Sapper is the man without whom few people's names would ever go up in lights. He is the owner of King Displays, a family business founded by his grandfather Louis that has served the signage needs of Broadway theatres for 71 years. That sign in the marquee shouting the name of the show? That's the work of King Displays. The window cards? King Displays. The hanging plastic placards festooned with critics' quotes? You guessed it. There's hardly a sign in front of a Broadway theatre that Sapper and his employees didn't have a hand in — even the familiar cast boards inside the lobby that list the names of the players performing that night.
Wayne Sapper likes to think of King Displays as a kind of one-stop-shopping destination for Broadway signs. "Everything from the marquees to the little name sliders," he said. "That's exactly what we try to be."
Sixty percent of Sapper's business comes from the theatre. Consequently, King Displays is conveniently located on W. 52nd Street, near the Theatre District. It's a smallish industrial building, but big enough to hold a few of the huge, 15-foot-wide printing machines that the company needs to make the signs that it is known for. A recent printer cost no less than $350,000. Because King prints on many different kinds of material, from paper to plastic to fabric, Hewlitt-Packard uses the company as a "beta site" to test out new types of machinery.
Sapper will admit that theatrical sign-making is more challenging that it used to be. In the old days, everything was hand-painted. "We used to do everything by hand. I think we did our first computer image in 1989." Painted marquees took from seven to ten days to create. They were done in oil-based paints, and time was needed for each separate color to dry.
That time table would not do today. "A show closes on Sunday, say," said Sapper. "We'll get the work for the new show coming in on the Wednesday before and they'll want it up Monday. The quicker we get the new show up, that's more advertising they get." The call for a new job usually comes from one of the theatrical advertising outfits, like Serino Coyne or SpotCo. (In decades past, the contact would be one of the bigger press agents.) Sapper needs every one of his fancy printers to realize their design concepts. "With the advantages of the computer, what they're looking for is different," he said. "The people in the agencies are very creative. So they always want to come up with new and different things, not the 'plain-old plain-old.' And with the different technologies out there, there are new ways to produce it."
Of course, Broadway producers are used to getting what they want, and it's Sapper's job to find a way to give it to them. Consistency of hue in a marquee is a continual challenge to King Displays. "It's hard to make marquees look alike day and night," explained Sapper. "A back-illuminated image is really made for nighttime viewing. But now, with the equipment we have, we're able to print it so it looks the same day and night." The musical Next to Normal presented a tough assignment. The art features plenty of purple, an extremely variable color. "When it's lighted, purple is a bright color. During the day, when the light's not on it, purple is a dark color, almost like black. But they want everything to be consistent." Sapper made many tests on a number of materials — today's marquees are typically printed on translucent vinyl — and played with a number of lighting techniques until he finally got it right. After he's perfected the sign, all he has to do is get the marquee up on the theatre. That can prove tricky, too. "The problem is, we have the loadout to work around," said Sapper, referring to the process by which the sets of a previous show are carted out of the theatre and trucked away. "The show closes on Sunday, loadout is Monday. We have to maneuver around the trucks to get the marquees in."
Calls must also be placed to a couple of unions to make the marquee-hanging happen. The riggers from Local 137 are the only ones sanctioned to put up, take down, or fix a Broadway marquee. And should some of the bulbs inside need to be changed, you'll need the electrical workers at Local 3.
Sapper estimated that King Displays handles 80 percent of the theatres on Broadway. It fills out its days with work for movies, as well as companies like Target and JetBlue (fabric banners for their airline terminal). In the days of Louis Sapper, who founded the company on West 45th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, the company did a great deal of work with the burlesque theatres. When Madison Square Garden was on West 49th Street, they would create the giant cutouts of pugilists with dukes up, to proclaim the coming of a new title bout. During the Depression, King painted movie ads in the tunnels of subway stations. And during the 1960s and 1970s, when Times Square was down on its luck, work flowed in from the pornography movie houses.
Wayne Sapper can always take a walk down his business' Memory Lane if he chooses to. Many of the past signs created by King are stored out in a warehouse in New Jersey. Others for long-running shows like Wicked, Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera are stacked up in the basement; with the way those musicals change cast members, who can tell if a former window card sporting the mug of a past headliner will suddenly come in handy again.
He's hesitant to throw any of it away. Like theatre itself, theatre signs are ephemeral. Once they're lost, they're lost. "I wish they had a museum I could donate things to," he said.