GARY DAVIS drives 12 hours EACH WAY to deliver a new CAPTAIN’S CHAIR to NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS! (interview)

It takes a special kinda crazy to be a part of Star Trek (or any) fan films. But when I heard that GARY DAVIS, showrunner of the long-running fan series DREADNOUGHT DOMINION, and his wife Tracey had driven 12 HOURS from central Ohio to the southeast corner of Georgia, installed a chair, and then drove 12 hours back home, well, I just had to find out more!

Now, just to be clear, the chair was the iconic CAPTAIN’S CHAIR, the center of command on the bridge set recreation at NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA, which is used for multiple TOS-era fan films and series…including Gary’s. So he’s sat in that chair a lot and would know as well as anyone that it needed replacing. (He also built the chair that was being replaced!)

But let’s also make clear that Gary and Tracey drove down there, staying overnight in a hotel along the way, installed the chair, and then turned around and went back home, staying overnight in another hotel. They didn’t film anything at the studio or hang out any longer than to have a quick chat with people there. According to Gary, he simply did a short walk around the studio looking for things to use in their next Dominion shoot on November 4-6 and then they headed out.

And yes, my friends, you read that right: Gary will be heading BACK to Neutral Zone Studios in two weeks! So he and Tracey made this 1,600-mile round-trip drive just to deliver and install a chair that they could have delivered and installed 14 days later! Huh????

I can’t take it. Gary, get your butt over here now! We need to have a little chat…

Gary Davis (right) shakes hands with set-owner Ray Tesi in the brand new command chair.

JONATHAN – Are you nuts???


JONATHAN – Okay, let’s go a little more specific. You and Tracey drove 12 hours each way just to deliver and install a chair that you could have delivered and installed two weeks later?

GARY – I also had to deliver a Romulan Command Chair, as well as a Romulan desktop computer for our shoot in November. So the effort was worth it.

Gary’s Romulan desktop computer was modeled after the one that appeared in the TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident.”

JONATHAN – But you’re gonna be back there on November 4! Why not just drive it down then?

GARY – I will be flying down for the November shoot, and the the airline won’t consider my chairs carry on!

A before-and-after of the chair Gary built for his new Romulan fan series, “WARBIRD VALDORE.”

JONATHAN – So why not just ship them down and fly yourself?

GARY – I thought about shipping. And in fact, I work for a wholesale furniture company and deal with shipping agents all the time.  I priced it out to deliver a chair, and they were OVER THE MOON to try to help me out! However, trusting a stranger to deliver something that I spent so many hours on just didn’t seem right. I also wanted to be there to see it come to life, assembled.

JONATHAN – How long did it take to assemble once you got it there?

Gary had help assembling from Allen Anderson and Dan Scanlan. Tracey Davis is in the back holding her cell phone. Also pictured below helping out: Tom Potter and Paul Sizemore . 

It only takes about 15 mins to assemble.  The chair is modular—lay the base on the deck, center the pedestal, ensure the “FRONT” is facing front as it has a return to zero swivel, then bolt the pedestal to the base.  Hit the swivel with some WD-40 to make it SMOOTH, then lower the cradle onto it, and bolt that down.  The side panels slide over the extensions, bolt those panels down, then the pièce de résistance: lowering the Madison Chair into place. Then VIOLA! It’s ready for its closeup.

I sat down real quick to test it and then told Ray to “take it for a spin.” I was being literal, as I wanted him to swivel from side to side to see how smooth it spun from side to side.  I also get a kick out of when someone gets up and moves it—that return to zero swivel will return the chair to facing forward.

JONATHAN – So on what day did you do all this?

GARY – This past Saturday.

JONATHAN – Wasn’t that when Neutral Zone was having their Fan Appreciation Weekend? Did you wait for the event to end and then install the chair?

GARY – No. In fact, it got installed in the middle of day!  They were in between tours, and RAY TESI, the owner of Neutral Zone Studios, asked if I could remove the old chair and assemble the new one before the next tour.  I knew it would only take about 15 minutes, but we had a bunch of visitors already there, plus the set volunteers and VIC MIGNOGNA himself!   SO NO PRESSURE, right?   But it went well.

JONATHAN – Okay, let’s talk about building the chair itself. When did you first start thinking: “We need a new captain’s chair”?

GARY – Last  year, Ray asked if I could make another chair—possibly TWO—to replace the current chair, which was nearly four years old.  It had seen a LOT of visitors and supported a lot of butts from Fan Appreciation Weekends and fan film shoots over the years. The wear and tear were clearly taking a toll.

JONATHAN – Why two chairs?

GARY – One will be the “work” chair and the other will be the “play” chair. The first will be used for fan film shoots and then swapped with the second for Fan Appreciation Weekends and if Ray ever takes some of the set pieces to local conventions for fans to take photos sitting in. I’ve only finished and delivered one chair so far.

A work-in-progress…

JONATHAN – How long does it take you to build a full command chair?

GARY – That is a loaded question.  Making the pieces doesn’t take very long. What takes a long time is the process.  First  comes FIGURING OUT how to make them, interpreting someone else’s plans. Once each element has been figured out, it takes a day to make each piece: the base, the cradle, the pedestal, and the arms.  Then it’s onto putting the “skin” of the chair on: 1/8-inch flexible hardboard that is glued over the top the foundation of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) that has been nailed and glued together.  Then comes the sanding and sealing and then applying the PAINT.

