LORENA, Texas (KWTX) When the lights dim and the curtain goes up, that drape, itself, might bear a closer look because it could have been stitched up right down the road in Lorena.
The National Stage Equipment Company, based on Old Lorena Road, manufactures custom stage curtains or replacements on site and has been gracing stages all over Texas since 1947.
“It’s a family business,” that Tim Jander and his brother have owned for about 20 years, bought from founder Floyd Gorham who established the company in 1947.
Jander's brother bought the business about 20 years ago, then Jander bought it from him about 10 years later.
The shop is out on Lorena Road today but for years the sewing was done near downtown Waco on 15th Street.
The company makes custom stage drapery, curtain track and rigging supplies, portable stages and risers, does rigging and counterweight system safety inspections, tests drapery for flame resistance, provides stage and theatrical equipment and supplies, builds muslin drops and cycloramas or scrims and does custom fabrications.
They also install, or rig, all of that, and will do so anywhere in Texas or Oklahoma, Jander said.
It might be obvious, but there’s just not a lot of competition in the stage curtain business in Texas and not a lot of trade secrets, Jander said, in fact there’s only one more like manufacturer in the whole state and not too many around the country.
The backbone of their business is manufacturing, repairing and hanging stage drapery in school auditoriums, churches, local theatres, municipal buildings and the like.
“They don’t tear down schools anymore,” Jander said, “they just build new ones,” and “there’s lots of schools being built in Texas right now.”
The company’s website highlights recently completed projects at China Spring and Valley Mills independent school districts and at Waco’s Highland Baptist Church.
Jander said the company, which employs about a dozen people, does between 100 and 150 stage drape jobs-a-year, in 2016 the company office manager said the company completed 120 jobs.
It seems like a real niche business, and in some respects, it is, but Bob Bertrand says “Think about it … every, or at least all most every, school building in the country has a stage or an auditorium, most colleges and universities have several.”
Jander said his company’s biggest job on record was at Tarleton State University, in Stephenville.
Bertrand is the general manager at Rose Brands, the largest supplier of material used for stage curtains and the number one manufacturer of stage curtains in the United States.
Rose Brands is headquartered in New York and has a second facility in California, and is one of National’s suppliers.
“And so far, we’re just talking about educational uses, then there’s cities and other governmental agencies, offices, business, hospitals and the entertainment industry,” Bertrand said.
Bertrand said most people don’t hear about what his company does very often and sometimes even when they do they don’t pay a lot of attention, “but it is a significant market” that accounts for several billion dollars annually in sales and contracts.
National Stage Equipment Co. representatives travel Texas and Oklahoma visiting clients and prospective clients but the company can provide sales and installation virtually anywhere through a network of similar companies in other places.
Since almost all of his jobs are government-related, each one requires a bid and a wait through the bidding selection process.
“That’s the secret,” Jander said, “being able to keep up with what needs to be bid and what has been bid and knowing where we are.”
There’s not a lot of machinery involved in the plant, a bunch of sewing machines, big ones, and every one older than the woman who operates it.
“Some of these machines are 50-, 60-years-old,” Jander said.
Everything’s done by hand, fabric cut, edged, panels sewn together, edged, trimmed, hemmed and grommeted all by hand.
There are four women who do the sewing, all sitting around a huge table, two of them sisters and all of them friends, and they have a great time working their shift where the chatter among them seems as rapid as the speed at which their needles move.
Beside the sewing table is a stack of bolts of fabric that seem as colorful as any rainbow, most of them remnants from earlier jobs just waiting in the wings incase they’re needed someday.
Jander said his estimators analyze each job and make critical measurements before anybody orders any fabric, so in spite of knowing that left-overs always will happen, keeping those extra yards to a minimum enhances his profit on every job.
Some stage curtains are manageable in size, say 12-by-18 feet, but some get a lot bigger.
“One of the drapes we did for Tarleton State was 35-feet-high and 60 or 70-feet long,” so Jander and his hand built a 60-foot-long work table just so the seamstresses could lay the whole thing out.
And the job isn’t just the front curtain, but usually includes sides and back drapes, sometimes extra ones.
The back room stores racks of square steel and aluminum tubes and shelf-after-shelf of trollies, ropes, chains, hangers, brackets, bolts and all the details it takes to build the curtain hanging and trolley systems.
Stage drapes aren’t extremely heavy, but a 12-by-15 plush velvet front curtain with a valance can weigh 150 pounds so the rigging has to be beefy enough to handle the weight, too.
Counting Jander, his office manager and the four seamstresses, that leaves about six employees, all of whom are engaged in either sales and estimates or rigging, delivery and installation, Jander said.
At the 120-a-year job rate, that means Jander completes an average of 10 contracts-a-month, so building stage drapes might be a niche, but it’s a profitable one.