Gary Fails, Founder of City Theatrical. Photo taken in 2021.
City Theatrical (CT): Gary, Congratulations on your upcoming retirement! Your impact on this company and our industry as a whole is profound. You will be missed more than you know, and we wish you all the best!
Thinking back, what are some of your favorite memories from starting City Theatrical in the Bronx 37 years ago?
Gary Fails (GF): I always wanted to have a shop. I had worked in shops and was good with my hands and I wanted to start a business and to make things for show business. In 1986, I got married, we had a baby, and I started my business. It was a year of huge optimism and dreams of the future. I found a little industrial building in the South Bronx and renovated it myself. I went to a machinery auction and bought enough machines to get started and I was underway. I specialized in lighting accessories since I was a Broadway electrician and I knew what was needed and I knew how to make it, and there was no one else doing it — there was literally no competition to what I was doing. I was making things that everyone needed, and the shop grew fast. It was a really exciting time.
CT: What are some of your favorite memories from working at the City Theatrical office in New Jersey?
GF: We were growing so fast in the South Bronx we kept outgrowing our building, but we were fortunate to be able to break through the wall into the adjoining building to expand. We did this three times, then got a building up the street, then another building up the street. We looked all over the Bronx for a good building without success then expanded our horizons to New Jersey and found a great building in Carlstadt. It was the perfect manufacturing building for us, bright and well-lit with windows all around, six loading docks, good office space and we were able to create an excellent manufacturing flow with a 300’ long manufacturing aisle. Raw material came in one end of the building and finished goods exited the other end. We invested in better machinery and added a good powder coat line and we had our dream shop.
Gary Fails, David Copperfield, Ellen Lampert-Greaux, at LDI 2014
CT: Who or what are some of the greatest influences on your career at City Theatrical?
GF: I continued to work as a Broadway production electrician after I started my shop, and I was influenced by all the Broadway designers that I worked with. They all had specific accessory needs that no one else could provide so I created the products. I had a unique opportunity to get to know many of the world’s top designers. I was Ken Posner’s production electrician on his first Broadway show and did two shows with Don Holder before he went on to Lion King. I was Theron Musser’s electrician on her last Broadway show. I worked with Peggy Eisenhauer and Jeff Croiter when they were up and coming assistants. I was a production electrician on 28 Broadway shows and met and became friends with most of the Broadway design community during that time. It was a wonderful opportunity.
CT: What are one or two of the most interesting projects you have worked on through your role at City Theatrical?
GF: We have worked on thousands of interesting projects and continue to do so every day. Anything we do with Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz rank at the top of the list of creativity and complexity. Both Jules and Paul are extremely
mechanically adept along with being great creative thinkers. Brainstorming with them and creating the products they sketch out have been highlights for me.
The other project I look back on as a highlight is the development of our Multiverse wireless DMX technology. Paul Kleissler and I dreamed of a new and advanced system of wireless data communication that could be scaled up to multiple universes. We started with a blank page and travelled around the country visiting chip designers and manufacturers and we created a system that had never been imagined before. Philip Nye joined our design team and Paul and Philp worked for two years to bring the products to market. As a company, it was a big bet on a new generation of technology that has gone on to provide City Theatrical’s present growth.
CT: What are several key learnings from running City Theatrical for three plus decades?
GF: Here are a few learnings:
- The leader sets the pace and the culture of the company.
- Over time a company faces lots of ups and downs and challenges which must be navigated. Every day is a new adventure.
- Running a company in a competitive industry takes constant attention.
- Hire the best people you can and support them every way you can.
CT: What do you see for the future of lighting?
GF: More LEDs, more video, more networking, more moving lights, less conventional lights, more Asian manufacturing, less customization, all adding up to creating a “mature” industry with less opportunity for startups.
CT: What are you most looking forward to doing in your retirement?
GF: First, having fun with my darling wife Terri Klausner every day. Second, letting my mind open up to new ideas and challenges. I have product ideas (not lighting) that I will explore in my newly expanded home workshop.
CT: Any shout outs to colleagues who have helped make it possible along the way?
GF: There are so many, but here are a few:
- All of the DeVerna family and all of my Local One friends and who supported me when I left Four Star Lighting to start City Theatrical.
- Fred Foster who helped me in so many ways and always gave me opportunities to create and manufacture products for ETC.
- All of the ETC staff over the years who became great friends of City Theatrical.
- Steve Terry, my friend of over 50 years (we went on the road with a show together when we were both teenagers) who has supported City Theatrical since the day I started.
- Larry Dunn, Paul Kleissler, and Philip Nye, who formed the backbone of our electronics innovation.
- Mark Lacko who was my industrial designer for nearly 30 years and who created the look and feel of our products and graphics.
