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Set pieces

A company in Norwood creates unconventional scenery made to order

At Mystic Scenic Studios, cabinet maker Sean Groom works on a huge gear that will be painted and hung from a ceiling for a client in Lowell.
At Mystic Scenic Studios, cabinet maker Sean Groom works on a huge gear that will be painted and hung from a ceiling for a client in Lowell. (Photos By John Tlumacki/Globe Staff (Above)/Mystic Scenic Studios (Below))
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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NORWOOD — Imagination meets technology at Mystic Scenic Studios, a huge warehouse near the Norwood Center commuter rail that outwardly seems as nondescript as any of its neighbors in the Lenox Street area.

But inside is another story, and you never know what you’ll see.

Recently, technicians and artisans in the 100,000-square-foot building were constructing a series of 20-foot-tall moving bookcases for a performance of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future, as well as a giant papier-maché elephant for a Boston Ballet production.

The company just shipped out the new set and backdrop for ABC’s “Good Morning America’’ show in New York, as well as a new ArtsBoston BosTix booth for Faneuil Hall. The latter was replete with a number of special touches, including architecturally correct details such as a copper roof and a weathervane, to better fit in with its historic environment.

Memorable past works by the company include the fabulous millennium icon that sat atop Disney’s Spaceship Earth, the geodesic dome at Epcot in the Disney World resort in Orlando, Fla., at the turn of the century in 2000, and a replica of Han Solo’s starship the Millennium Falcon, fabricated in 2005 for the Museum of Science’s “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination!’’ traveling exhibit.

If there was a company favorite, it is probably the $2.5 million New England Patriots Hall of Fame and Museum that Mystic worked on jointly with architects Cambridge Seven Group. The facility next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough opened in 2008.

“That was a challenge,’’ said Jim Fitzgerald of Marshfield, one of Mystic Scenic Studios’ four partners and, like practically everyone else in the company, he said, a huge fan of the team. “We had to cut a duck boat in half for that one.’’

But as he walked past numerous bays abuzz with work in the building, he joked: “We’re really just a glorified high school shop.’’

With nicer equipment, added project manager Mark Marenghi.

The company specializes in custom millwork and fabrication in a range of materials for corporate theater construction, theatrical scenery, trade shows, museums, the National Park Service, and restaurants, including Box 109 in Boston, among other clients.

The tougher the assignment, the better, said Fitzgerald, who with Marenghi, of Norwood, led a private tour recently of the 23-year-old company, which earns about $12 million a year.

“We have never shied away from building things,’’ he said — perhaps a slight understatement given the complex technology needed for most projects.

“We are not always smart about what we take on, which is why people come to us,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They think of us as the guys who do the impossible.’’

Mystic employees come to the company ready to try things in new ways, he said, particularly in restaurant work, where much is being done in wood, plastic, and glass.

Fitzgerald was an out-of-work carpenter and cabinetmaker in 1996 when he teamed up with founder Jim Ray, of Dedham, whose specialty was in theater production. Ray opened the business in Dedham in 1989, then moved it to Norwood about a decade ago, where it has steadily expanded. Other partners are Duncan Maio of Barrington, R.I., and Gregg Harvey of Plainville.

They hope the projects keep coming. Mystic has also done work for such clients as Mercedes-Benz USA, MTV, ESPN, The Big Apple Circus, and designer Kenneth Cole.

Soon, the company may be chiming in on renovation work for the Norwood Theatre, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar face lift courtesy of its new owner, Sue Lewis of Dover and South Carolina. The theater is slated to reopen under the new management after the total rehab.

ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson said she and her colleagues gasped when they went to Mystic Scenic Studios to talk about the new BosTix booth.

“It is like a wonderland in there,’’ Peterson said. “It was an absolute treasure trove of incredible activity.’’

Peterson said customers are going to love the new booth, which was recently installed between snowstorms. She said it isn’t so much a building as it is a symbol of Boston’s arts community, situated in the heart of its history on the Freedom Trail.

“Our project was not so big in budget, but in terms of what it means to Boston, it’s huge,’’ Peterson said.

Nearly 120 technicians, mill and steel workers, engineers, and artists work in the sprawling Mystic Scenic Studios facility. Huge areas are dedicated to custom and finish millwork, while a deafening water jet out back amazingly cuts through steel.

As they pointed out the sights, Fitzgerald and Marenghi dodged to allow a dolly that held giant wooden cutouts of cogs and wheels to roll by, intended for an automated museum display.

Hidden off in a back corner, artists were blocking out figures on a giant cutout for the annual meeting of a mega-hamburger conglomerate. To dissuade the curious, work was being conducted behind a hand-sprayed cardboard sign with the stern black letters: “Keep out! Go Away. This means you!’’

Fitzgerald said a great facet of the company is that every day of work is fun, and when there is time, in any lag between projects, the focus turns toward building boats because of a shared passion for sailing, fishing, and outdoor activities.

Ray and Marenghi built a 20-foot aluminum center console boat two years ago, and Ray and Fitzgerald plan to build a traditional 25-foot aluminum lobster boat this year.

The latter two have also built several wooden boats for ocean use, and Ray, Fitzgerald, and Duncan all own and race sailboats as well.

But it’s not usually easy sailing on the work front.

One of the company’s most nerve-racking challenges came in 2004 when it was hired to create sets for the Democratic National Convention in Boston and deliver them at all hours.

“We had a lot of ‘Oh . . . ’ moments,’’ Fitzgerald said. “Like, ‘You need a podium for what?’ ’’

Never knowing what comes next is part of what makes the job so enjoyable, said Marenghi.

Fitzgerald agreed. But, he said, “We are humble. We find new markets and new opportunities, and still we’re doing what we love to do.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.