What I Learned At The Fiber Glass Shop

dick lancaster's story

( **Special Thanks to Marine Veteran Dick Lancaster for this great article on his entpreneurial experience after Vietnam.)

As I get older I get to fooling myself a little less. I look back on my youth and miss that body that could do things that the current one could only dream of. But that’s about all. The current brain is not as ignorant as the younger one was.

You go through life and you have  opportunities  present themselves; sometimes even dropping at your feet. As a young man you are prone to misinterpret  some of these due to your immature ego. But if you’re not evil or insane eventually your age straightens you out.

That’s what happened to me more than 30 years ago. After I left the Marines I had little marketable talent having a combat arms background. I was also an artist there but “starving artist” was not just a throw-away term in civilian life, it was reality.

hunting pic

I had taken the first thing offered after I was discharged and home in Florida which  put me in a fiberglass boat shop. After a series of lay-offs and such I ended up in a very shall, custom shop making $4.00 per hour.

In the year I worked there I saw this one particular customer maybe 3 times. We were building  a custom 22 foot boat for him as time permitted and supplied him small dinghy shells.

He was some big shot from up north who had a hobby shop up the street from us where he would teak out and rig the shells we sent him–real high end stuff. Being a nobody, I never got to talk to him.

One Friday I came to work to find the shop emptied out. The landlord was standing there and asked me. “Where’s Dave? He owes me 4 months rent.” Dave also owed me 4 weeks pay. But overnight he had absconded with everything except the big shot’s 22 foot boat which was on stands on the back property.

Just as I was about to leave and look for another job, big shot pulled up. It was only the 4th time I ever saw him.  This time he talked to me.

“Where’s Dave?” When the landlord and I explained, big shot then asked, “Well who’s going to finish my boat?” I then offered to work on it for a whopping $10.00 per hour until I could find a job. But I would need some up front money because I was broke.

Big shot agreed and the landlord offered to rent me one of the small buildings on the property to finish the boat. I agreed only because I was not going to get my money from Dave and I was a bit desperate.

We then found the dinghy molds strewn outback and I was asked to build a few of those too until big shot could find a suitable shop to do them. So at least I would have a little more income while job hunting.

When I sealed the deal between me and the two men with a handshake, big shot became the more respectable and feared Intimidator and my life would change forever.

When I was working on the Intimidator’s  boat, Dave’s old customers would drop in asking for him. When I told them he was gone, they asked if I would fix their boat. “Sure. Fifty bucks.” This went on and on and everything was fifty bucks. I had no idea how to estimate jobs or  how to run a business. But I wasn’t really trying. I was actually planning to find a job. But I had a yard full of boats to work on as well as the Intimidator’s. I didn’t have time to look for a job.

fiberglass with caption

In wasn’t until 3 months later when the landlord asked me what I was going to call my company, that I even gave it a thought. By that time I had grown comfortable with starvation and the fear of starving had subsided. So I considered maybe I ought to do this as a job. But I would have to charge more than fifty bucks.

It wasn’t just boats. People would bring in all kinds of stuff to have repaired with fiberglass. So I decided that’s what I would specialize in. I called my new company Hancrafters Fiberglass Specialists. The “D” had to be left out because I couldn’t fit all those letters on my little Datsun truck door. That would be a later problem when computers took over, but it was actually a minor hassle because government regulations would soon smother everything.

The Intimidator got his name from his habit of violent scorn for incompetence and absolute silence which substituted for a complement. There was no outward touchy-feely about him. For the most part he was reasonable. On occasions however, he was a raving tyrant who demanded the impossible. I had finished his boat within 6 months and he said not a word. I assumed everything was perfect.

I had repaired and cleaned the Dinghy molds and was producing a few per month as needed. If they had a pimple on their keel he’d send them back accompanied by a lot of bad words.

work with caption

One evening about closing time, the Intimidator called me and wanted a dinghy shell at his shop by 9 AM the next morning. I told him that would be impossible. I didn’t even have one in the mold and they take 7 hours to make. He calmly told me that a customer was coming in at noon to pick it up–finished and rigged; and if I didn’t have it there to him to rig by 9 AM he would do things to me that used to make battle hardened Marines think twice before getting that tattoo.

By 9 AM the Intimidator had his dinghy. As he inspected it he seemed to be frustrated that he couldn’t find a flaw. Then he said he’d be busy. Get out. I didn’t know it then and nothing has ever been said about that incident to prove to anyone that this was my ticket to the top of my profession–but I believe it was.


