Wayne Sapper never gets to see his name in lights. Sapper's the one who puts other people's names in lights — those of Broadway stars, all over The Great White Way. He is president of King Displays, the company that creates most of the marquees, billboards, wall displays, flags and banners that help build the dazzle, color and excitement that define New York's theatre district.
"It's a passion with me," Sapper says. "I get a tremendous amount of pride seeing my company's work and the atmosphere it creates — especially when I walk around the neighborhood and see tourists taking photos. It's a big part of their trip to New York. I love being involved in the great community of the theatre. It's like a family."
Speaking of family, Sapper has been with his company since 1974 — but it was begun by his grandfather in 1938 and continued by his father, so his is the third Sapper generation to be running the business.
When his grandfather, Louis Sapper, started, the work was more for movies — "giant cutouts of King Kong, giant cutouts of the boxers at Madison Square Garden." His father, Jerry Sapper, moved into the theatre world. Wayne is quick to acknowledge that the family business was not his first choice. "I was born and grew up in Brooklyn, and I went to the University of Houston because I wanted to get as far away from New York as possible so that I wouldn't have to work for my father. Because my father worked for his father. I wanted to be the rebel."
He got a degree in fine arts at Houston, but then he returned to Brooklyn to get a master's at Pratt. "I went to school at night, and worked with my father during the day. After I got the degree, it was difficult to find a job, so I decided to work for my father." When his dad died in 1986, he took over. It has turned out to be a happy decision, he says.
Sapper and his staff of 15 work directly with theatrical advertising agencies and press agents to decorate the front of theatres. "We'll put the graphics on the theatre doors - anywhere we can find a space to put something, we'll put something."
These days, he says, it's all digitally printed. "The business has changed. Everything used to be done by hand, custom painted. Now it's all computer generated. But it's great to get involved in the new technology."
His favorite, or most memorable, signs? In the winter of 1976, Billy Dee Williams was starring on Broadway in I Have a Dream, about Martin Luther King, Jr. "It was ten degrees, and Williams was leaving the show [his replacement was Moses Gunn], and everything was hand-painted on plexiglass. I had to go over to the Ambassador Theatre and wipe his name off. It was cold."
Then there was the 1977 revival of The King and I that starred Yul Brynner. "He came up [to the King Displays offices] to look at the marquee, which had a rendering of him. He opened the door, and he assumed that familiar pose from the show, with his hands on his hips. 'That looks like me,' he said. 'That's good.' And he turned and left…
"It's the excitement of creating something that people love to see that makes doing this a passion for me," Sapper says. "It's part of New York. It's part of history."