Hollywood On The Riverfront?

Rob Kalesse

Light Action’s huge new facility, including a world-class sound stage, could bring big-time productions to Wilmington

About 380 years ago, the Swedish South Co. sailed a little boat called the Kalmar Nyckel to the New World. Her crew landed at Fort Christina, establishing the first settlement that would become the state of Delaware some 150 years later.

Today, another company is settling on the riverfront area, just a few blocks away along Wilmington’s 7th Street Peninsula. Called Light Action Productions, it may not have quite the impact as the landing of the Swedes, but its potential boost to the area economy is prodigious.

In an online exclusive with Out & About released late last month, Light Action Productions owner and President Scott Humphrey revealed details of his plans for a 150,000-square-foot facility on 10 acres of land along the peninsula. The $8 million project, he said, also will feature a 25,000-square-foot, 95-foot-tall sound stage called The Pine Box, lit up and visible from Interstate 495. It’s the kind of facility that could lure big hitters from entertainment centers like New York and Los Angeles.

“This sound stage will be for crews and companies that are either doing pre-production on a Broadway musical, or for a touring band that’s about to go out on the road, or for film or TV crews,” says the 56-year-old Humphrey. “I think this space will bring a sort of organic energy and lots of opportunity to the area.”

Humphrey says he’s been looking to move his business from New Castle to the city for quite some time. After outgrowing his space at Industrial Drive just off Route 13, he’s ready to move his lighting, staging, rigging and other equipment needed for putting on a live show of any kind or magnitude. (His company built the infrastructure that lined the Benjamin Franklin Parkway when Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015.)

“It took time to find the right spot before we decided to invest and make the move from New Castle, but if we’re in the city, we can grow. It makes sense for us,” he says. “We’re breaking ground before the first of the year, and we’re really excited. This place can be a centerpiece for the Riverfront, and it’ll be something that will really catch the eyes of people driving down the highway toward the city.” 

According to Humphrey, the City of Wilmington was eager to facilitate the sale of the 20 acres of land (the total purchased by Humphrey). Mayor Michael Purzycki says the location and availability of land on the 7th Street Peninsula, while somewhat neglected, makes perfect sense for a company of Light Action’s size.

“There aren’t that many places in the city where you can find a piece of property that large, especially for a company of Scott’s size, with the need for external parking, all his big rigs, storage, and equipment,” says Purzycki. “We wanted to do everything we could to make the site attractive, but there was no particular assistance from us other than the commitment that we will approve road access out there.”

Once the facility is built, Light Action Productions’ warehouse—which will be filled with every sort of live entertainment production element—will occupy 90,000 square feet, along with 30,000 square feet of space devoted to design, video and lighting studios and conference rooms. Another 5,000 square feet will be reserved for office space, and the final 25,000 square feet for The Pine Box, which Humphrey says is a reference to an expression his father always used.

“My dad would always say, ‘This is my last move before I go in the pine box,’” says Humphrey. “I figure this is my last move, so I kinda threw the name out there as a joke, but it stuck, and the architect liked it. The building will eventually have an ipe [wooden decking] wrap on it and of course we’ll light it up for different occasions and holidays.”

Humphrey says he’s already spoken to industrial and manufacturing neighbors in the 7th Street vicinity and has plans for the area. A small community featuring a restaurant and/or bar and possible hotel accommodations has been mentioned, though no plans have been confirmed as yet.

Scott Humphrey has owned Light Action since 1983. Photo Justin Heyes/Moonloop Photography

So Who is Scott Humphrey?

For as many people who know Scott Humphrey—local musicians, Mayor Purzycki, the group behind the Firefly Music Festival, and music, film and TV industry folks from coast to coast—there are many more who don’t. It seems that Humphrey prefers it that way (at least until now). He likes to fly under the radar and behind the scenes, almost like the equipment he rents and sells for shows.

He was born in Detroit, but his family moved to Toronto in 1970, where he spent two years honing his hockey skills. He realized early on that going pro someday was out of the question, but he credits the discipline and structure of hockey camp and practice for his work ethic.

“I’ll tell you, it was a rude awakening knowing I didn’t have what it took to someday play professionally,” Humphrey says from his New Castle warehouse. “But having to work that hard at such a young age prepared me for a life in business and has a lot to do with where I am today.”

His family moved once again, this time to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he spent his high school years dabbling in the school theater and running lighting for his brother’s band, Heaven’s Edge. After graduating, he toured with The Force, out of Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, while working at his father’s printing company.

