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`There Is Something Magical About A Train'


Letter From The Adirondacks

`THERE IS SOMETHING MAGICAL ABOUT A TRAIN'

When I was small, my father took me backstage at the theater where he designed scenery and lighting for actors such as Claude Rains, George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, and Margaret Hamilton. The huge sets transported me magically around the world, through history: Washington crossing the Delaware, medieval England, imperial Budapest. Even some four decades later, I can smell the sawdust and see the scraps of leftover wood that my brother Rob and I built into our own miniature sets.

Those memories come rushing back as I walk into The Barn, my parents' workshop in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The place smells of sawdust and crackles with the tension of a fast-approaching opening night. But something's different now in my dad's world: Instead of simply designing award-winning sets for Broadway and opera, Clarke Dunham also builds intricate model-train layouts for corporations, executives, and museums. My mother, Barbara Tumarkin Dunham--a graphic artist, painter, sculptor, poet and playwright--is business manager and chief artisan.

The reason for the late-fall bustle: They're finishing up work on their best-known project, the holiday display at Citicorp Center in midtown Manhattan. The massive layout, unfolding inside a Victorian railway station, includes 500 square feet of scenery, 25 different train lines, 21 animated scenes, more than 1,000 sculpted humans and animals, 5,000 trees, and a mile of electrical wiring. A popular holiday-season tourist stop, it's open daily through Jan. 2.

Corporate clients such as Citicorp and the Opryland Hotel in Nashville--and museums from Pennsylvania to Nebraska--allow hundreds of thousands of Americans to see my parents' handiwork every year. But the heart of their business is customized layouts for individuals, mostly executives. Now, instead of building big dreams for children like me, my dad is creating tiny child-like fantasies for grownups.

What motivates a businessperson to spend upwards of $100,000 for a train layout? "I've thought about it a lot," says my father, 62, who has designed about 400 productions, including Candide, Bubbling Brown Sugar, The Iceman Cometh, Madama Butterfly, The Me Nobody Knows, and MacBird! "Despite the [corny] Amtrak ad, there is something magical about a train. It can transport you wherever you want to go: a better, happier time; your childhood; somewhere you used to live and don't; or all of the above." My mom, 60, says trains are particularly appealing to stressed-out execs: "Their worlds are out of control, and they have to have a universe that they can control."

Whatever the reason, my parents have clearly found an untapped market. Clients discover their business through word-of-mouth in the train world, by viewing their commercial layouts, or from their Web site (www.dunhamstudios.com). While there are 271,000 model-train buffs who spend $220 million a year on their hobby, according to Model Railroader magazine, only an affluent few commission layouts. Dad tends to divide noncorporate customers into three groups: major-company CEOs, entrepreneurs, and successful baby-boomer lawyers.

"There are three things we hear: I don't have enough time. I don't know how to do it. And I've promised this to myself all my life, and now I can afford it," my father says. Most clients guard their privacy and won't let their names be made public. An exception is fast-food entrepreneur Willy Thiessen, founder of Godfather's Pizza Inc.ARMY OF ARTISTS. Custom layouts aren't cheap. A small one (4-by-8 feet) starts at about $7,500, while an elaborate one can top $1 million. The average layout runs about $200 per square foot. That includes a detailed setup with Broadway-quality scenery, top-caliber trains (new or reconditioned antiques), and sophisticated electronics systems. "You can get it for less, but you can't get it better," Dad boasts.

To meet demand, my parents transformed a turn-of-the-century trout-fishing lodge at the base of Catamount Mountain in tiny Pottersville, N.Y. The Annex, a small, homey building near the main lodge, serves as a makeshift B&B for visiting theatrical professionals from New York City who do everything from painting backdrops to creating the tiny town scenes. The nerve center of the operation is The Barn, a perpetual construction zone cum warehouse. Built in 1989 on the foundation of a barn that once housed the property's horses, it is now equipped with several computers and the latest in model-train technology.

The invasion of big-city artists has created a bit of a culture clash in this quiet Adirondack town, where most people work in logging, road construction, or service jobs. That hasn't stopped several locals from helping out, however. Roy Baker, a Schroon Lake photographer, says his neighbors are "just stunned" when he tells them he works on model trains. "They shake their heads in wonder," he says. "It totally blows their mind that you actually get paid to play with trains all day long."

To many of the crew, it is a labor of love. Lloyd Higgins, a nuclear engineer, has been a train addict since he rode the 20th Century Limited to Chicago for Navy boot camp in 1959. Now, retired from the military, he refurbishes tiny locomotives and renovates track. "I've probably got the best job in the world, combining my hobby and making a living," Lloyd says.

My father, too, has had a long romance with the rails, ever since he received his first toy train at age 6. Then my grandmother's best friend, Sarah Schaffner, gave him her son Frank's old trains while he was fighting in World War II. (Frank later had a distinguished career as a movie director, winning an Oscar for Patton.) Dad built his first layouts, with scenery, in an empty room on the third floor of his house. But a budding career as a theatrical designer in the '60s--and the reality of having to feed, clothe, and raise four children--made his beloved hobby an unaffordable luxury.

All of that changed, quite by chance, in 1985. Having just won his second consecutive Tony Award nomination for best scenic design, he was eagerly sought by corporations for commercial projects. When Citibank asked him to propose a holiday display, Dad suggested a massive train layout in the atrium of the corporate headquarters building. Citibank Station opened on Dec. 1, 1987, and a business enterprise was created.RELIABLE CASH. My parents didn't plan to make model trains a second career, but people kept calling. Cigar Aficionado magazine called Dad "the most sought-after designer in the genre." And the cash flow was more reliable than the theater's. Roy Baker, their modelmaker/sculptor/philosopher, posits that the train boom that began in the mid-1980s is "a direct result of Reaganomics. We've finally begun the trickle down."

My mother, who serves as chief tour guide for the Holiday Station at Citicorp Center display, says it is dreams that unite the wealthy CEO and the young child seeing his or her first model-train display. "It draws something primal out of them," she says. "You look out at them, and people are always smiling." As my parents have learned, it's nice to be able to make a living by making people happy.EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top


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