Ever wondered whose paint supplied the iconic New York City yellow-brick road in The Wiz, decorated the walls of Gossip Girl‘s tony Upper East Side townhouses and adorned the many, many sets of the city’s Law and Order franchise? Hell’s Kitchen’s very own 128-year-old Epstein’s Paint Center is the behind-the-scenes star supplier — and is now busier than ever, gearing up to get back on set after the SAG/AFTRA strike ended.
The family-owned W52nd Street stalwart has been open in Hell’s Kitchen since 1895, having resided in multiple 9th and 10th Avenue locations before settling in at their current spot just east of 11th Avenue. Originally founded as a hardware store by Mendel Epstein, Epstein’s Paints could very well have ended its run after one generation, when Mendel’s son Leo took up dentistry over selling drill bits. But when Mendel became ill, Leo took over the store and didn’t look back — other than using the shop to store the remnants of his previous profession.
Leo’s son Larry, who had joined the family business after serving in World War II, took over after Leo died, and maintained the store before passing it on to his two sons, Kenneth and Peter Epstein. And though the shop has moved through four generations and multiple locations in its century-plus tenure, Kenneth and Peter still hold on to several artifacts from their forefathers’ time — including the remnants of Leo’s brief study in dentistry. “We found all kinds of wild stuff when we cleaned out the 9th Avenue store,” Kenneth told W42ST. “They used to practice dental skills on old skulls, you know!”
Kenneth and Peter carry on the showbiz legacy of their late father, who began working with TV and movie production companies to create sets in the 1950s. “A lot of that industry grew out of this neighborhood,” Kenneth said on Friday after a large order from Saturday Night Live had been picked up. “There were studios all over that are not here now — making TV commercials, television shows and movies,” he added. “Back in the 1950s, my dad saw this opportunity,” and set to work, visiting nearby production studios with wallpaper samples in tow. “They were interested,” said Kenneth, “and he developed a relationship with scenic artists and designers when nobody else was doing it.”
Their starry portfolio grew to include work on such big-screen classics as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Coming to America, West Side Story, Raging Bull, Fatal Attraction and Sophie’s Choice, as well as the aforementioned “yellow brick road” of the New York-City-set The Wiz. They’re also accustomed to doing quick work for both small-screen episodic TV like Sex & The City, The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, Royal Pains, Nurse Jackie, Damages, Ugly Betty, the seminal New York TV show, Law and Order and for late-night — and of course, Saturday Night Live.
“For the longest time, it was LeNoble Lumber (now located in Queens), Silver Hardware and Epstein’s Paint —we were the main three suppliers,” said Kenneth. While the industry “has changed” from more analog sets to digital effects over the years, he added, “there is still a need.” After Astoria’s Silvercup Studios opened in the 1980s, “for a long time we had a shop in the basement there that was called Little Epstein’s!”
“We’ve known these guys for years,” said Kenneth, recalling fond memories of seeing Epstein materials appear in everything from Scenes from a Mall to The Bourne Identity series. “They call us up, ask for advice, we send ’em the stuff,” he said. “If I get out of the truck, they’ll say ‘Kenny’s here, come look at this stuff!’ and they walk me around.”
When the writers’ strike hit in May, “things were really, really busy – there were a lot of jobs going on,” Kenneth said. “There was a Bob Dylan documentary and American Horror Story – there was just so much going on, and it was like a switch got turned off,” he added. “I can only do so much vacuuming!”
While their community of fellow entertainment artisans “were definitely worried,” said Kenneth, vendors collaborated to get through the strike together. “Other suppliers would give us a little more leeway and a little more space — knowing what we’ve been going through and having worked with us,” he explained. “We all felt, ‘if you owe some money a little longer here, you’ll pay there – we know it’s going to end.’”
Now, they’re celebrating the end of the 148 day WGA and 118-day SAG/AFTRA strikes — the longest actors’ strike in the union’s 90-year history. For Peter and Kenneth, the return-to-work notice means picking up production on standbys like Law and Order as well as maintaining their shop’s non-showbiz related business. “SNL came back a month ago, since they had a different contract when the writer’s strike ended,” said Kenneth. “We also had The Tonight Show, The Late Show, Colbert – but [without other TV and movies], it’s still not enough for us.”
They’re looking ahead to a chock-full season of cinematic catch-up, “I’m just excited to get back and am ready to get busy again,” Kenneth said. And though they send materials across the five boroughs, the team is also looking forward to working closer to home, referencing the new West Side megastudio planned for Pier 94.
As news of the strike-end broke, Hell’s Kitchen neighbors came out to congratulate the longtime neighborhood business on their return to the screen. “When I was outside talking to the Eyewitness News reporters, people were walking by the store saying, ‘Hey Kenny, congratulations, the strike’s over,’” he said. “Everyone knows our business!”