A year later, he was working at clubs all over New Jersey, doing lighting wherever he could on a board he’d made himself. Then, out of the blue, he got a call from a friend in Delaware, saying The Johnny Neel Band was looking for someone to do lighting for their tour up and down the East Coast.

The year was 1983. “I wasn’t making shit, and I needed gigs,” says Humphrey. “I decided to start my own company while I was still working at the printing company. Me and my co-workers there always used ‘action’ to describe what we were doing. Like, ‘let’s get into some drinkin’ action’ or ‘let’s get some party action going’ or whatever. So a co-worker – I’ll never forget her, Karen Link—said, ‘What about Light Action?’ And it stuck.”

With that, he was off and running—out of his van, for the most part. He started working with Philly area legends like Robert Hazard and Tommy Conwell, which led to bigger tours with Thin Lizzy, Cyndi Lauper and Joe Piscopo’s Miller Lite tour. But by the late ‘80s, the work slowed and he was just about out of money.

That’s when he got a call from Michael Glick, who was the production manager on Rocky V. “Apparently, he got my number from a Power 99 [FM] DJ who I worked with on another project,” says Humphrey. “Each day, the station would announce over the air that the film needed extras, and whoever showed up at the Civic Center might be in the movie. He knew I did lighting, so he passed my name along.”

That one meeting completely turned things around, Humphrey says. The contract to do the lighting for the fight scenes at the Civic Center paid him and his longtime business partner, Paula De Luca, $50,000. And when the studio called a month later to say it needed Light Action to set up additional continuity shots in Los Angeles, a check for another $50,000 arrived.

“I don’t care who you are, $100,000 in 1989 was a big deal. In less than 60 days, I had more money than I’d ever made in a year,” says Humphrey. “We were set to really start focusing on building the business in Delaware, rather than hopping on every tour that came our way.”

One-Stop Shop

Rocky V led to the Nick Nolte-Shaq vehicle Blue Chips, which in turn led to doing lighting and staging for the MTV Music Video Awards at Radio City Music Hall in 1993. Over the years, Humphrey’s company also has worked just about every Fourth of July “Welcome to America” event in Philadelphia. As a result, he started three other businesses—Applied Electronics, Staging Dimensions and Riverfront AV—to handle the production service business from soup to nuts.

“I realized that if you’re in New York or L.A., you can afford to pick one: lighting, staging, maybe sound, whatever,” says Humphrey. “But when you’re in Delaware, you gotta kind of diversify yourself, so that you can be a one-stop shop.”

Rather than move to one of those big cities, Humphrey stayed put. He credits much of his attraction to Wilmington to its “A Place to Be Somebody” tagline. As he recalls, on trips to the beach with his dad, James, they would pass the sign and it left an impression on him. In the back of his mind, he says, it served as some sort of inspiration.

“I always wondered, when we passed that sign, ‘Would I ever be somebody? Would I make something of myself?’” he says. “I think I have, but a lot of it is because of what’s clicked for me here in Delaware. I’ve met some fantastic people here, and I’ve always gotten the sense that people are willing to help each other out here. I can’t explain it, but I just get good vibes here.”

He says he’s hoping to give something back to the area that’s given him so much over the past 30-plus years. He believes the move can bring more attention to an otherwise neglected area of the city, and that The Pine Box can be a resource for independent filmmakers.

Rendering of the Light Action warehouse and The Pine Box soundstage on the 7th Street Peninsula.

Luring Filmmakers

Ever since Dead Poets Society filmed in Delaware in 1988, First Staters have had that Hollywood itch, but it’s been difficult to scratch. Sure, Delaware natives like Aubrey Plaza and Ryan Phillippe, among others, have certainly made a name for themselves. But they don’t shoot feature films in their home state, and one reason just might be the lack of a sound stage, which Humphrey will have ready to go by 2020.

But facilities are just one consideration. T.J. Healy, chairman of the Delaware Film Office, says that while The Pine Box sound stage is a great thing for the Wilmington Riverfront, and Humphrey may have the right connections in New York and L.A., it won’t necessarily bring big-time directors and producers to Delaware. Healy, who has worked primarily on the production side of the industry since 1966, was involved with Dead Poets, and knows that, like everything, money talks.

