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A conversation with Gary Fails, winner of The Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award

Stage Directions • In the LimelightJune 2020 • May 22, 2020

To maintain social distancing, Gary Fails’ award was presented with the assistance of UPS

Distinguished innovator, entrepreneur, and industry pioneer, Gary Fails, President of City Theatrical, Inc. is the the 2020/2021 Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award honoree. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we were not all able to join together at USITT’s 2020 Conference in Houston to celebrate his career but we recently spoke with Fails to congratulate him and learn more about his work.

How did you come to work in the industry?
I didn’t participate in high school or college theater; I was not a theater major. I had never been on stage or even seen a show, but my first job was Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was just by chance. Someone asked me if I wanted to drive a truck to Chicago and I said, “I can do that.” And that was that. I drove their truck to Chicago, to the Auditorium Theatre. Then they said, “If you’re hanging around, you want to cut gel?” I said, “okay.” Soon I was on the crew as assistant electrician and just started from there. It all happened by absolute chance. So my first theater experience was in one of the most beautiful theaters in the world and I was fascinated by it and I wanted to do more of that. From then on that’s all I ever did. That was literally almost 50 years ago.

Were there specific moments that spurred you to the next levels along the way?
It’s been a journey building one on top of another. I spent 10 years touring, both in dance and in theater on the road, travelling all over the world when I was young. I got to experience a lot of different theaters, a lot of different settings, different languages, a lot of different equipment and different people. So that was a milestone along the journey, the experience of touring. And another part of it was my IATSE Local One experience working on Broadway and getting to know the Broadway environment, that was a big part of it. Becoming a part of the Broadway scene was a big part of the urge to open my own shop, to have a business of my own. That was City Theatrical at the start, a little garage by myself in the South Bronx. Then I began to grow the business, began to understand product development and manufacturing and began to become a lighting accessories manufacturer; building products and creating a distribution network by taking on dealers. I guess a milestone event would have been joining ESTA in 1993, simply to become part of a group and to meet people who were in the industry that I wanted to participate in, be part of the scene. From the start, there have been so many of the product development things we’ve done, just pure inventions. Inventing things that people needed and figuring out how to make them, and how to sell them around the world.

What’s the one product that really encapsulates your philosophy behind City Theatrical?
We’ve made hundreds of products maybe even thousands of products over the years, but I’d say the one that is emblematic of the company, the culture, the heart of the company would have been AutoYoke. I guess we did the that around 1998, There were only a couple of moving light manufacturers in the world, like High-End and Vari-light and maybe Morpheus, but there weren’t very many. As a little tiny company we sensed the need. In fact, it was Fred Foster and Steve Terry, who made the impression on me that there was a need for a re-focusable Source Four. So we decided to do it with no resources whatsoever. We didn’t really have the ability to do it but I wanted to do it; I had a good idea of what it should be. I put together a team of engineers, they were all outside contract engineers, and I went to the bank and convinced them to lend me a million dollars and we decided to build a moving light. And we did. It took a year, we launched it and it was very successful. And it started a whole new category. ETC followed us with the Revolution and Vari-lite followed us with the VL 1000. But, yeah, the AutoYoke was probably the biggest thing—the biggest risk—we had ever done. And it gave us the confidence to be able to do anything.

Is there a piece of advice that you got early in your career that you’ve carried through to today?
Yes, it came from my dad who was a machinist and he taught me that, you can’t buy everything in the hardware store. Somethings, if it doesn’t exist, you have to make it, you have to invent it. If you need something and it doesn’t exist, you have to invent it. But we say this all the time here, something you can’t buy in the hardware store. We have to figure out how to do it, we have to invent them. It was an encouragement for all inventors. I didn’t consider myself an inventor. My dad was an inventor, not a professional one but still an inventor; as a machinist they’re always inventing things. He taught me to have an open mind about inventing.

What has surprised you about your career path?
I guess, looking back on it that I was able to sustain it. It passed through a lot of areas, a lot of really wonderful areas. The touring and the dance part of it, the Broadway part of it, the shop part of it, the business part of it, the international part of it, the travelling part of it. I don’t know, it’s hard to say Michael. It’s exactly what I always wanted to do, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. I don’t know if I would have predicted exactly the path it took, but I wanted to work on Broadway. I wanted to have a business, I want to have a business in Europe; I’ve been able to do those things. And I wanted to develop products, invent things, and make things. So it’s a selfish thing but I’ve done everything I wanted to do. And I’ve done the things I wanted to do and that way it doesn’t… the path doesn’t surprise me because it’s what I wanted to do. But the fact that 50 years have gone by and I’ve done it and I’m still doing it and I’d get up and go to work every day and put in my 12 hours, that’s just my life, that’s what I like to do, I like to work. I am a certified workaholic.

