Above: The Pine Box with Light Action Productions at right have brought new energy to the 7th St. Peninsula. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

By Scott Pruden

An exterior look at The Pine Box Studios. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

Not many of us receive the gift of knowing at a young age what we want to do as a career. Scott Humphrey, owner and president of The Pine Box Studios and Light Action Productions, is among those fortunate enough to have received such a gift as a teenager, compliments of the screaming guitar of one of rock’s most innovative guitarists.

It was in March of 1978 at the Tower Theater, the venerable Upper Darby music venue, that a teenage Humphrey was in the audience for a triple bill of Journey, Montrose and — opening the show — a fresh new act on the Warner Bros. label called Van Halen touring in support of their eponymous major label debut. As Humphrey walked into the auditorium, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was in the middle of a scorching three-minute-plus version of “Eruption.”

“I’m blown away. I’ve never heard anything like this in my life,” Humphrey says. “I went out the next day, bought the record, and I’m like, I’m going to be in this business somehow, some way. I’ll do sound, lights — I don’t care what it is.”

Fast forward 45 years, and Humphrey sits in the conference room at the center of Light Action Productions and Pine Box Studios, a complex at E. 7th St. that embodies the culmination of that initial dream. 

Situated on 20 acres on the peninsula near the point where the waters of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek merge before heading into the Delaware River, this combination of concert and theatrical production warehouse connected to a massive soundstage was something previously unheard of in Wilmington, or, for that matter, Delaware.

The Light Action facility relocates Humphrey’s former warehouse in New Castle, providing 100,000 square feet for the storage of the company’s expansive selection of everything needed to build an indoor or outdoor stage, light it and provide visual effects and sound. Fronting the warehouse is a sleek modern office space for the complex’s designers, architects, engineers and administrative staff.

Readying for the Road

But the crown jewel of the site is a gigantic empty box. In this case, however, emptiness only means near limitless potential.

The Pine Box, visible from Interstate 495, looms over the cattails and marsh surrounding the site but offers no hint as to what’s inside. And that makes perfect sense, because what’s inside might depend on what day it happens to be. 

In 2023 alone, the space has already seen full staging and rehearsals for the national SOS tour of singer SZA and — in a tip of the hat to the show that originally set Humphrey on his path in concert light and sound — staging set up for the 2023 tour of classic rock stalwarts Journey. 

Such venues are key for big rock shows, Humphrey says, as they allow production teams often comprised of up to four or five separate companies — stage construction, lighting, sound and visual effects among them — to build everything in advance and work out any logistical issues without the pressure of a looming performance.

The Pine Box has already hosted national acts preparing for upcoming tours. Photo courtesy The Pine Box.

And while rock tours have been The Pine Box’s bread and butter since it opened for business, the facility lends itself to clients as diverse as a rehearsal spot for Broadway touring companies and a soundstage for TV and feature film production.

The space itself comes as advertised — a bare 21,000-square-foot production studio with a ceiling height of 85 feet. Suspended at the stage end is a 130-foot by 90-foot frame on which visiting bands can suspend up to 100,000 pounds of overhead sound, light and projection equipment. Along the wall opposite the stage are two stories of dressing room, wardrobe, office and catering space totaling 6,000 square feet.

Along the house left side of the “box” is a six-bay loading dock with a climate-controlled anteroom for crews to load in equipment out of the elements before moving it to the main room.

Clients rent The Pine Box as a single unit, with all the ancillary spaces included and a private entrance separate from the main Light Action offices. But it’s not just the building clients are renting, Humphrey says. The goal of The Pine Box team is to provide a full-service experience, from booking hotel rooms and picking crew and performers up from the airport to providing catering, on-site support and extra gear from the Light Action warehouse if needed. 

It’s a very specific selection of features that’s in high demand now that artists have resumed touring after an extended hiatus while COVID-19 restrictions were in place. And because rehearsal space options on the East Coast are limited — Starwood Rehearsals in Nashville and Rock Lititz up the road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are two of The Pine Box’s main competitors — booking a client often comes down to who is available at a particular time, Humphrey says.

“You go to yourself, ‘I need to rent a facility that gives me an area where I can set up my stage and all my production equipment, lighting, sound, video, everything. I need at least a 100- by 150-foot footprint with a ceiling height of 80 feet or taller.’ Well, if you go online right now to look for how many of those facilities are in the country — let’s just talk about the Northeast Corridor — there’s not a lot of them,” he says. 

