Ben Kaminkow, Facades

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 any more."

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 them."

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 adds.

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."


What event in the Annapolis area are you most looking forward to in 2006?

Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
Seafood Festival
County Fair

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