“There are cities out there, Atlanta being one of them, that will offer production crews something in the neighborhood of 30 percent in tax credits to film there,” says Healy. “I don’t think our local legislators are willing to do that—or at least they haven’t yet—which is a shame, because as I recall, Dead Poets brought in around $18 million during the crew’s short stay here. Even that was mostly a result of rooms they rented for like 100 nights at the old Radisson Hotel, as well as all the meals they ate and the shopping they did while they were here. You’ve got to offer some sort of incentive if a crew is going to infuse that kind of financial boost.”

On a smaller scale, Zach Phillips, creative director of Short Order Production House in Wilmington, loves the idea of Humphrey moving his facility to the 7th Street Peninsula. As a board member of the Challenge Program, which sits adjacent to the Kalmar Nyckel Museum along 7th Street, Phillips is happy to see the area getting the attention it severely lacks.

“The fact that someone who has the resources to do something like that sees the opportunity in Wilmington is a really good sign,” he says. “It’s one thing for cool, new fintech companies to grow in Wilmington, but something like this, with a little more sex appeal, well, that’s exciting.”

Philips says his company uses its own 29-by-47-foot sound stage locally, and as a creative production company that works primarily on commercial video projects, a sound stage as large as The Pine Box might not fit his needs. But knowing it’s there and what it can attract is the bigger picture.

“Once the infrastructure is there to lure larger production companies in, anything is possible,” says Phillips. “I mean, just think about how expensive it can be to get this kind of space in New York, and how many actors have apartments in the city. They could get down here on the Acela in no time.”

While The Pine Box might be a bit big for Phillips’ purposes, knowing he could get his crew in there on a budget would be comforting. Humphrey says he sees an opportunity for production crews both large and small, and would be willing to offer a Delaware discount, of sorts, to local independent filmmakers as well.

“If [the sound stage] is open for four weeks, we’re open, and we’ll cut them a deal that works with their budget,” says Humphrey. “We can back that up because I own these things, so it’s a little easier to do. But I’m all about giving back because I know how indie film directors have to watch every nickel and dime.”

Independent filmmaker Rob Waters, who runs W Films out of Lewes and coordinates the Revival House program at the Milton Theatre each month, says the local indie scene is middling at best, and lacks a real cohesion to bring everything together.

“I’m not sure I would find myself in need of something as big as a 25,000-square-foot sound stage, but maybe this Pine Box can act as a sort of hub,” says Waters. “We haven’t done a WilmFilm Festival in a few years because people just didn’t really come out, and it fizzled. I would love to get something like that going again.”

Humphrey, again, is open to the idea. When asked if he might be able to secure a major motion picture producer in the event of a future festival, his first response was, “Oh god, yes. I couldn’t be any more welcoming to something like that. The Pine Box isn’t going to be a public space that will be used on a regular basis, so we’ll want to find other ways to use it.”

Indeed, rarely has “a place to be somebody” had a better opportunity to demonstrate the accuracy of that motto.

According to Humphrey, the City of Wilmington was eager to facilitate the sale of the 20 acres of land (the total purchased by Humphrey). Mayor Michael Purzycki says the location and availability of land on the 7th Street Peninsula, while somewhat neglected, makes perfect sense for a company of Light Action’s size.

“There aren’t that many places in the city where you can find a piece of property that large, especially for a company of Scott’s size, with the need for external parking, all his big rigs, storage, and equipment,” says Purzycki. “We wanted to do everything we could to make the site attractive, but there was no particular assistance from us other than the commitment that we will improve road access out there.”

Once the facility is built, Light Action Productions’ warehouse – which will be filled with every sort of live entertainment production element – will occupy 90,000 square feet, along with 30,000 square feet of space designated to design, video and lighting studios and conference rooms. Another 5,000 square feet will be reserved for office space, and the final 25,000 square feet for the Pine Box, which Humphrey says is a reference to an expression his father always used.

“My dad would always say, ‘This is my last move before I go in the pine box,’” says Humphrey. “I figure this is my last move, so I kinda threw the name out there as a joke, but it stuck, and the architect liked it. The building will eventually have an ipe [wooden decking] wrap on it and of course we’ll light it up for different occasions and holidays.”

Humphrey says he’s already spoken to industrial and manufacturing neighbors in the 7th Street vicinity and has plans for the area. A small community featuring a restaurant and/or bar and possible hotel accommodations has been mentioned, though no plans have been confirmed. A grand opening and ribbon-cutting for the facility, provided construction timetables remain on target, is tentatively scheduled for late 2019. By 2020, Wilmington – “A Place to Be Somebody” – could become The Place to Be Somebody.

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