I got a call in 1981 from a theater company in New York to fix a problem an artist was having with a fiberglass shop. The show was David Copperfield and it called for carousel animals. The artist would carve the various animals out of Styrofoam and the fiberglass shop had to reinforce them so the stage grunts didn’t break them between scenes.

When they came back from the fiberglass shop the artist said the animals looked like the shop had thrown blankets over them.

Naturally, all eight animals had to be redone and the artist refused to send them back to the same shop. He said the Intimidator had given him my number. He had told the shop that I had art talent and was “good” with fiberglass.

“Good?” The Intimidator said that?

This was the first complement I had ever received, albeit under the hearsay rules from the Intimidator. It was also the first inkling of what he did up north.  It appeared he was connected to the theater or show business somehow. I would soon learn.

They wanted me in New York the next day. Lots of money if I can pull this off. I didn’t even think about it. I packed my bags and got on that new-fangled, no frills People Express.

fiber glass blog

This was a big deal for me. I had never even seen a high school play before so I was a little nervous working at the top end of this profession. When I got there I hadn’t even secured a motel before they put me in a little room with one animal to go to work. Welcome to showbiz.

Due to the delay caused by the local fiberglass shop we were running way behind. I knew things were going to be rough when I saw cots in the shop. But I was too intimidated to protest. I now know what they mean when they say, “The show must go on.”

The work was tedious and detailed and I stopped only for naps and Slim Jims. The artist had three animals ready when I got there and could carve one out in a day that looked exactly like the photo he was working from. But he had other things to do as well. He was one of the most talented men I’ve ever met. As I learned later, that was what the northerners thought of me as well–if only briefly.

During my marathon, people from the crew would stop by to watch me work. I thought maybe they had never seen a live hick before. Lord knows, they sure have enough actors up there that can play one. Maybe they were doing a character study?

It turns out that all they were told was that they had to get an artist that knew how to work with fiberglass in order to get this show out by previews. Apparently they had concluded that this was a world-wide search. So for about a week there they had all assumed that I was some sort of fiber-fuzzy Red Adair (the famous oil well fire extinguisher).

The black and white photo below shows the birth of  carousel animals from ordinary Styrofoam blocks. There are two women in the background; one clothed on the left which was my gracious host, Mary and one naked leaning on a platform to the right. The naked woman is just a prop. But I did say hello to her when I first walked in because that’s what we do in the south.  Being a guest here and not wanting to criticize, I just kept things simple until I realized she wasn’t alive. After that, I was able to talk to her just like anyone else. But they do run around like that backstage—the live ones. Unfortunately,  they were all too busy changing costumes between scenes to talk to me.

deer with caption

The following photo, lower left,  is the fiberglass coated finished product. Why they couldn’t find someone local that could do this kind of work baffled me. Maybe I really was a fiber-fuzzy Red Adair.

finished horse

After the first day’s work was complete they let me take a shower and secured a motel for me. Later, they took me out on the town. What an experience that was!  I saw every show this theater company still had running; most of them Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals.

When the theater was full I got to sit on the aisle steps. Back home, this is where you sit when someone’s baby has thrown up in your seat at the demolition derby. But here, socialites in expensive evening gowns vie for these uncomfortable positions because it means you got a free show. That means you have connections and that’s impressive. Had I known that at the time I wouldn’t have spent so much of the show worrying about the baby puke. I also got to sit back stage for Evita. That’s where I saw all the naked people running around.

The artist, who was only about 10 years my senior told me a story of one of his early experiences with the Intimidator. He was to carve a giant hand because the original had been broken during a show that evening. He was called back to work at about 9 PM when the original broke and told to have one ready by 9 AM the next morning. Obviously, I recognized the story and we had a common bond. His though, had a sinister twist.

While he was in the studio starting his overnight mission, the Intimidator locked all the doors from the outside except the front French type steel doors which he left to the artist’s discretion. Then everyone left at 11PM except the artist.

At about 3AM the artist decided to take a break and drive down to the convenience store for a coffee. When he opened the front doors he was surprised by two really mean Doberman’s chained to the two columns just outside the doors. There was no way to get around them. So he went back to work unrefreshed.

The next day the Intimidator arrived with his wife to inspect the hand and his wife exclaimed, “That looks just like a real hand!” To which Intimidator replied, “Well, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

It was never mentioned who placed the dogs at the door. But if it was intimidating it was most likely the Intimidator.

That seems like a story with some stretch to the uninitiated but I knew it was true. By telling me a story that I had already experienced (with less danger with my overnight dinghy creation), the artist had just brought me into an exclusive club. That’s when I finally realized that I was indeed at the top of my profession.

