Leo B. Meyer’s entrepreneurial prowess revealed itself early, about the time his artistic abilities also started to flower.
Growing up on the south shore of Long Island, young Leo was encourage by an indulgent and artistic father and engaged by a progressive school system that took him to see not light opera, but Helen Traubel in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, Leo knew what he wanted early.
“This made an impression that I didn’t want to live without it,” Mr. Meyer says today.
Lectures at art galleries don’t necessarily attract a crowd, but Mr. Meyer’s presentation about his life as a stage set designer at City Light Gallery drew over 35 of the “Leo Meyer fan club,” as I overheard one visitor put it. Mr. Meyer’s Atlas Scenic Studio in Bridgeport was what one employee called a “dream factory” for television, Broadway and theaters all over the country for 40 years.
But back to young Leo’s entrepreneurial flair — a skill that doesn’t often accompany artistic flair.
His father built him a puppet stage and he soon produced marionette shows, employing assistant puppeteers and a box office. “All of a sudden it became lucrative,” Mr. Meyer says.
In high school he won first prize in a student set design competition back at the Met where Wagner’s high drama first hooked him. And being “something of a wunderkind,” he was able to set off for college at 16. He chose Carnegie Institute of Technology (today Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh.
He admits an early example of artistic temper when working on the road in Lake Erie, he was given a Savarin coffee can full of rusty nails to work with. He “sassed the producer” with “I won’t work with this trash!”
Since, he worked probably a little too prolifically, designing sets for various stage productions in various cities, including the Westport Country Playhouse, but also for the early days of television: “Your Hit Parade,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “Omnibus” and the still-famous original broadcast of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. Back then, it was theater people who did television work, an overlap that since disappeared, much to Mr. Meyer’s regret.
Eventually, weary of “cranking out” his work, he found a partner and rented space to begin his own operation in downtown Norwalk (his first assignment being George Abbott’s “Three Men on a Horse” in 1969.) Fast forward several more years and he heeds some sound advice about doing business on and you own yourself, and he bought a rundown property in the east side of Bridgeport. (His mortgage lender, from a local Westport bank, was horrified when he saw what looked like a useless hulk of a building, but backed the purchase on the condition of secrecy.)
This presentation deserves a followup. A wall of the gallery has a series of his scenic design sketches, but there’s so much more I would like to know about his craft and creative process. He did say that sometimes he thinks in terms of color. Before designing he considers “is this a pink play?” “is this a blue play?” — but it’s sad to know that stage sets are temporary things, leaving behind some sketches and, if you’re lucky, photographs.
And we’re not just talking about creative sketches. Built one place, then transported and assembled somewhere else, scenic design requires absolute precision. On-set repairs or corrections — if, say, a door doesn’t work or two walls don’t fuse — an expensive problem.
I wonder how Mr. Meyer would have fared if his career took him center stage instead of behind it. Filled with warmth and charm, Mr. Meyer had his audience spellbound. He’s a good story teller, and I’m pretty sure he has even better stories that might not have been too polite to tell on a Sunday afternoon.