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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

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

(continued from page 5)

Citicorp had hoped to draw 30,000 people that holiday season; more than 141,000 came through the atrium doors. The next year, 1988, the new and improved station drew 200,000 visitors, and the year after that, 240,000 saw the display. But just when the nation needed it the most, during the 1990-'91 recession, Citicorp put the show on indefinite hiatus, a victim of cost-cutting. "We got calls for three years asking what happened to the train," says Barbara Dunham. The show was revived this past holiday season.

Of course, Broadway was hit hard by the recession as well. It's a generally recognized fact that praise has no known nutritional value, though it's less widely understood that Tony nominations can't be used as legal tender (in most states). "Since I can't call Hal [Prince] and say, 'Gee, I want a Broadway show this week,' we were left with the necessity of making a living," Clarke Dunham says. "We decided we would capitalize on a story in Model Railroader, and placed ads looking for other corporate clients," thinking only corporate pockets could handle paying upwards of a quarter-million dollars for a train layout. It turned out, however, that other groups were also interested. First in line was the P.T. Barnum Museum, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was compiling an exhibit of--what else?--model trains. When the curator commissioned a layout from the Dunhams, they became formal museum clients. With a little prodding Clarke can tick off a list of other such clients: The Valley Junction Train Museum in Des Moines, Iowa; The Western Heritage Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; New York City's World Trade Center; and a huge exhibit at America's Railroads on Parade in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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. In addition, 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.

Dunham says that, aside from the extravagantly sized layouts, he and his crew have developed some 40 small layout types that are customized and adapted for individual wants and needs. All told, the sizes of Dunham Studios' 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," Dunham 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," he says. "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 Station at Citicorp Center 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.

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