LOCAL FIRM RISES TO THE OCCASION FOR 'PHANTOM' SHOW
Published on March 25, 2001
Author: MATT GLYNN
News Business Reporter
© The Buffalo News Inc.
When theater-goers in Japan watch a touring production of "Phantom of the Opera" in the coming weeks, they'll see what appear to be 100 flickering candles rise from the stage.
If the candles slide into place smoothly, the audience will notice only how realistic they look -- and a small Buffalo company can take a bow for its contribution.
Last week, Hydra Technology Corp. on Grider Street conducted final tests on the mechanical candle assembly before shipping it to Japan. The "Phantom" job is the type of specialty work that company head Richard Zielinski loves to tackle.
Hydratech designs and builds custom fluid power cylinders for a variety of clients, including some in show business. As unusual as a candle assembly might seem, the project reflects two ideas that Zielinski embraces: taking on unique, challenging jobs and tapping into other companies' expertise to help complete them.
"What we really build is something somebody else thinks they can't build or doesn't want to build," Zielinski said.
The touring "Phantom" production in Japan required scenery machines that fit into compact containers, so they could be moved efficiently and meet the needs of Japanese theaters.
Since it's a touring show, holes can't simply be drilled into the stage to hide the candles until they're needed. Plus, stages there tend to be high already, so the show deck needs to be kept as thin as possible to maintain good sight lines for audience members near the front.
The solution: segmented candles that slide out of the end of a long, flat container and steadily ascend to their full height. Hydratech designed, assembled and tested the units, pulling together pieces from different suppliers. Hydratech also made some of the parts.
The "Phantom" job is another product of a long-running collaboration between Zielinski and Jim Crossley. Six years ago, Crossley was working for a company called Scenic Technologies that needed a specialized cylinder for a "Terminator 2" show at Universal Studios in Florida.
Crossley's inquiries led him to Hydratech, which was able to meet his tight deadline for the specialized part. The "T2" attraction was later reproduced at Universal Studios in California and most recently, in Japan.
Hydratech's work on the "T2" project led to work on a show based on the movie "Twister" at Universal Studios in Florida. Another local company, AAA Fluid Power Service in Lancaster, was also involved in producing the hydraulic system for those two shows.
Hydratech's cylinders have found their way into musicals, too. The company made a cylinder used to tilt the doomed ship in the Broadway version of "Titanic," and made a series of complex cylinders for use in a Japanese production of "The Lion King."
For the most part, Zielinski and Crossley -- who now has his own business -- like their contributions to blend into a show. If the props move into place too quickly or get stuck, the audience laughs -- not the attention they want.
But in other cases, such as the rising candles in "Phantom," the set magic takes center stage. "There are some things where the special effects are a major part of the show and you don't want them to go unnoticed," Zielinski said.
Crossley gets to see the fruits of their efforts in action, even if it's a bit nerve-wracking for him. "I can hardly stand to walk into the theater because I'm so nervous that it's going to fall apart," he said with a smile.
Zielinski started his company in 1988 and employs five people in a small, nondescript shop. The company doesn't try to be a high-volume manufacturer, he said. He prefers that his company stick to designing, testing and assembling, and turn to other local businesses, such as machine shops, to help complete a job.
Not all of Hydratech's projects have the glitz of a Broadway show. The company has also supplied brake cylinders to Ebenezer Railcar Services in West Seneca, electro-hydraulic lifts for ophthalmologist patient chairs and stainless-steel hydraulic hand pumps used in offshore oil drilling.
The company adapts the cylinders to match their surroundings. For a project in Colorado Springs, Colo., Hydratech came up with a cylinder powered by city water that lifts a tuba-playing figure in a fountain.
"We found a niche," Zielinski said, "and it's good for us."
HARRY SCULL Jr./Buffalo News
Benjamin Nieman, a machinist at Hydra, installs the bottom plate to a light fixture that will be used in the Phantom of the Opera production in Japan.