The Dream Factory

Where do the backdrops for Broadway hit like Cats and Phantom of the Opera really come from? And old carpet factory in Cornwall, where the amazing Nino Novellino and Roger Gray design sets and costumes for the ages.



At first glance, the old Firth Carpet factory in Cornwall’s Milltown district appears abandoned; the only sign of life at the crumbling sprawl of buildings seems to be a few birds perching in nearby trees and a gang of feral cats. But a careful observer might notice the two green-painted street signs marked “Tin Pan Alley” and “Sunset Boulevard.” These point visitors down a dusty path to a heavy wooden door. As you step inside, you’re suddenly whisked away — far away — from suburban Orange County. Greeting you is a row of human arms holding candles, which extends along a dark corridor lined with suits of armor and cobweb-draped skulls. But it’s not Halloween, and this is not a haunted house, although it does look eerily similar to the castle hallway from Jean Cocteau’s famous film Beauty and the Beast.

 

Welcome to Costume Armour.

One of several Cornwall businesses that builds and decorates sets for Broadway, opera, television, film, and other industries, Costume Armour is the life’s work of Nino Novellino. A master sculptor and set fabricator, Novellino was among the first in the theatrical-support field to make the move from New York City to the Hudson Valley more than 30 years ago. Since then, he has recruited and trained a loyal staff of artisans who have helped make the company one of the world’s best-known producers of custom theatrical armor, as well as sets and props. Remember the fantastical junkyard where all the felines gathered in the long-running Broadway production of Cats? That was Novellino. The memorable Masquerade Ball in The Phantom of the Opera? Novellino again. “My heart would pound so hard I thought I would die,” he says about the excitement of seeing his sets on a Broadway stage in the early years of his career.

Raised in Glen Rock, New Jersey, Novellino studied at Pratt Institute and taught art in his home state before shifting gears to work with costumes and scenery construction. A handsome middle-aged artisan with mischievous brown eyes, Novellino talks easily about his long career on a recent visit to his company’s offices. He points to a glitzy gold throne adorned with bare-breasted sphinxes, his vision of Norma Desmond’s furniture in Sunset Boulevard. “I not only understand Norma Desmond, I am Norma Desmond,” he says, laughing uproariously as he is wont to do. “There is no such thing as outrageous. Too much is barely enough.”

If that is the case, he’s in the right business. His soaring workspace is chock-full of recognizable artifacts from the most renowned theatrical productions. On the left stands a gold harp from Into the Woods; over there lies the “knight of the mirrors” costume from Man of La Mancha. A nearby table is stacked with Darth Vader and Storm Trooper helmets from Star Wars, which will be used in a Disney World parade. And watching over it all is a life-size statue of Alfred Hitchcock made for Universal Studios. Another room is stuffed with an assortment of swords and daggers; if you amble past the forklift and down the hall, you’ll find Novellino’s staff hard at work creating custom armor for the Broadway production of The Pirate Queen.

“You have to be an artist to work for me,” Novellino says. “So many kids coming out of art school today don’t work with their hands.”

Novellino’s staff certainly does. Master armourer Brian Healy, who spends his spare time making real metal armor, draws the elaborate filigree artwork which decorates the costume pieces by hand. His work is then laser-etched into plastic to make a silicone mold. The pieces are cast in resin, then reheated and bent to the shape of the breastplates and helmets. The designs are applied and painted by other blue-smocked workers. The finished armor represent weeks of work.

So how did this dramatic wonderland come to be housed in a moldering factory complex? It all began with the Rolling Stones. Back in the ’70s, Novellino worked for Feller Scenery, then the world’s largest fabricator of theatrical scenery. The band hired Feller to construct the set for their Lotus Blossom tour. The gigantic scenery proved too large for the company’s Bronx studio, but Peter Feller soon realized it would fit into an unused hangar at Newburgh’s Stewart Airport. The location proved to be fortuitous: the band appreciated that they could fly into the airport easily (and privately) to rehearse on the new set. (“They were gentlemen and businesslike,” notes Novellino.) Word got out, and Feller soon was working for rockers like KISS and Meatloaf.

Eventually, Feller Scenery was forced into bankruptcy, affording Novellino and his wife Mary the opportunity to buy into the business. For several years, the urban couple traveled to Newburgh by bus every week, staying in a motel and going to work by cab. (Eventually, they bought a stately Victorian in Goshen.) As Stewart got back into the airport business, they moved the firm to empty spaces in Cornwall, bringing along their prized Vacu-Form machine. Built by Peter Feller when he worked on the 1962 World’s Fair, this revolutionary contraption produces plastic shapes which are the starting point for many of Costume Armour’s wondrous creations.

But it was Roger Gray, another ex-Feller employee looking to branch out on his own, who first saw the potential in the Firth factory. He and his wife Shelley started Center Line Studios with $300 in 1987, and moved into the space. “The first winter here was hard,” he says, recalling that the flea-infested building had no plumbing and only one electrical panel. Things improved when Novellino showed up the next year; today, the two old colleagues often collaborate. (The village of Cornwall is also home to the studios of Scenic Arts, a leading scene-painting studio for Broadway musicals like 42nd Street and Little Shop of Horrors. Owned and operated by Joseph Forbes, the company also constructs floats for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.)

Gray’s Center Line Studios has designed sets for a long list of Tony Award-winning shows. Gray’s favorite? Avenue Q. “That was very creative and complicated; it took two months,” he says. “There are trap doors and trick windows, and 280 puppets handled by five puppeteers who need passages through the set.” Gray and his staff built it twice — once for the Broadway show, and again for the Tony Awards.

Novellino and Gray agree that business took a nosedive in the uncertain period after 9/11, but lately prospects have improved. Center Line currently is working on a variety of projects, including a faux ice sculpture of St. Basil’s Cathedral for the Lincoln Center production of Coast of Utopia, and catwalk rigging for the Big Apple Circus.

They also created the water-filled “bubble” that magician David Blaine immersed himself in for seven days at Lincoln Center earlier this year. Last summer, comedian Jon Stewart was filmed floating in the bubble for a segment of the Emmy Awards telecast.

Novellino’s wife, Mary, a dancer and seamstress who also ran Costume Armour, died suddenly in 1992. “Her sewing abilities were beyond compare,” he said, “but she also had a sixth sense about things that was invaluable.” Novellino now looks upon his employees as an extended family. Ray, who has worked at Costume Armour for more than a decade, credits Novellino for keeping his shop fully staffed, even during hard times. “The industry of theater used to be a real family, but corporations have taken over most of it,” he said. “This shop is a vision of what it used to be like.”

Knowledge, craftsmanship, and attention to detail are a huge part of that vision. Novellino struggles daily with the tension caused by producers’ desire to keep costs down, and his own fanatical insistence on perfection. “I have always said that if you want something done right, you should call me first,” he says. “I try to approach everything as an artist. That’s just what I do.”

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