And what are your thoughts on being recognized with the Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award?
I will only say that when I look at that list of people, so many of whom I have worked with and I know who’re friends of mine, people who are such outstanding, smart, and creative people, it’s hard to see myself fitting on that list. But I am honored to be on that list, it is remarkable. I mean, such close friends of mine and so many of them who have been so helpful to me in my own career, and still are today. Frank DeVerna, he was my boss at Four Star. Steve Terry and Dave Higgins are such close friends of mine; and Jules Fisher, I’ve worked with for so long, over 40 years. I was his production electrician on shows. There are just so many incredible people on the list who are giants, I don’t see myself in their category, but I’m glad I’m on that list with them, it is a real honor. I think about how Steve Terry and I started as teenagers together, that’s how long ago it was, and the fact that we both ended up as Wally Russell Award winners is just astounding.

Steve Terry speaks about Gary Fails

1971 touring with Dance Theatre of Harlem (l-r) Steve Terry, Gary Fails, Amerish Gagedeen, and Jerry King

Steve Terry, a longtime friend, colleague, and now Director of Standards & Industry Relations at ETC, was scheduled to present Fails with his Lifetime Achievement Award during a breakfast reception and ceremony at USITT’s 2020 Annual Conference & Stage Expo this past April in Houston, TX but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. So, we invited Terry to share some of what he would have said there, with our readers here at Stage Directions.

I first met Gary Fails in December 1971. He was the carpenter with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and I was part of a pickup crew at Hunter College in New York, where DTH was performing. That was the first of many professional connections between us that have continued for 49 years. Gary is my longest colleague in this business, and I have watched his many achievements and successes over all of those many years.

Gary and I worked together at DTH for five and a half years—for most of that time he was my boss. His high standards and “must get it done” approach provided me with an essential education in being a member of a production team. Truth be told, he was tough to please!

Gary has always been a maker of things. We did that together at DTH with an astonishing array of touring tools. I like to joke that in those early days we were too inexperienced to know that there were some things one just didn’t attempt to build—we did it all.

Later on, in my Production Arts years, Gary became one of our essential suppliers, working out of a tiny shop in the South Bronx and using the best of 1940’s sheet metal technology. One of the happiest days of my life was when he acquired his first CNC punch press—we moved on to a new level of precision and fast delivery. Over many years, he became in integral partner in Production Arts’ success in the rental and systems integration business.

All the while, Gary was scanning the market—on the lookout for new products that designers, electricians, and rental shops needed. The first high capacity stainless steel dry ice fogger for ThePhantom of the Operamorphed into a mass-produced line of molded-tank foggers with wide appeal. Even before the ETC Source Four swept the New York rental market, Gary was producing essential Source Four accessories based on his own experience as a production electrician. That even extended to the AutoYoke, a tool to automate pan and tilt on a Source Four. Designers demanded it, so naturally Gary made it.

That approach produced a long line of must-have accessories that was the foundation of City Theatrical. Many of the projects CTI undertook were custom one-off’s. I think there was a period where Gary found it difficult to reconcile custom work with the needs of creating a more standard product line. But then he realized that CTI was in a unique position to produce custom items quickly and profitably. He had found another niche that needed filling. This resulted in tremendous success in both the architectural and entertainment lighting markets.

By the way, while all this was happening, Gary went back to Columbia University for his MBA and ran multiple marathons in the year he turned 60. Does the man have drive? Along the way, CTI moved from the Bronx to a spacious plant in New Jersey. Gary, always a lover of great tools, filled it with a great mixture of productive machines like a high-tech surface mount PCB line, a powder-coat paint line, coil-fed stamping machines, and a laser/punch press combination. I smile every time I see this array, because of something Gary said to me many years ago, before any of this stuff was in evidence: “You know, Steve, one day City Theatrical is going to be a mainstream technology company—sort of like ETC.”  Momentarily forgetting who was saying this, I confess thinking to myself at the time “That’s a nice aspiration, but really?”

Yet walking through the CTI factory of today, you can see that Gary is firmly on the very trajectory he predicted many years ago. Nowhere is it more evident than his entry into really high-tech products that have little connection to his sheet-metal roots. Products like Multiverse radios that will likely create a tectonic change in the way we move data in a lighting system due to fundamental changes that increase bandwidth and reliability while decreasing the use of radio spectrum. Or DMXcat, an incredibly powerful iOS and Android-based test tool born directly out of Gary’s personal experience in the field getting frustrated working with complex RDM-enabled automated fixtures. These types of products are true technology milestones—and Gary has simply been on fire in thinking them up and getting them to market.

Perhaps it’s the ultimate validation of Gary’s prediction that ETC has chosen the City Theatrical Multiverse radios as the wireless system that will be built-in to many of our products. I can think of no one more deserving of the Wally Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations, Gary!


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