CT: Is there anything else you may want to include?
GF: My 50+ year career in professional lighting followed the arc of the industry from the primitive early days of rock & roll lighting to the introduction of moving lights, the creation of DMX, the birth of LEDs in architectural and entertainment lighting, the consolidation of local lighting shops, and the entry of Chinese manufacturers into the entertainment manufacturing world. It is a dramatically different lighting world today that requires much different skills than when I started. There were dozens of companies like mine that started in the 70s and 80s when the industry was young and many of the companies were “mom and pops”. Today, private equity money drives the industry and there is less opportunity for small startups. I’m glad I could participate in our industry when the time was right.
City Theatrical team based out of the Carlstadt, New Jersey, USA Headquarters, featuring Gary Fails (center, in front of the door). Photo taken October 18, 2022.
This year, 2023, marks Gary Fails’ 52nd year in professional lighting. It was a career that started when he dropped out of Columbia University and went on the road with Dance Theatre of Harlem as a teenager, first as a truck driver and later as an electrician, stage manager, and lighting designer. With DTH, he completed numerous coast to coast US tours and 10 European tours before he was 25 years old. He also toured extensively as production electrician on first national tours of Broadway shows and in all spent 10 years on the road.
In 1980, Gary returned to New York City to become an IATSE Local One apprentice at Four Star Lighting in the South Bronx and spent his nights as a Local One electrician on Broadway, soon becoming the house electrician at Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street.
Gary Fails in City Theatrical's office in the Bronx.
Gary and his wife, Terri, and two of their three children, Joe and Greta (Michael was not yet born).
Gary has always led an innovative culture, developing new products.
His Local One apprenticeship allowed Gary to become a certified welder, licensed New York State laser operator, and also provided his training in sheet metal design and fabrication - all skills that he utilized to form City Theatrical. His routine for the first 10 years of City Theatrical was to work a full day at the company’s South Bronx shop, then travel to midtown Manhattan to work on a Broadway show at night. Gary was production electrician for 28 Broadway shows, and had the unique opportunity to meet and work with nearly every Broadway designer of the time, often building products during the day to meet the needs of the designer he was working with at night. At its heart, City Theatrical’s role is to create products that serve the needs of lighting professionals.
Several opportunities presented themselves for Gary and his growing team at City Theatrical in the early 1990s. The largest Broadway hit of its time, Phantom of the Opera, needed a better dry ice fogger to support important moments of the show and Gary developed the SS6000 Dry Ice Fogger from stainless steel, which soon became the standard of Broadway and the touring world and is still used on Phantom today.
Phantom of the Opera Broadway used City Theatrical's SS6000 Dry Ice Fogger technology.
Gary Fails and Alan Lampel, Head Electrician, at Phantom on Broadway in 1993 vs. 2023.
Gary Fails and the late Fred Foster, founder of ETC, in 2019.
Upon seeing Source Four fixtures for the first time and realizing there were no beam control accessories for it, City Theatrical designed and produced a full range of accessories for designers. Today, many lighting manufacturers depend on City Theatrical to design and manufacture their lighting accessories.
In 1993, Gary attended the LDI Show as a visitor for the first time and realized that what City Theatrical had been doing for the New York lighting shops was also needed around the country, and around the world. Gary created a U.S. distribution network and expanded it to Europe and Asia. City Theatrical first exhibited at LDI in 1994, and won its first product award at the show, and since then has received over 40 business and innovation awards, including multiple product of the year awards in both the U.S. and Europe, the Crain’s New York Magazine Small Business Award, and the New Jersey Small Manufacturer of the Year award.
Gary Fails and Jules Fisher.
Gary Fails and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Gary Fails and the late Richard Pilbrow.
In the early years of moving light development, and at the request of Broadway designer Brian MacDevitt, Gary formed an engineering team to develop the AutoYoke®, a precision moving yoke designed to hold a Source Four that would give designers an incandescent sourced hard-edge refocussable fixture. This was a niche that had not been filled in the moving light world, but which was of critical importance to Broadway designers. City Theatrical brought this fixture to market and the AutoYoke has played an important part in professional lighting for over 20 years.
In the early 2000s during the earliest days of the LED revolution, Gary formed a strategic alliance with Color Kinetics to produce the products and accessories that would allow Color Kinetics’ architectural LED lighting products to transition to entertainment use. City Theatrical developed over 200 different accessories for Color Kinetics products including entertainment specific power/data supplies, beam control products, lenses, and hardware. These products enabled Color Kinetics to lead the LED lighting revolution in entertainment lighting.
