John Shorter’s business is all about creating a scene.
His Ronkonkoma warehouse teems with props, from an upholstered, gold-leafed throne to a model of Shrek’s dragon. Many of his pieces have been spotlighted in high school and community theater productions of such shows as “Grease,” “Beauty and The Beast” and “The Addams Family.”
Since launching Ophelia and Friends LLC, which customers typically refer to as Prop Rentals NY because of its website, PropRentalsNY.com, in 2009, Shorter has assembled an inventory of more than 4,000 items, including canes, suitcases, phones, candlesticks, wagon wheels, barrels, a dentist chair, bear’s head and mummy case.
His outlays have ranged from zilch for a reel-to-reel recorder he found on the street to as much as $2,000 for a Model T Ford replica he bought. He has scavenged for items at estate sales and flea markets, and he has secured artifacts from schools, set and store designers and theater companies.
His customers include the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport and Suffolk Community College, but most of his firm’s $200,000 in annual revenues last year came from his targeted customer base: high schools. Shorter has rented to schools across Long Island, including Hempstead High School, Center Moriches High and Manhasset High, where he taught theater arts and English for 30 years. He has even shipped props to schools as far away as Australia and China.
But during the summer, when schools break for vacation, his business slows down. Seeking to fill the void by renting props for charity events and private parties in the hyper-sociable Hamptons, he has sent post cards and cold-called Long Island event organizers but to no avail; however, he has successfully reached out to party planners in Manhattan.
“How do I connect to Long Island event planners?” Shorter asked in his office, where a life-sized figure of a horse faces a gold and silver-trimmed ebony sculpture of Khnum, a ram-headed ancient Egyptian deity.
According to experts, Shorter has correctly identified thematic East End events as a viable antidote to his seasonal downturn.
“Everyone loves a theme because it gives guidance about what to wear and gives a little personality to an event,” said Jennifer Zabinski, owner of Manhattan-based JZ Events, which plans everything from summer soirées to weddings in the Hamptons.
Experts suggested several ways for Shorter to score Hamptons affairs, including forming business relationships with the area’s party equipment rental companies and networking at local chapter events of organizations like Meeting Planners International.
“No one responds to letters,” said Richard Strautman, president of Picus Enterprises LLC, a consulting firm in Port Washington.
Despite his numerous theatrical objects, which fill his 2,300-square-foot space and hang from its 20-foot-high ceiling, Shorter said he generally doesn’t attract much business from colleges, which have their own props or the talent to create them; Broadway shows, which typically buy their own; and Off-Broadway productions, which tend to rent from a major out-of-state supplier whose low overhead translates into prices below his own.
Plus, with his weekly rental fees ranging from $3.45 for a dented beer stein to $1,000 for the Model T Ford replica (prices drop in subsequent weeks anywhere from 35 percent to 75 percent, depending upon the performance’s location and the number of weeks it rents an item), Shorter prefers the short-run productions that characterize high school shows; they don’t tie up his popular items for an extended period of time at a reduced rate.
A mostly one-man operation, he hires workers on an as-needed basis to package and deliver the props. He also ships via FedEx.
To penetrate the Hamptons party circuit, Zabinski said a partnership with lighting, tent and other party equipment rental firms could pave the way for Shorter to use their showrooms to display his props in vignette settings or present them in a digital format. At the very least, he may be able to provide these companies with a “look book” of his objects.
“You’re only as good as your visuals,” said Zabinski. Giving these firms a percentage of the proceeds they generate for Prop Rentals NY could be a way to compensate them, she added.
Noting that many brides seek a “castle theme” on their big day, Jessica Haas, manager of the Port Washington-based Talked About Affair, suggested Shorter market his wares on wedding websites.
Shorter gave a thumbs-up to attending gatherings of meeting professionals, but was doubtful about rental companies helping his cause. “Nothing materialized” when he reached out to some in the past, he said.
And while he currently has a free basic listing on weddingwire.com, Shorter is now considering upgrading his firm’s presence with “a more comprehensive listing with pictures and maybe video,” he said, adding, “I’m always excited to try new ideas.”
At a glance
Ophelia and Friends LLC (Prop Rentals NY), Ronkonkoma
Owner: John Shorter
2015 revenues: $200,000
Number of stocked props: 4,000-plus