Some kids grow up wanting to be firemen, astronauts or reality-show stars. When I was small, I sat in the Livingston, N.J., library leafing through theme-park guidebooks, dreaming of becoming a designer for one of the attractions I was reading about. I never reached my brass ring, though I did labor as an employee in said attractions and have since written guidebooks about them.
Stephanie Girard, though, was someone who grabbed that ring and held tight until the very end. Girard was a freelance art director and scenic designer for films (Leatherheads, Ray) and theme parks (Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, Grinchmas and Harry Potter), but her biggest project was raising money for the American Cancer Society and its Relay for Life, a cause she took up in early 2010 after receiving a terminal prognosis in her six-year struggle with colon cancer. As always, Girard exceeded expectations on several counts: She collected $8,000 more than her ambitious fundraising goal of $25,000, and she lived months longer than doctors predicted before she passed away on December 30, 2010.
On April 22, many of Girard's friends and colleagues gathered at Mad Cow Theatre for the second annual Entertainment Designer Forum. The first such event, held last year, was organized by Girard with Universal's Kim Gromoll; it raised $5,000 for the fight against cancer. This year's event, which was dedicated to Girard, featured theme-park professionals engaged in two lively 90-minute Q&A sessions, as well as an auction of unique attraction memorabilia. More than $8,000 was raised in total. Auction items included a VIP Halloween Horror Nights tour and a signed Potter poster - both of which nabbed more than $300 each - and a Terra Cruentus prop medallion from Halloween Horror Nights that fetched $400. All of the evening's proceeds went to the Relay for Life.
Both sessions were hosted by Mike Aiello, a performer and playwright best known as writer of the popular Bill and Ted Halloween parody for most of the past decade. Guest panelists were:
Patrick Braillard, show director for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and marquee events; T.J. Mannarino, Universal's director of art and design, and designer of the gross-out games for Nickelodeon's Double Dare; James Keaton, actor behind Universal's Jack the Clown and Disney's Turtle Talk with Crush; Mary Nesler, art designer for Universal and Disney; Eric Baker, props master for Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter; Rick Spencer, creative manager and writer/producer for Universal; Kim Gromoll, designer for Universal parades and Halloween Horror Nights; Doug Sauls, technical manager for Universal special events; Robbi Lepre, 36-year veteran of Busch Gardens Tampa, currently director of theatrical services; Ray Keim, model designer for Universal, and also a cancer survivor; Cindy White, concept artist and freelance designer for parades at Tokyo Disneyland and the Superbowl half-time shows; and David Hughes, senior designer of Universal's haunted houses, and former employee of the Mickey Mouse Club (with Britney).
The audience was filled with Halloween Horror Nights and Harry Potter fanboys (present company included), but if anyone came expecting spoilers about the future of either franchise, they were destined for disappointment. I'm proud to say I asked the only question of the night (about disabled effects hidden inside the Forbidden Journey attraction) to violate the "no spoilers" edict, eliciting a firm but friendly "NO!" from Aiello.
Still, there was plenty to placate Potterphiles, particularly from props guru Eric Baker. As the first in-house props master at Universal, Baker oversaw the assembly of more than 40,000 individual items to fill the windows and shelves of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade (there are 15,000 wand boxes in Ollivanders alone). Many of the objects on display were scanned and molded from the original film props, and a few (the Quidditch pads in Spintwiches' window and the Gilderoy Lockhart books near the Fat Lady portrait in Hogwarts) were actually used on screen, but Baker found the chair in the Gryffindor common room on the side of I-4 near the Millenia Mall.
Similarly, the Halloween faithful got tidbits about Halloween good (Keaton recounted his first public appearance as Halloween Horror Nights icon Jack, asking at City Hall to talk with then-mayor Glenda Hood and being questioned by the cops), bad (T.J. Mannarino discussed toning down the event after 9/11) and ugly (Sauls recalled an enormous experimental Tesla coil effect that destroyed speakers and tree limbs with artificial electricity).
But my favorite stories of the night were non-gory career insights. Nesler, who spent 15 years at Disney before working at Universal for the past dozen, compared them thusly: "If Disney is a like tea party, Universal is a block party." As a former freelancer who kick-started her career by secretly designing Christmas decor for Islands of Adventure on spec, her advice to hopeful designers was "dig down, find your chutzpah and hope they don't hit you." Likewise, Lepre said the "twists are what makes it fun." Finally, freelancer Cindy White (who has designed everything from Junie B. Jones at the Orlando REP to the new parade at Sesame Place, a Sesame Street-themed park in Pennsylvania) said that as big parks close their in-house fabrication shops in favor of outsourcing, "you don't need a job, you need to start a company." The bottom line, according to all these dream-job holders, was "follow your bliss." That's a sentiment I'm sure Stephanie Girard would have applauded.