So with all that grueling work behind us, we watched the show flop. I don’t think it ran two days after opening night. That’s why the photo shows me with the finished horse in the studio and not the theater. If you build a house, furnish it, make sure all the utilities work then tear it down, well, that’s how it feels. But you never know so your work always has to be top notch. That’s just show biz.

But there was to be another show on the heels of David Copperfield that would last a bit longer. I was asked again to come to New York to do most of the fiberglass work on it. It was a short phone conversation, “Can you make a twelve foot truck tire?” inquired Intimidator.  “Sure,” I replied without hesitation.  “I’ll send you the blueprints.” Click. When I said, “Sure,” I wasn’t really.

There is something to be said about intimidation. Some big shot calls you up and puts a ridiculous question to you and before you know it, your mouth opens and a sound comes out. Once that happens you are either destined for greatness or you’ll have your nose planted in the dirt. There just is no mediocre ending to that scenario.

Whether you are great or dirt depends upon your intimidation tolerance and the character of your Intimidator. Mine had already shown confidence in me from the previous show that I hadn’t yet noticed. But I did notice that he was so intimidating that he pushed me beyond the bounds that I had always thought were unattainable; in fact, never considered. Today we call it abuse.

cats tire

That twelve foot fiberglass truck tire pictured below, right is 12% talent, 9% materials and 79% abuse.  And of course, that tire was the centerpiece for the New York production of “CATS”.

tire with captionIn the interest of full disclosure, the hardest part of this job, that requiring the most talent was the plug or model from which we cast the mold. That was all done by the artist in his favorite medium, Styrofoam. What was so remarkable about it was that it was carved as a quarter section from which 4 parts were to be taken and pieced together. In order to do that, the tread pattern had to match perfectly on both ends and the curvature had to be perfect. The photo below shows how intricate that pattern really was. I had a little fill and fair to do but not much. Perhaps I could have carved the model myself with an overload of intimidation, but I doubt it. Nino, the artist was a flawless genius and that takes discipline beyond intimidation.

tire2 with caption

When I arrived in New York (the studio was actually 50 miles up river near Newburg) I had two weeks to build the mold, the tire and glass in the wheel assembly. In addition, we had many other over-sized junk parts to make (the stage is a giant junk yard).

I made it with two days to spare so I had time to relax. Then someone noticed that the loading door to the Winter Garden Theater where the show was to open was only ten feet wide. The tire prop was twelve. So they had me cut the tire in half to load it on the truck and get it on stage, then we would splice it back together in the theater. Okay. I cut the tire in half.

As we were loading it on the truck, the artist came out and frantically asked what we were doing. He told us that the wheel had to be fit while the tire was in one piece or there could be some visual distortion during the shows. Okay. So I glassed the tire back together. We fit the wheel, the artist was satisfied and I cut the tie in half again.

This time we had it on the truck with the truck running ready to pull out when the electrical engineer came out asking where the tire was. “In the truck.”

“Well git it outta dare,” he yelled. “Wees gotta put dem tabs in forda light machines.”

As an aside, the tread pattern was chosen when the artist simply walked outside and scratched a pattern on paper from one of the truck’s tires. That truck driver never stopped bragging about it. I wouldn’t doubt if he yanked that tire and had it mounted in his living room. Today he’s probably still pointing it out to his yawning grandchildren.

I was never told about light machines or smoke machines that were to be mounted within the tire hollow. Tabs needed to be glassed to the interior tire shell to mount rings to which those machines would be bolted. The tire comes off the stage floor on a hydraulic lift where a 90 pound actress is supposed to ascend to cat heaven (I hope I haven’t spoiled the show for you). The lights and smoke were to make it appear the tire was floating.


Okay. We unloaded the tire and I spliced it back together. By this time the electricians had gone home. It was 10 PM. The next day they fit the frame and rings and placed the tabs for me to attach to the tire. When that was done the rings were removed and I was told to cut the tire in half.

No. This time I insisted on written authorization. I didn’t get it on paper but four grunts screaming at me was just as good.

That evening the tire was in place in the Winter Garden.

The next day with the tire and most of the important junk in place on stage, rehearsals began. The Intimidator and I were the only ones in the theater watching and he was asleep in the row in front of me. I was waiting for a ride to the airport.

Originally, the tire itself was just supposed to be a piece of scenery attached to the wheel with the wheel bearing most loads. No actor was even to step on the tire part itself because it was thin skinned to reduce weight. (The tire in the original London production was made of wood, I believe, so we were doing something different.) They had boards in place spanning the back of the tire, spreading the loads but even this was risky.Within an hour into rehearsal the whole cast was singing and dancing on it and some were quite chunky.

