Cal-Tran is a different kind of drapery workroom. It's a theatrical softgoods, custom drapery and design consulting business. "We do everything from Broadway theaters to industrial venues for large corporations, puppet theaters, movies, special events, schools, churches, conventions, television sets, nude mud wrestling . . . We're not embarrassed to take on most any project," says Susan Huck, who, along with Melinda Geter, runs Cal-Tran in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
Cal-Tran's work on stage may best be described as a lead supporting role—so necessary, but often overlooked. There are, of course, the grand act curtains, which are raised and lowered at the beginning and end of every production and between acts. These curtains often are made of 25-ounce velour with two-foot long fringe and can be 60 feet wide and 40 feet tall. But there are myriad other things to do around the theater and on stage.
"A theater is just a big empty box. They'll use curtains that you don't see to mask off the entrances and the exits and also the lighting positions," Huck says. "So all of the architectural elements outside the range of view but within the theater are done up with draperies and are different for each show."
In a set design there is a drawing for every item on the stage—every wall and every backdrop. Cal-Tran will fabricate the large muslin, which is almost like a large canvas, for the scenic artists to paint the backdrops. They also may be asked to create prop pieces. For example, if there is a living room set, they will create treatments for the windows.
Over the past 20-plus years, Huck and Geter have worked with most of the prominent stage designers for Broadway —many of whom have been at the top of their profession—as well as the new crop coming up. Admittedly, some are more conversant with fabric as a medium than others. "Designers are artists," Huck says, "and they may have a lot of set construction design, or costume construction, but what fabric will do as a breathing fiber in a large scale is a constant surprise to everyone."
Cal-Tran first went into production in 1977, while Huck and an earlier partner were working in a costume shop and doing stage curtains on the side. "That's where I met Melinda, who had the good sense to tell us, 'What are you doing? You're making more money on the side than you are here. Go start a business!'" Huck recalls. Geter joined the cast full time in 1986.
Both women came to theatrical softgoods through similar ways. Huck caught the bug in high school drama, but was more interested in costumes and the technical end of things than in being on stage. She went on to major in Theater Technology at Virginia's Mary Washington College. But theater was something to do for fun.
Huck came to New York as an accounts payable clerk (and hated it). She got involved in a Gilbert & Sullivan repertory company and began working on costumes. Her first try-out with theater curtains came when she was asked to sew up a drapery using scrim for a stage set. "We started unfolding this in our little costume shop, and unfolding it, and unfolding it, and unfolding it. It was our first experience that fabric could actually be 30 feet wide selvage to selvage," she recalls.
Geter also was introduced to theater in high school, but wanted to be a costume designer even though one of her art teachers tried talking her out of it. She enrolled in New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to become a fashion designer, deciding to specialize in men's wear because she thought there would be less competition.
"During my first job in the fashion industry, the receptionist had a friend who had a costume shop, and he was making an onion and a pea for a Bird's Eye commercial. I was so excited I told her she had to take me down there. I wanted to see this human-size onion and pea. I had the bug. I wanted to see my name roll across on a movie's credits as a costume designer," she says.
Today, Cal-Tran employs 38 workers in a 25,000-square-foot workspace, which includes two 60-foot long worktables. The equipment includes walking feet industrial sewing machines; there are a few dress heads and a couple of straight stitch machines.
As with many businesses these days finding qualified employees is a significant challenge. Most of Can-Tran's employees come from countries where textile craft is still practiced, and English is a second language for them. Huck and Geter look for people who have the right skills and are trainable, and sometimes a hidden talent is discovered. A project for a Las Vegas casino required heavy hemp rope trim. Huck and Geter called the staff together and asked if anyone knew how to do it. A woman answered saying she had worked with it in the past in her native country, and she was given that part of the project.
"I had to learn everything from the beginning because no one walks through the door knowing how to do this," Geter says. "Hopefully you get people who have the skills to be able to take a picture and turn it into a two-dimensional or three-dimensional thing. You have to figure out the middle. You'll have a hunk of fabric and a drawing and you'll have to make something. Designers do not care how you get there, as long as you make their dreams come true."
THE YACHT IN THE BASEMENT
The similarities between Cal-Tran and most drapery workrooms are many. The main difference is scale.
Not only are the act curtains large—often 40 feet or more tall—but everything associated with them is large as well. For example, the rings used to make most Roman shades would fit on a person's pinky finger. At Cal-Tran, the rings are large enough to be worn as bracelets.
