It shoudn't come as a surprise
that Ben Kaminkow is a fan of Cirque du Soleil, the enchanting
Canadian circus troupe which comes to the area every couple of
years and, in traditional style, raises its blue and yellow striped
tents as part of the show. After all, tents and special events
are what Ben and his partner and cousin Jerry Geppi deal in. Says
Ben, "The name of the company is Facades, but everyone knows us
as Ben and Jerry."
With a reputation for the ability to magically transform environments,
inside their tents Ben and Jerry are more likely to be found armed
with staple guns at the tops of ladders than to be swinging on
a trapeze. They're up there creating the full surround "mood"
in preparation for the next event. In one such case, it was for
the King of Morocco, when he came to the White House for a state
dinner. Says Ben, "The tent was 180-feet long and we pleated the
ceiling and the walls in satin."
Although he prefers the smaller tents and less public events,
Ben is no stranger to the responsibility of working for important
people. "We did Clinton's 'After Hours' (New Year's Eve) party
in the Rose Garden with a pleated ceiling lit from behind with
mini-lights." The electrical work, in this case, was done by a
lighting company. "We do the fabric, but sometimes we have to
do the lighting," Ben adds.
When asked how many yards of fabric it takes to fill a huge space
with pleats, Ben describes the ceiling they covered at Alumni
Hall with 6,000 yards of cloth for the Naval Academy Foundation
kickoff party. "We even made a birthday cake for the Naval Academy's
150th birthday." It's true---these guys are multi-talented.
"We make anything---alot of display stuff," says Ben. "We all
started as window trimmers. My father was a window trimmer, and
we all worked for him---me, my brother, my cousins Jerry, Tommy
and Mark. Now, all of us, including my youngest son, Aaron, work
with the company. [Window trimming is] a display-oriented profession
that has slowly died out because not many stores have windows
Ben means that, these days, few stores have windows in which you
can actually place displays. He explains, "It's cheaper to put
in glass [walls], and then the whole store becomes the window."
Says Ben, "Big companies send out diagrams now---the way stores
are laid out comes in a package, except in Paris where the displays
are [still] so magnificent."
However, Ben and Jerry's does beautiful windows right here in
Annapolis. "We do Johnson's on the Avenue and the Laurance Clothing
shop on Main St. and Hyde Park Haberdashery on City Dock."
Over the holidays, Facades does alot of the local merchants' Christmas
displays. Says Ben, "The Jaycees hang the garlands, but we trim
In fact, Ben was part of the original foursome (including former
wife Joyce, Larry Vincent of Laurance Clothing and Don Griffin
of Hyde Park Haberdashery) who began the tradition of hanging
greens on Maryland Avenue. "The four of us were out there hanging
stuff in the cold," he recalls. "Now everyone does it and the
city is magnificent."
Maryland Avenue, as it turns out, has a special meaning for Ben.
"Around 1969, Joyce and I bought a building on Maryland Avenue.
She started a store called The Decorator and still has it, although
now it's called The Annapolis Country Store." Ben and Joyce's
four children were raised in that building, according to Ben,
"in the most beautiful apartment upstairs. "They had the Academy
and St. John's right there. Aaron, my youngest, hung out with
the tutors and the professors---it was a good life for my kids."
Gary, the oldest, was killed in an auto accident six years ago,
when Ben turned 60. Says Ben, "It took me 'til [I was] 62 to celebrate
my 60th." Aaron is now a partner in the business. Daughter Lisa
married a naval officer and lives in California, and Sandra lives
nearby and works with her mother in the store.
Ben is now married to Meg Moffat whose keen observation skills
"got the whole thing started in the first place," says Ben. Meg
recalls that she was selling advertising to a florist shop and
noticed some plans for display work lying on the counter. "When
I inquired about them, the florist was a little perturbed, but
I spoke up and said, 'My husband does this kind of work.' That
got his attention and with a quick change of attitude, he said,
'How fast can you get him?' The next thing I knew Ben and Jerry
were over there talking to him."
"We started doing it more for fun than anything else," says Ben.
"But then the event planners started calling us, the florists,
and the lighting and party planners. And the tent companies starting
giving us work." Ben's office is on the ground floor of his lovely
Eastport home. From there he will often place orders for thousands
of yards of fabric at a time. "We use lots of ribbon, too," he
The fabric comes from vendors in New York and Illinois, on bolts
of 100 yards and more, 60-inches wide and 18 inches in diameter,
shipped in trucks or by UPS ("if it's chiffon, because it's so
fine"). The large orders get drop-shipped and the smaller ones
fit in their two vans and one pickup truck, along with scissors,
staples, saws, and "every tool imaginable that a carpenter or
display person would need," he says. Remember, this is a family
business and, according to Ben, "Everybody knows his job---you
don't have to tell anyone what to do."
The combined skills of this tent troupe take them to jobs in New
Hampshire, California and Charlottesville, Va., where they do
alot of work for the Laura Ashley resort and the Farmington Country
Club. You'll find them setting the scene and creating the mood
for weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events and, more locally,
for Anne Arundel Medical Center's fundraisers, among others. Over
the holidays, they decorate some of the familiar Eastport establishments:
Mercedes Benz of Annapolis, Lewnes' Steakhouse Restaurant and
the Boatyard Bar & Grill.
Ben admits that the only bad thing about his work is that it's
almost always on weekends. "Friday, Saturday and Sunday you can
count on working. And then you have to take it down after it's
over." He's asked, "What happens to 6,000 yards of fabric when
you're done with it?" Ben replies, "You can't really roll it back
up. We donate it to schools and nursing homes and they use it
for sewing and craft projects."
When Ben's not working on someone else's project, he can probably
be found working on his own. He has created a unique and comfortable
environment to live in, filled with collections of meaningful
objects carefully displayed throughout his home. Every space and
surface has been treated with thought.
Clearly, he has a designer's eye for color and scale and line---it's
what he's done all his life. "I was 10 years old when I was washing
glass and pulling staples with my father. When I got out of the
service, my father put me to work that night. It's neat to see
things get done."
Ben admits that, despite all the hoopla and glamour that is part
of what he does, his favorite jobs are the ones done on a small
budget. "I like the little brides---they're so nice and so happy."
After all those thousands of yards and fabric are swagged and
pleated and draped and manipulated to make it perfect, he says,
"It's going to get torn down the next day but, who cares, it's
beautiful right now."