I didn’t know that you could change a show’s script. You can; and when you do that a lot of trouble trickles downhill to the construction people; an essential but  lowest rung on the glit and glamor ladder.


I woke up my Intimidator and pointed out some major changes were in the works. He uttered that scatological term that always seems appropriate for surprise situations.

In my rare brushes with the producers,  (the designer had stopped by the shop to complain that “my” tire didn’t look old enough–too much tread left and various famous people would say, “Excuse me,”  when they tramped through my work in the theater), I had heard them telling each other to, “Break a leg.”  I thought , “Wouldn’t that foul up the show?” Later I learned that this is actually a good luck wish. Since they had changed the choreography, “break a leg” was probably destined for a more literal interpretation for this show if that prop gave way.

I had hardly noticed I had picked up some of that New York sarcasm until it ran out of my mouth like a kid to the ice cream truck. I told Intimidator, “If somebody does break a leg on that thing you’re going to have to change your good luck wish to, ‘Don’t kick the tire.’”

My ride arrived but not before I learned that that common feminine hygiene kit was also a common Yankee slur.

Sure enough, a couple of days later I get a call from the Intimidator. He wants me back up there to reinforce the tire. I suppose he lost the argument with the choreographer.

I had to secure things with my business in Florida for a few days before going back up north and when I got back the previews had already started. What this meant was that I would have to start work early and end before noon so we could get the polystyrene stench out of the theater by show time that night. Polystyrene, the primary thinning agent for polyester resins can be detected by the human nose in as little as 2 parts per million—or maybe billion, who knows? But it is pretty stinky stuff. On Wednesday and Saturday they had matinees so I couldn’t work at all on those two days.

A diversion now; in answering the logical question as to why I could work at night, you must consider the illogical rule preventing me from plugging in my own work light. I had a gorilla named Vinny take me from the studio to the theater in the city one time so I could catch a cab to the airport. When I reached for my suitcase he had a panic attack. I was not allowed to unload my suitcase from his truck. Then why couldn’t he do it? He was a driver, not a suitcase guy. Unfortunately the suitcase boys were on break. I had to wait 20 minutes for my suitcase and almost missed my plane. The next time I rode with Vinny the suitcase had its own seat belt and I called it Ed.

Now the reinforcement process was a little tricky. It consisted of saturating 3 or 4 layers of fiberglass cut in one square foot sections, maneuvering it up through the rings, light and smoke machines to the underside of the tire and getting a tool in there to roll the fiberglass smooth. The circumference at that point on the tire was about 32 feet and I had to place 2 one square foot sections abreast. So I had to do this about 60 times. It only took about 4 of these rounds with wet glass dripping resin to make me look like a well-used candle. And once I was up there if someone decided to tickle my belly, well,  it ain’t like I’m going to be able to slap it away real quick.

About halfway through the project I was up in those monkey bars when I smelled smoke. Since I was basically a flammable fume generator, this concerned me. When I looked down one of the stagehands was stooped not far from me checking out what I was doing. He had a cigarette in his hand near the acetone can. In the photo below, I am the man in green under the left side of the tire. Everyone else is standing around busy waiting for me to catch on fire.

cats 2

Ms. Manners could have handled the situation better—maybe. But I wonder if she could be so cordial if I covered her in jet fuel and lit a stogie. The stagehand seemed to think that if the rules allowed him to smoke on break then there was no way he could possibly die around all that flammable material; not to mention fouling up that evening’s show. When I untangled myself, I put on my clean shoes (I wore fisherman’s boots for this dirty work), walked across the street to the Taft Hotel, showered, changed, packed and headed to Newark to catch People’s Express. (In those days the communist sounding airline was like a Greyhound bus. Show up, buy a ticket, store your bags and go.) I was probably over Baltimore when they realized I wasn’t going to clean up in time for that night’s show.

It wasn’t until the next day that they called. I was to come back but by then I had made some new rules. Obviously I would tolerate no smoking but I also made them promise there wouldn’t even be a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the theater while I was working. It was reasonable and they agreed. They had also found something else for the suicidal stagehand to do.

When I finished my work at the Winter Garden I returned to the studio near Newburg to clean up. Normally, any tooling, jigs, templates or other implements relating to the show are stored. This is in case the show is a big hit and they need the molds to construct road shows. But not “CATS”.


In this show, the stage actually blends into the audience and some of the audience actually sits on the stage in the first six rows. You could never make a road show so elaborate. It just couldn’t turn a buck. So we destroyed everything and threw it in the dumpster. Where was e-Bay back then?