Huck and Geter have worked on many large-scale projects—for some of them, their most important consideration was how to get it out the door, onto a truck and into a theater.
Geter tells about working on one of her first projects after joining Cal-Tran full-time. The company was awarded the contract to replace the main drapery at Radio City Music Hall. "I thought I was asking a stupid question. This curtain was 80 feet tall by 112 feet wide . . . plus 100 percent fullness . . . and lined . . . and it was contoured, draped like an Austrian. From my costume days I've realized that sometimes the question that you think is dumb is the brilliant question of the day. I looked at all the fabric, and I looked at the 37-inch door, and I looked at the fabric again, and I thought, 'I don't think this is going through the door.'"
"We had to send it out in three pieces," Huck adds, "and we got to perform live on stage at Radio City joining it together."
Because the projects are so large, scale models often become necessary. "We had a project where we had to make a large swag that was 50 feet across and 20 feet deep," Geter says. "There was no way we were going to hang this thing. What were we going to do? The designer wanted to see something and be reassured that we were going to be able to deliver to him what he wanted. So I made a mock-up pretending one foot equaled an inch. I made a 50-inch wide swag by 20 inches deep and tacked in on the edge of the table. The designer had vision and approved it."
There also are many unique challenges involved in stage work, such as "needing something that should look very deep and rich with full swags, but there are only about three inches to make that happen because there is so much scenery in the show that has to be lifted up out of view and brought back down again without fouling on other backdrops or scenes," Huck says.
There are ridiculously short lead times, too. "Generally we have less than a week to produce the show," Huck says. "The drawings are produced months and months ahead of time, the scenery is started months and months ahead of time and is being produced right up to the last second, but the draperies are pretty much the last thing that gets consideration."
Then, of course, there is the fabric. If it's on the stage, it has to be flame retardant. That can be applied at the mills—in fact, most of the fabrics for the main act curtains will come from the mills already flame retardant—but there are other fabrics that need to be sent out to be made flame retardant. "Sometimes it can be sprayed on the set," Huck says. "The scenic artists will frequently mix the flame retardant chemical in with the paint."
The size of the fabric is an important consideration. Specialty theater scrim and muslin come up to 40 feet wide. "When you go to the theater or the opera and you're looking at that beautiful backdrop of the forest and the lights come up, there is no seam in that piece," Huck says. (Does the audience really notice that? "Only if the show is really, really bad!" she says.)
Sometimes the job requires telling designers when something won't work. "Like for a home theater," Geter says. "Someone has built a house, they're making a theater and they want the same curtains they've seen in a Broadway house. We have to tell them, 'No you don't want that. That fabric weighs a pound every square foot. It's going to rip down your ceiling and tear up your room. Please pick a different fabric.'"
"One of the most fun projects we never did was for the Statue of Liberty," Huck says. "When the centenary celebration was happening, they had this wonderful idea that they wanted to make a shroud for the Statue of Liberty in silk and lift it off with a helicopter. They thought that would be a wonderful idea. All I could think of was Marilyn Monroe over the subway grating. I said, 'Excuse me, but has anybody checked with the pilot or somebody about what's going to keep this from doing an inverted buttercup and just sort of taking out the helicopter?' It was the helicopter pilot who assured us that was exactly what would happen, so we declined that project."
One difference between Cal-Tran and many other drapery workrooms is, because of the size of the projects, Huck and Geter rarely hang the finished work themselves or see it once it is installed. That, of course, puts an extra emphasis on making sure everything is right before it leaves the shop.
"Our specialty is trying to take the project and think it through to what they want—and two months beyond. That's really one of the things we enjoy most, anticipating the problems and solving them before they become problems," Huck says.
"Sometimes we like it when the phone does not ring, because they only call when there is a problem," Geter adds.
"Melinda and I both really love the challenge of taking a designer's vision and bringing it into the real world," Huck says. "We love that someone has this concept and they need our help to bring it into focus."
"Through our experience in costumes, we've learned that anything can be accomplished," says Geter.
Huck adds, "Both of us hate the idea that something can't be done. Sometimes we have to bow to the laws of physics, but we're going to go down swinging.
"I was going to make a career for myself in an industry that I love, creating things that are a constant challenge and keeping the brain cells clicking. If you have a dream, go find a way to make it work because there will be a way to make it work. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, don't do it. And if you really hate it, find someone else who likes it!"