dreary terminus of Bridgeport’s Brookfield Avenue, is about as welcoming as a witch’s fortress.

But once inside, the factory is a marvel to behold, with scores of workers crafting a seemingly endless amount of materials to fit the production design needs of Broadway and television shows, ballet productions, fashion runways, retail outlets and event marketing endeavors. A separate office is manned by creative designers clicking away on their 3-D software programs to shape the visions that will soon be brought to life in vibrantly imaginative fabrications and automated sets.

The Global Scenic Services client portfolio reads like an A-list of popular culture: fashion brand icons Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger and Victoria’s Secret; Broadway and touring companies of “Annie,” “Flashdance,” “Ragtime” and “Rocky: The Musical;” live television productions of “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz,” and the Holland America and Celebrity Cruises ship lines are some of the more prominent clients. The company’s conceptions run the visual gamut from the industrial-chic set of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show to an oversized, automated pink pinball machine setting for a Justin Bieber musical number during a Victoria’s Secret presentation.

“We challenge ourselves,” said Matt Maraffi, director of operations at Global Scenic Services. “When we are laying out a show and trying to figure out how to do it, whether it is electronic effects or automated effects, we try to think of new ways to do it. We try to think of efficient ways to do it, for the timetable of the show, and what is going to get the most versatility from it.”

“I think it is about the passion,” said Douglas Meeson, the company’s technical design director. “Because we love everything that we do and because we have a team that loves what they do, I think it is about making the client not feel like a client – we make the client feel like part of our family. We are a small, tight-knit group and we have a fair amount of repeat customers.”

GSSI averages between 40 and 60 different projects a year, with a base staff of 12 and upwards of 60 workers on the production floor responsible for the hammering, slicing, welding, wiring and painting. The fabrications are made within the company’s headquarters at 46 Brookfield Ave., dismantled and shipped by the company’s fleet of delivery vehicles for reassembly at clients’ venues.

Anyone who might fantasize about the glamorous aspects of show business would have received a rude awakening at Global Scenic Services in the winter of 2014, when a gas leak in the building required shutting down electrical power. The blackout came while the company was in the midst of one of its largest projects, the set design for the Broadway production of “Rocky: The Musical.” The staff worked for several days in a heat-free building to get the work finished with a small army of portable generators providing a temporary power source while the electrical outlets in an employee’s nearby home were used to power up battery supplies

“The show would not stop for us,” recalled Maraffi, who said the “Rocky” project required six months to complete.

That was a rather leisurely project schedule compared with the one-week notice that NBC gave Global Scenic to create a special metallic-translucent curtained set for a performance by the Canadian singer The Weeknd during the recent Thanksgiving night broadcast of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” That order set in motion a beat-the-clock race to bring in the set material from Germany, where it was being manufactured, and have it assembled for inspection two days before the show.

Then there was the nocturnal installation that Maraffi undertook on the Mediterranean Sea.

“I did one on Celebrity Cruise Lines and they turned their lido deck into St. Mark’s Square,” he recalled. “As we sailed into Venice, it looked like you were in the square. We had the arches out as well as 150-foot-long printed images that went on aluminum frames that were all clipped to the railings. I remember being on top of the cruise ship at 3 o’clock in the morning with two carpenters trying to stretch out a 150-foot-image. They are cruising at eight knots and we’re holding this 150-foot sail that was flapping up and down. But it looked great.”

Perhaps the company’s greatest challenge to date is to move forward following the death of its CEO and owner, Warren Katz, who died at 44 in October following a bout with cancer. Katz had worked as an assistant technical director at the New York City Opera and an account executive at Showman Fabricators in New Jersey before his 2006 purchase of Atlas Scenic Studios in Bridgeport.

Atlas Scenic was an eight-person operation in a 6,000-square-foot space that had supplied sets for Broadway shows since the early 1970s. Katz changed the company’s name and expanded its focus to additional entertainment and retailer opportunities. The workload became so great that the company twice expanded its warehouse space over a 10-year period to accommodate its projects.

Company officers at Global Scenic, a privately held company, declined to disclose revenue numbers.

In early November, the company named Jim Malski as its acting president. Malski has operated his own business advisory firm in Bridgeport, Next Level Strategies Inc., since 2003, and worked with GSSI as a management and business development adviser.

“It’s been busy,” said Malski about his new role. In his short time with the company, “What I’ve learned is that this is a great team with really talented and devoted folks. I’ve known most of the leadership for five years, so it was an easy transition.”

Looking ahead, Malski said he wants to keep the company focused on its core strengths without rushing into new directions or new management.

“I think what we want to do is leverage its strength – an excellent reputation for getting things done right, on time and on budget,” he said. “Right now, we are focusing on the transition and working on the strategic plan. As those plans develop, we’ll determine what the next steps are.”

 

 

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