My show biz career was at an end; just shy of two years. Of course no one could have predicted back then how “CATS” would take off like it did. I gave up early bragging about it because it didn’t seem to impress anyone in Florida. Let’s face it. If you basically associate with people whose definition of culture is beef jerky and an air boat, you’re not going to draw much interest when you tell them you were associated with CATS. To them, unless you’re talking about gator bait there’s not much interest.

About 4 or 5 months later I get a call from the Intimidator. We’re going to do a road show. In fact, we’re going to do four of them and build an extra set too. Since we had already destroyed everything we would have to start from scratch.


Once again the artist went to work on the model but this time they shipped it to me in Florida. All of the road show fiberglass related scenery was made in my shop in West Melbourne. The last set went out in 1986 and as far as I know, is still playing all over the world.

While I still worked for Intimidator up until his death in 1998, I never saw Broadway again.  I got a call in 1988 to do a repair piece because I still had the molds. I kept them for another 7 years in case they wanted another show somewhere but eventually gave them to a guy in Titusville for his daughter’s playground. He probably still doesn’t know the history that’s in his back yard.

I’ve always been meaning to write this story down but the longer I put it off, the less impressive it seemed. What ham-bone writes about himself without at least a little bit of conceit? And CATS is a receding memory–if you get the pun.

But the bigger story here is timeless. It’s about intimidation and what it can do for an ordinary, if not wayward young man. As I stated before, today we consider this kind of pressure abuse. We are even attempting to rid the military of it. But we should look at the broader picture. Why do young men join gangs? They join for the discipline, camaraderie and to test their mettle; none of which can be had without pressure to perform. They are misguided of course, but the principle is the same.

Had not my Intimidator showed up when he did there is no telling where I would be today. I am certain I would not be a writer or cartoonist. These professions bring on intense criticism from people who would never leave a word of their own out there for public scorn. An intimidator  criticizes relentlessly and only if you are fearful enough of him will you excel beyond any of your mediocre dreams.

I ended up in business and on Broadway only because I was deathly afraid of my Intimidator’s wrath. I deserve credit only because I didn’t run.

What a business and Broadway ticket brings me at the Pearly Gates is unknown. But I am absolutely sure that it will bring much less to my Intimidator than his demand of excellence from not only me, but the others he’s forced into excellence such as the artist I write about. The Marine Corps does indeed build men. I am proud of my service. But the Marines are mentors. A mentor is one you seek out. An Intimidator is one who seeks you out.

The Marines tell you their goal and demand you seek it. An Intimidator tells you nothing and determines if you are worthy of his time. It is you who must determine if you are willing to earnhis time. An Intimidator has no attractive posters and works anonymously. You do not know you are working toward excellence. All you feel is fear of falling short of this personalities’ demands. And you–nor anyone else will be able to count the lives he has influenced. He keeps no rosters and seeks no medals. It took me 30 years to figure that out.

It’s possible my Intimidator sought me out for selfish reasons–he needed his boat finished. But no one takes out a business ad for altruistic reasons. The point is to sell something for mutual benefit.  I learned I  should not live by others’ motives, only my own. However, he did abuse me long enough to know I had more in me that he was going to exploit–for mutual benefit.

Let me be clear though, that the intimidation ceased when my Intimidator was satisfied that I had reached a level of mutual  respect that I, myself understood.

That youthful anxiety of wondering what your limits are and having someone demand you surpass them, and then push you to do it is an experience no young man should miss.

My Intimidator was Peter Feller. To this day I don’t know what he actually did on Broadway. But I know what he did to me. I can walk into a homeless shelter or a Boardroom with equal confidence. I am not afraid of a challenge; and I am intimidated by no one unless I can see their aura.

peter fellar

I now know why I tripped into business and Broadway so long ago. Why I was considered worthy to work at the top of my profession among those who were the best of the best. Yes, it was my talent. It was the fact that I could endure the time pressures and demands of quality expected as routine when you are at the top. But with age comes wisdom and the real reason they searched the world over to find me, this one man that could do this job was very simple really; I worked for peanuts compared to those union folks. But how much would you pay for a life course in fearlessness and confidence?

Turns out, Pete was also an excellent therapist.

Dick Lancaster, December, 2010

Joseph Crane

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  1. Beth Young on August 15, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    What a wonderful story. I ‘ve known Dick for many years but never heard this story before reading it here.

    • Joe on August 16, 2016 at 12:26 PM

      Thanks Beth. You think you know somebody:-)

  2. Ed Clark on December 27, 2016 at 3:15 PM

    Are you the same Dick Lancaster who used to draw for Straight Talk? If so,call me at 321-600-4320, or email me at escmc123@gmail.com I may have some cartooning for you.

    (It looks like we have a mutual friend – Beth Young)

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