The latter two steps take days and days because it’s so very hard to get it “perfect.” I HATE it when I see something not as perfect as I can get it. I often sand, seal, paint, and then sand, seal, and paint again.  THAT is just the foundation of the chair.  NEXT comes the seat for the chair.

The seat is a WHOLE different process.  The seat is actually a reproduction of the Madison Office Chair from the 1960’s.  The story about classic Star Trek is that when they were making sets and props, they’d often scour other sets at the studio—and in some stories, even the trash—for things they could use.  The Madison Office chair had been spotted in the office space of Mr. Phelps from Mission: Impossible. That is what is used within the constructed prop base and pedestal made for the captain’s chair.

I have been fortunate to obtain an ACTUAL MADISON CHAIR, but it’s a section of a loveseat, and therefore doesn’t have the arm panels or armrests. It’s also upholstered in PINK.  Oh, the 60’s! I obtained it from MICHAEL BEDNAR of STARSHIP FARRAGUT and FARRAGUT FORWARD.  He got the loveseat and didn’t need all three seats, so he offered me one.  THANKS, MIKE!   I’m saving that for a new chair for myself.

So based on the sample Madison Chair that I have, I cut out, assemble, and then upholster the back cushions, seat cushions, and the sides that support very beautifully-crafted arm rests.  I’ve been fortunate to obtain a set of armrests made by JOHN BROUGHTON, SR., the father of none other than JOHN BROUGHTONI, the Farragut showunner.

JONATHAN – That’s definitely a LOT of work! So how long did all of this take you to do?

GARY – The chair that I delivered took about six months from NOTHING to setting it up in the studio.

JONATHAN – I saw in your Facebook post that you’ve made some improvements over the previous command chair.  What are the improvements?

GARY – Well, first off, I just KNOW a little more about building now.  My first captain’s chair was done with drilling holes and using screws.  I was able to be schooled over a weekend by an honest-to-goodness woodworker who does kitchen remodeling.  He told me that the best method is GLUE and a NAIL GUN.  I asked if the nail gun was better than screws.  His response was NEITHER.  GLUE is what holds woodworking together; the nail gun just holds the pieces FOR the glue to harden.  He told me to see this for myself and go home, glue two pieces of wood together, and nail it.  Next, take the nail out and try to pry apart the two pieces of wood. It’s VERY DIFFICULT, if not impossible, without breaking it.  So the trick is to just glue very efficiently, and the nails will hold it together for it to seal properly.  

Next, I used MDF instead of a heavy and cheap plywood.  The 1/2-inch MDF is just as strong, but much lighter.  Next, I used some new plans that were published and provided by the studio.  While I didn’t follow them 100%, they did contain a nice design of the cradle, which had an extension that fit into slots in the chair’s side panels.  In my last chair, the side panels were merely bolted onto the cradle.  Moving it, you had to be VERY careful not to lift it by the side panels for fear of breaking them off.  The new cradle and side panel extension and slots make for smarter construction and more stability.  I’ve made three pedestals that support the cradle and attach to the base.  The previous ones were both kind of jerky and scraped.  THIS one is as smooth as silk! Not sure if I just overthought it when making it, but this one was a dream.

JONATHAN – Nearly everything you just said is totally above my pay grade, Gary, but color me impressed nonetheless! So how long do you think THIS chair will last for?

GARY – Well, if my first freshman attempt lasted four years and is STILL serviceable, even after all the use and abuse and even going on the road, I would HOPE for another four years AT LEAST!

JONATHAN – How much did all the building materials cost, and who paid for them?

GARY – I donated my time for the construction, and Ray Tesi purchased the materials to make the chair.  I also donated the cost of driving it down to Georgia from Ohio last weekend.  I don’t have a large vehicle, so I rented a nice mini-van to keep the pieces of the chair away from the elements and from scraping against each other on the trip down.  In the end, I don’t see how much I spent on the chair, or the time, or the delivery cost.  I see a prop which is the centerpiece of a larger set made by dedicated fans FOR the fans of the show that will continue to entertain for many more years.   THAT is payment enough for what I do!

JONATHAN – Indeed! And it is much appreciated by us aforementioned fans! So what will happen to the old captain’s chair?

One for the road – back in April, Dan Scanlan took the transporter console out for a little fresh air. The TOS sets actually get around quite a bit!

GARY – For at least the near term, the old chair will be going on the road as a convention chair.  One of the conundrums that Ray had is if, when, and how many times he takes props like the chair, nav/helm, or transporter console to conventions to advertise the studio. Taking them shows the flag for Neutral Zone, but each time breaking them down, transporting, setting up, breaking down, returning to the studio, and setting it back up for shoots risks damaging these props.  NOW he’ll have a dedicated “road chair” that may not even need to be broken down once used at conventions.  Just put it on a dolly and stow to keep assembled for transport to the next convention.  

JONATHAN – So what will you be shooting at Neutral Zone Studios on November 4-6?

GARY – We’ll be shooting two productions.  One is a “short” for DOMINION MEDIA, an “out-of-the-box” production that I had the idea for—and for once, I wrote the script, not RANDY WRENN.  Then Saturday and Sunday, we’ll be filming Dreadnought Dominion‘s second spin-off, WARBIRD VALDORE, a Romulan-centered drama that features the Romulans as, if not the “good guys,” at least the protagonists.  They will be squared off against our “Vancians,” an alien race that appears in “THe REPLACEMENTS,” which will premiere on Wednesday, October 26th.

JONATHAN – Holy moley! That’s tomorrow night!

GARY – Yep!

JONATHAN – Well, I’ll be tuning in and watching. Looking forward to it!