Understanding the opportunity in the technology of wireless DMX, Gary worked with co-inventors Paul Kleissler, Larry Dunn, and Philip Nye to design and commercialize five generations of wireless DMX products over a 15-year period, creating an industry leading vision of a future lighting world in which every DMX device contains a small, inexpensive Multiverse wireless DMX/RDM receiver, leading to wireless systems of hundreds of fixtures and dozens of universes.
City Theatrical won the New Jersey Small Manufacturer of the Year Award in 2015.
Roundtable discussion with NJ Governor Chris Christie on the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
Gary receiving best debuting product award for DMXcat.
From working on productions such as The Amazing Spiderman 2 and network television shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, Gary realized that entertainment designers needed linear LED products specific to our industry and created the QolorFLEX brand of LED tape and dimmers. This line has grown to be an industry leader found on hundreds of Broadway and West End shows, films, and network television shows.
Gary is a 42-year member of IATSE Local One and an instructor in their technology training program, an ETCP certified electrician, and an MBA graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He is a member of the Advisory Board to the Entertainment Technology program at the New York City College of Technology and is a Board member of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program which advises and aids New Jersey manufacturers.
QolorFLEX products in The Amazing Spiderman 2 film, set in New York.
Gary at The Tonight Show in 2016.
Gary Fails and his wife Terri Klausner.
For over 20 years, City Theatrical has utilized an innovative open book management system in which the company shares business and financial information with employees in a monthly meeting, and encourages the creation of profit with the philosophy that “those who create the profits should share in those profits.” City Theatrical shares 20% of after-tax profits with the highly skilled and experienced staff and craftspeople who have designed and built thousands of products and projects over the years.
Gary is married to Broadway actress Terri Klausner. They live in New York and have three children, Greta, Joseph, and Michael. In his spare time Gary has run 12 marathons, and builds acoustic guitars.
Gary Fails, distinguished innovator, entrepreneur, and industry pioneer, was the winner of the 2019/2020 Lifetime Achievement Award as selected by the Board of Directors of the Wally Russell Foundation.Learn more
"I remember many years ago being introduced to Gary by Bob Cannon. It intrigued me that he was a Broadway electrician who has seen a need and jumped into opening a shop to fulfill that need. As the years progressed, I saw what a smart businessman and forward thinker he was, and I was always all ears around Gary to see what new procedures and products he was going to come up with next. He was as progressive in his business operational procedures as he was with the myriad of much needed lighting and rigging innovations. I will definitely miss his contributions to both the industry in general, and to me personally and I wish him incredible success, joy and happiness looking forward in his retirement. Cent anni!!"
- Don Earl, Earl Girls Inc
"I recently had cause to visit four West End theatres to check up on my shows. In each one, there were moving lights hanging on Safer Sidearms, there were lights fitted with Top Hats, there was Multiverse wireless DMX, and there were electricians with DMXcats on their belts. And to think all this began with one man bending metal in a garage in the Bronx. Gary, you are one of life's born doers and achievers, and it's been my privilege to know you. But you must exhausted! You deserve a break. Wishing you a long and happy retirement. (But never stop inventing!)"
- Martin Chisnall, Production Electrician
“Gary Fails has been a friend and colleague for nearly 50 years. Gary has always valued the people he worked with, and has always taken great joy in unselfishly passing on his considerable technical and business knowledge and leadership skills to those people. Nowhere were those leadership skills more evident than in the dark days of 2012, when Hurricane Sandy almost destroyed the City Theatrical factory. Gary inspired the workforce of the company to work together as a team that emerged stronger than ever after the disaster. Gary’s remarkable work ethic is his most valuable mentoring tool. He knows just how to pass it on to the people he works with—and has done so for many, many years.”
- Steve Terry, Director of Standards & Industry Relations, ETC, and winner of the 2018/2019 Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award
“I have had the good fortune to know Gary Fails as a mentor and colleague for 25 years. Gary was the production/ house electrician for my very first Broadway show at Circle in the Square in 1995. I will never forget the way Gary shared his talent, experience and knowledge with me. His generosity, patience, and kindness are infectious, and he has been an inspiration and role model for generations of designers and technicians. It is an honor to endorse Gary for this prestigious award. Gary makes the world of the entertainment arts a better place for us all.”
- Kenneth Posner, Lighting Designer
"From the first day we met, when I was barely out of college, Gary has always nurtured the idea of ‘If you can imagine it, we can build it for you’. Over the years there’s been countless instances where a unique solution was needed to support my vision for a particular lighting design where the next phone call was to Gary. Many of these conversations, I’m proud to say, have led to products that are now a part of the City Theatrical Catalogue. Gary encouraged me, as well as so many others, to think outside the box and as such has truly brightened our business beyond measure.”
