By his own account, Don Sadowsky was a model child -- a boy with a love of building models and a knack for it.
"I'd make log cabins out of straws. I'd sit at the kitchen table, and my mother would give me all these straws, and I'd lay them one on top of the other," says Sadowsky, who lives in Roslyn Heights. "They didn't have Legos back then."
The lack of colorful plastic blocks never hindered his model building. By the time he was a teenager, Sadowsky had moved on to toothpicks to create a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower and a Ferris wheel. It all proved to be excellent training for his professional career creating models of products based on blueprints by his clients' designers.
Though retired from his Mineola business since 2003, Sadowsky, 85, is still building models. He's come a long way from those drinking straw cabins held together with a paste made of flour and water.
Now, he's a master at making complex, heavily detailed replications of iconic New York scenes -- from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade along Times Square to the central mall area of Jones Beach.
Last year, the mall model won third place in an exhibition at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, and will be on display at the Jones Beach East Bathhouse this summer.
Sandowsky's models of a beach soccer match and "the smallest show on Earth," his rendering of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, complete with a working trapeze, are on exhibit at the Shelter Rock Public Library.
Last month, Sadowsky showed 15 of his mini replicas at the Port Washington Public Library, where they attracted plenty of attention. "It was beyond anything you can imagine," says Jackie Kelly, the library's director of community relations. "Old people and young people were both amazed by his models. It was something different than we ever had before."
Sadowsky left a book at the exhibit for public comments, and visitors gushed over the details of his models. Many of them have hundreds of pieces, including tiny figures of people and cars that inhabit his works.
"You reminded me of my childhood," wrote one admirer. Another, in a childish scrawl, declared, "Don, you're a cool dude."
Cool, maybe. Precise, absolutely. He calls his models "photo exact," based on the process he relies on to make his models. "I take a photograph and then make a replica exactly from the picture," he says. To painstakingly re-create Thanksgiving Day in Times Square, Sadowsky took more than 150 photos at the site, making sure to capture theater marquees, billboards and a McDonald's. Each model gets the same treatment: First, he draws a blueprint and then hand-cuts plastic sheets to size, using saws, a box cutter and knives. The pieces for the structure are glued together (walls are checked for plumb with a tiny level), then painted with acrylic lacquer.
To make Times Square come to life, he took his photos to an offset printing shop and had them reduced to scale. A photo of a "Mamma Mia!" billboard was shrunk to about 2 inches. Finally, the scene was embellished with hundreds of tiny figures -- tourists, Con Edison workers, the Rockettes, even the Naked Cowboy, a well-known tourist attraction who wears a cowboy hat, boots and men's briefs while strumming a guitar. More than 500 pieces went into his Times Square masterpiece, he says, which took more than six months to create.
One of Sadowsky's favorite models depicts a day at LaGuardia Airport. It's scope includes the parking lot, ticket windows inside the terminal, security lines and a waiting area for passengers bound for Miami. When it was on exhibit, one written comment made Sadowsky chuckle: "Don, this is a fantastic model but there's one thing that's wrong -- 50 percent of the people that are waiting to go to Miami should be in wheelchairs."
The scene also included a figurine of his granddaughter Lindsay standing in front of the escalator. "Whenever she's in a department store, she stands there and waits and waits because she's afraid to make a step," Sadowsky says. "So I said to her, 'Lindsay, look at all the people waiting for you to get on the escalator.' "
For another model, Sadowsky was inspired by his daughter, Joan, and her friend who in 1998 ran in the New York City Marathon. Sadowsky depicted them with scores of other runners on a section of the double-decked Verrazano Bridge.
Building a career
After graduating from vocational high school, where Sadowsky says he learned to read blueprints, he got a job working for a model-building firm in Manhattan. In 1950, he opened his own shop in Mineola where he took on clients as varied as Ideal Toy Co., Citizen Watches and Zelco Designs -- manufacturers of the Itty Bitty Book Light.
"I would get the drawings from the designer and make the book light -- all the little parts, the battery case, the metal parts," he says. "Once it was all put together, I had to make sure that it worked" before the prototype was marketed.
By far, his most prestigious assignment and the one that garnered him the most attention, was when he was chosen to create the models for the "Kitchen of the Future" exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair in Flushing.
"These were full-size appliances, all very futuristic," Sadowsky says. "I had an oven that came out of the ceiling. I had a dishmaker, where you could put in a roll of plastic, hit a button and a dish would pop out. The refrigerator had a big round table and you'd eat there and in the center of it, a garbage disposal. You would take these plastic plates and throw them in there, and they'd grind them up."
After the World's Fair, his displays were on hibernation mode until 2011, when the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills had a members show. Since then, his work has been on display at various venues, including Jones Beach and public libraries in Syosset, Shelter Rock and Port Washington.
Sadowsky still does freelance work, creating house models for architects, and he's also contemplating another project for his own enjoyment.
"I'm thinking of doing a model of the new Thunderbolt roller coaster at Coney Island," says Sadowsky, who has already made an intricate model of the Cyclone ride, a National Historic Landmark.
He says, "I always like to do something that every New Yorker knows and brings back some memories for them."
DON'S SMALL WORLD
Sadowsky's model of a circus, "The Smallest Show on Earth," can be seen at Shelter Rock Public Library
WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 31, at 165 Searingtown Rd., Albertson
INFO 516-248-7363, srpl.org