At first glance, the old Firth Carpet factory in
Welcome to Costume Armour.
One of several
Raised in Glen Rock,
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
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
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
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
They also created the water-filled “bubble” that magician David Blaine immersed himself in for seven days at
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.”