- Mike Baldassari, Lighting Designer
“I have counted on Gary for years to give a fair assessment of my ideas given the scope of his company's product lines, which has not slowed me from inventing tools and items outside the confines of his product lines. Gary has provided a supportive environment for me to run wild with ideas to this day. Not every idea is a winner, but I trust Gary to say so because his opinion is backed by his extensive experience in our industry.”
– Alan Crawshaw, Former President, A.C.T. Enterprises, Inc.
“I have had the pleasure of working for and alongside Gary Fails for the past decade and over that time I have witnessed Gary challenge, train, lead and mentor his employees within every functional area of City Theatrical including Sales, Manufacturing, Engineering/Product Development and Finance. But what has impressed me the most about Gary is his ability to invent and create new innovative products. He can envision a new product idea, develop a plan to realize his vision, execute on that plan and bring wonderful new innovative products to market.”
– Gary Vilardi, VP Sales, City Theatrical
“Gary has always instilled the seed of a product in my mind, which allowed me to grow it like a tree into a full-blown product. Without the initial enthusiasm of the initial idea, it would have been hard for me to get started.”
- Paul Kleissler, Head of Engineering, City Theatrical
“To many, the notion of a mentor suggests the image of an older person whose experience, successes and failures enable them to be a trusted adviser to someone just starting out in their chosen profession. I would offer that a mentor is regardless of age one who supports, advises and respects another person keeping that person's best interests in mind. A mentor is also a friend, one who listens, agrees, disagrees, educates, shares interests, and is willing to be mentored by his or her mentee equally. I am proud to know and support Gary Fails, and thank him for his mentorship.”
– Mark Lacko, Entrepreneur
“Sheet metal was always kind of a fascinating mystery to me, and over the years I got to know Gary and his company as it expanded across bays in its Bronx location. And then as his company moved to NJ and expanded its capabilities into electronics and I moved to teaching at CityTech in Brooklyn, I added Gary to our CityTech advisory board, and we also hosted some research at the school on his early wireless DMX products. I set up tours of City Theatrical for the students, and these were mind blowing for them. Gary would require each student to come up with an invention before the end of the tour. For one student (now a long-time Local 1 member) he even ran some patch plates that are still in daily use at City Tech. Over the years. I became proud to call Gary a friend and an inspiration. He always strives to make everything better, and sets an example for a business and industry leader. He led his innovative company through multiple disasters. The only thing that's incomprehensible to me is that Gary is actually going to retire? I don't believe it. I'm sure we'll be seeing him at LDI next year with some new idea in the works. Congratulations Gary!”
- John Huntington
“Gary, thank you for all that you are, the products that you have created, and what you have brought in so many ways to the industry. Thank you for the 'water ripple effect' machines that you built for Richard Pilbrow's lighting design for Hal Prince's "Show Boat". Thank you for your continuing innovation, great ideas, outstanding service and care. You are one of the bright lights of the lighting community.”
– Dawn Chiang
“I was first introduced to City Theatrical many years ago by John McGraw in the old Production Arts days. Gary has had a profound and positive influence on my professional and personal life and I would like to thank him and wish him a happy, stress-free and restful retirement. I hope that we can keep in touch.”
- Marty Lazarus
“Gary, I have greatly appreciated your help, insight, and candor over the years. I know Jonathan Resnick enjoyed talking with you as one company owner to another about the trials and tribulations of working in entertainment lighting. While still green at my job, sometimes grasping for a solution, many a time he told me to pick up the phone and call you, 'I know Gary has something for that, he recently told me about it.' Sure enough, you did or knew where to obtain it. Be well sir, and enjoy your new adventure.”
- Tobin Neis
“It's not often that we witness the culmination of a career so rich in innovation and leadership as that of Gary Fails at City Theatrical. Barbizon Lighting has had the privilege of witnessing first-hand the remarkable journey of City Theatrical under Gary's guidance. From their inception in 1986, City Theatrical has been a beacon of creativity and solutions in our industry. As Gary steps into his well-deserved retirement, we celebrate the enduring legacy he leaves behind. We look forward to continuing our cherished partnership with City Theatrical, carrying forward the spirit of innovation and excellence that Gary has instilled.”
- Barbizon Lighting team
“I was very pleasantly surprised to find Gary in my IATSE Local 1 ETCP prep class a couple of years ago. As the CEO/Founder of City Theatrical, I’m sure he has plenty to do yet he thought getting ETCP certification was important enough to invest the time and energy to get it. And get it he did! The greatest leaders lead by example, he set a fine example not only for his employees, but for people in general. Best wishes on your next phase Gary!”
- Richard Cadena
Congratulations and best of luck in your retirement, Gary!
- Your City Theatrical family and friends