The City as an Amenity

And among those limited choices, Wilmington is perfectly situated logistically. Two airports — Philadelphia International and Wilmington — are within a drive of 30 minutes or less, and there’s easy access to I-95 and major hubs like New York City and Baltimore. There’s very little a tour production manager wouldn’t want.

But it’s not just about what’s available when. It’s about what the artist and crew can find when they arrive, Humphrey notes. The diversity of lodging, dining and nightlife is a driving factor. The Hotel DuPont offers high-end accommodations for performers, and for those who desire a bigger city experience, Philadelphia is a convenient drive. The Riverfront’s multiple hotels within an easy commute of The Pine Box and Wilmington’s growing reputation as a culinary destination don’t hurt either, Humphrey notes.

“You name it, it’s all right here. And it’s within walking distance. The guys [on the crews] are like, “Oh, we stayed down on the Riverfront. This is great. We didn’t have to drive anywhere. We didn’t need your drivers to take us around,’” he says. “They could just be here, go to the hotel, walk out the door to go to Del Pez or one of the restaurants down there. Go to the theater and watch a movie. During the summertime, you go watch a ballgame.”

Scott Humphrey’s Pine Box Studios stands tall, visible to passersby on I-495. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

Kevin Christopher, production manager for the Journey tour, agreed that having all the benefits of Wilmington nearby was one of the primary incentives for him to book The Pine Box. 

“What was really appealing about Pine Box is, OK everybody’s going to go work there and anyone who is off for the evening, we’re staying in the Riverfront, there’s plenty of stuff now in the Riverfront to go find places to eat or stuff like that,” he says.

Meanwhile, the economic benefits of having a touring crew staying in the city are significant, says Sean Park, director of economic development for the City of Wilmington. A preliminary economic impact survey based on tourism data from Visit Delaware and the average spending of non-local overnight visitors estimated an additional $1.8 million annually flowing into the Wilmington economy from crews working at The Pine Box.

“We’re hopeful that will have a trickle-down effect on helping to increase the local economy,” he says.

A Dream Fulfilled

And in another full-circle moment for Humphrey, Christopher kept The Pine Box high on his list because he started his career in production as part of the Light Action team before moving to the West Coast. The two had brainstormed years ago what it would be like to custom build their own facility.

“I think it’s even more than I expected from when we were talking about it 20 years ago, because Light Action has grown exponentially since then,” he says. 

For Humphrey, coming out of the bleak COVID years when concert and Broadway touring shut down completely has renewed his faith in his dream and reminded him that he can thrive even under the worst of circumstances. During the touring hiatus, he employed freelance crew members to construct The Pine Box and ended up feeling like he was giving them work they hadn’t signed up for. But the truth was, there was no other work to be had so the crew appreciated the opportunity, he says.

Though a massive undertaking, Humphrey knew if he built it they would come. Photo by Justin Heyes.

“And then I find out half the guys used to do [construction]. They got out of construction to do the entertainment because the entertainment’s cleaner,” he says, laughing. As the project progressed and the team saw what they were creating, they offered to hang around. “They said, ‘This is what I want to do. I see myself in this thing.’”

What’s resulted since touring has resumed is a new energy among his team, Humphrey says. Folks from the HR person to the receptionist were thanking him for believing in The Pine Box project and making plans to expand even further — the materials for another soundstage, this one 100,000 square feet — are on site and ready to be assembled.

“I was like, ‘What are you thanking me for?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, Scott, you don’t understand how cool this is for Delaware. This is so exciting. You realize we’re doing stuff here that they’d normally be doing in L.A. or New York or whatever, they’re coming here to do it.’ 

“So, I mean, that’s what’s exciting about that, at least from where I sit — seeing this idea come to reality, and then the people that are working here appreciating it.”

Scott Pruden
Scott Pruden wrote his first stories for Out & About in the summer of 1989 while home from college at the University of South Carolina. He went on to work as a reporter, copy editor and news editor for newspapers in South Carolina, Arizona and Pennsylvania, resuming work for O&A in 2004 after becoming a full-time freelance writer. Though he’s a South Carolina native and lives and works in West Chester, Pa., he considers Delaware his “second home state.” His satirical science fiction novel Immaculate Deception was published by Codorus Press in 2010 and was a Pushcart Prize nominee. He's busy working on his second novel.