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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

The corporations called, but to Dunham's surprise, his studio also began getting calls from individuals who wanted their own layouts--some of which are nearly as large as the commercial jobs. He takes pains to protect the privacy of his clients, though there are a few tantalizing hints. There was the godfather of a national pizza chain, for instance, who commissioned a western railroad. Its craggy, sparsely vegetated mountainsides recall the 1930s paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and the classic westerns of filmmaker John Ford.

With theater only now reviving from the recession-induced dry spell, the train layout business "has been a boon to us," Clarke says. During busy times, many of the artists live at the Duhham lodge for up to eight weeks at a stretch. Says Barbara, "It's the only bed and breakfast where you pay the people to live with you." Part of her job, other than constructing many a layout's buildings, is to cook for the crew. "The 'starving artists' complain that they gain weight here,' she adds.

Inside the Dunhams' barn-cum-studio, there are no hay bales set up for one of Mickey's and Judy's talent revues, but instead a cavernous area covered with battens of silver-coated insulation. At a workbench, Clarke and artisan Rand Angelicola have been busy crafting the set model of a new Broadway musical for Hal Prince, Candide--they'd just received the go-ahead from Prince, and he wants it in two days. At the moment, though, Dunham's not exactly waiting for the next train to come along: nearby there's a model for a layout for the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in Pennsylvania. A section of a new layout for a private customer is taking shape in the middle of the shop floor. Right now it's just a clear, smooth plywood base, with a future gorge already cut in. A tall, perfect, miniature (but still big) trestle already spans the gap, waiting for rocky ledges and waterfalls frozen in space, and, of course, a train. Around this new section, small portions of the World Trade Center's layout languish on the shop floor, giving potential customers an idea of the depth--and height--of the studio's work.

Clarke says that, aside from the extravagantly sized layouts, they've developed some 40 small layout types that are customized and adapted for individual wants and needs. All told, the sizes of Dunham Studio's works range from the four-foot-by-eight-foot plywood sheet favored by everyday basement enthusiasts to platforms 100 feet long. For the discerning enthusiast, size does matter. "We've done more big than small," Clarke says.

The price? Some of the bigger jobs cost nearly half a million dollars. For the most basic designs, figure paying $150 to $300 a square foot. There is no ceiling.

But there is a philosophy--and that as much as anything is responsible for the studio's success. For instance, in his commercial work Dunham likes to mix the scales of the trains: the larger ones in the foreground, descending in size to the smallest gauge in the background. "The foreground will have more of an element of fantasy, with a realistic center," says Clarke. "That way, everybody gets what they like." On top of that, Dunham must consider crowd control; that is, keeping up to 5,000 people a day moving through a commercial space. "Sometimes you walk around them, sometimes you walk into them. On three different public displays," he muses, "there has been only one incident out of a million people."

When it's pointed out that more people have seen his train layouts than have seen his work on Broadway, Dunham pauses for a moment. "That fact is not lost on me," he says. "It's ironical but true."

He walks over to a large section of the Citibank Station's layout to point out some of its extravagance of detail. It's a scene from a fictitious Hudson River community, circa 1941. The recently released Citizen Kane is now (and forever) showing at the miniature Art Deco Edison Theater, while a group of tiny children are frozen in place, having gleefully burst forth from the corner soda shop. A sign atop the tallest building reads: HUDSON HOUSE/GENERAK'S FINEST.

"People will say to us, 'I've eaten in that hotel and the food is really good,' " Dunham says. "After a while we've learned to agree with them." The good city of Generak, after all, derives its name from "generic."

Everywhere the advertisements of bygone and familiar products dot the landscape. Dunham says that they model from archival photos--"always with a large dose of art thrown in," he says with a chuckle. "There is a technique for modeling and theater called 'selective compression.' You take that from the object you need to convey what it is, and leave the rest behind." Still, for Dunham, authenticity is a must. "Somewhere there is a billboard for 'BULL DUNHAM' I am told, but beyond that it's total realism. Occasionally you might find dinosaurs peeking out of the woods, but they were put there by people no longer here," he says, before turning philosophical again.

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