Chic Silber: Broadway's stage sage

 

Chic Silber: Broadway's stage sage

 

Date: February 1, 2012
by: Heidi Kurpiela | A&E Editor

 
 

 

In a modest subdivision off Bee Ridge Road, there lives a sturdy 68-year-old man with a heavy Long Island, N.Y., accent, a wife of 29 years and an odd assortment of fabled props and worn-in set pieces.

His name is Chic Silber, and he lives among these things the way any of us lives among our dusty knickknacks and aging furniture: comfortably.

The difference between Silber’s stuff and our stuff, however, is that our stuff probably never soared from the fly rails at the Gershwin Theatre.

“Eventually, it’ll all end up in a dumpster somewhere,” Silber says of the 50 years’ worth of Broadway and circus clutter that fills his home and scenic studio in Sarasota, his 2,000-square-foot storage facility off Vamo Road and his office in Manhattan, N.Y. “It’s just a bunch of theatrical and circus crap.”

Understatement? Yes.

Fans of “Wicked” would hardly classify Elphaba’s broom as crap. Fans of the 1977 production of “Dracula,” starring Frank Langella, would be aghast to see the count’s bats lying in a dumpster.

And it seems no one would be more devastated than Silber to lose the 35-year-old camel from the failed Broadway musical, “Nefertiti.”

“Her name is Camelia,” Silber says of the doe-eyed mammal that lives near a wicker hamper in a corner of his house. “Like all the creatures I’ve created, she has a name that starts with the first letter of the creature.”

He’s not kidding.

There’s Portia the pig from the 1982 Broadway revival of “Alice in Wonderland,” Penny the pigeon from the 1999 musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” and Ronnie the rat from “Dracula.”

A self-described “circus crusty,” Silber is the guy who makes the magic happen backstage.

A union stagehand, studio mechanic and former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus technical director, Silber can trace the props and special effects as far back as the iconic mirror ball he designed and built in 1965 for Ringling Bros. circus trainer Charly Baumann.

At 68 he’s still at it, traveling back and forth between his scenic studio in the Rosemary District and his 24th-floor office in Times Square, both of which he’s worked out of since the 1970s.

A longtime member of the Showfolks Club of Sarasota, Silber’s Broadway credits read like a sizzle reel at the Tony Awards: “Sherlock Holmes,” “Dracula,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Stepping Out,” “The Elephant Man,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Working,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Wicked” and “Footloose,” to name a few.

His living room is furnished with many of the pieces from these shows, including a chair and stool from “Piaf,” a table, bench and throne from “Amadeus” and a chandelier from “Harold and Maude,” from which the star of the show famously hanged himself in the final act.

Dangling over Silber’s dining room table, the light looks like any old thrift store find. Given its context, it seems much more glamorous.

The same goes for the “Wicked” broom. Handcrafted with a crooked stick, it looks too primitive to do any sort of real sweeping, until Silber reveals the secret to making it fly.

“‘Sherlock Holmes’ was probably the first time people started to request me for effects,” he says. “The relationships I built during ‘Sherlock’ led to many of the opportunities I got down the road.”

He’s speaking about his relationship with Nelle Nugent and Elizabeth McCann, the powerhouse producing team that churned out a string of Broadway hits during the 1970s and 1980s.

By Silber’s own account, Broadway is a “clan-like cliquish” thing. For more than a decade, he was a member of the Nugent/McCann clan, an association that earned him his first playbill bios and a reputation for creating smoke, fog and rain effects.

“The smoke did more for me than the rain,” Silber quips. “More shows have smoke than rain.”

"Dracula” was his first major success with flying critters.

Tasked with having to control the erratic flight paths of five different prop bats, Silber invented a mechanical device that reeled two lines at once.

The effect resulted in a controlled figure-eight motion that Silber would use in 38 more bat-themed productions, including Meatloaf’s musical flop, “Dance of the Vampires.”

“Bertoni was my most elaborate bat,” Silber says. “I had him aimed nose-down and straight for (famous Broadway musical director) Paul Gemignani. His eyes were automated by computer cues and timed so they lit only for the duration of his flight. He was a tremendous bat.”

Listening to Silber talk about his Broadway “pets” by first name makes it easy to dismiss the kind of skill and imagination it takes to invent them.

Eccentricity aside, Silber is a master at his craft.

When he was 14 years old, he crept behind the wings of his school auditorium, where he was so enchanted with what he found that he wrote letters to the manufacturers of the audio-visual equipment.

“One day the principal caught me playing with the lighting controls,” Silber says. “I can hear his bellowing voice to this day. He said, ‘How do you know about this stuff?’ I’m not sure what I said, but as punishment he put me in charge of the drama club. Must be I was doing something right.”


DID YOU KNOW?
• Chic Silber used knotty sticks and branches pulled from the woods behind Vamo Road to make several magic brooms for the Broadway musical “Wicked.”
• Silber keeps an antique Steinway upright piano in his office in Times Square. He can’t play the thing, but he uses it to store the ties he wears to Broadway openings because it keeps the fabric flat.
• “Chic” is not a nickname. He was born with it.
• Silber’s wife, Tiki Davies, is the former press secretary for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
• Silber handmade every gun in the 1999 Bernadette Peters revival of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
• Silber’s most recent Broadway credits include “Godspell,” “Wonderland,” “Lennon” and “La Cage aux Folles.”
• Silber worked on the special effects for the 1976 remake of the film “King Kong.”

 

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