The Emmy Award-winning NBC series "30 Rock" had just wrapped its series finale after shooting seven seasons at
Silvercup Studios. The crew was dismantling the sets, and pulling down steel bars and metal frames across several stages. Wardrobe racks lined the halls: Jack Donaughy's pajamas and suits; a collection of pastel-colored prom dresses (marked: To Be Donated!); and a row of Liz Lemon's maroon Snuggies.
Standing out of the fray, smiling and chatting with the crew, was Gary Kesner '78, who joined Silvercup 19 years ago, helping to turn this dilapidated former bakery on the Long Island City waterfront into the largest independent, full-service film and television production facility in the northeastern United States.
Raised by middle-class parents in the Bronx, Kesner never had any intention of winding up in the glitzy world of film and television. "I've always wanted to do good, not well," he explained. After graduating from City College of New York in 1971, he spent four years running an achievement program for kids and teens at the Hudson
Guild, one of the oldest settlement houses in Manhattan, before enrolling in Brooklyn Law School. During his first summer, he secured a position with the General Counsel to the Bronx Borough President where he was involved in legislation, policy, and programming. "It opened my eyes to the kind of work I wanted to do," he said.
Following law school, he began a 12-year stint in the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch, holding several high-profile positions in economic development, including Executive Vice President of the Financial Services Corporation of New York City and Executive Vice President of the New York City Public Development Corporation. In 1986, he was named Commissioner of the New York City Office of Business Development. "My main focus was always to keep companies in New York City, to help companies grow, and thereby create and retain jobs for the City," he said.
It was during his tenure at the Financial Services Corporation that he met Harry Suna and his sons Alan and Stuart. The Suna family was looking for a new facility for their metal fabrication business and had their eye on the old Silvercup Bakery. With Kesner's guidance, they were able to access financing and to purchase the building, where they put a small portion of it to use for their business. Not quite sure of what do with the extra space, they came up with the idea of turning what was the former flour silo room of the bakery into a sound stage. Silvercup shot its first commercial (for Cool Whip) in 1983. The rest, as they say, is history.
With the Silvercup project filed away, Kesner continued his work in economic development for the City, working on such historic projects as the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the South Street Seaport, and the Intrepid Museum. He also administered and expanded a series of commercial revitalization programs, which eventually became known as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)—powerful engines for economic development and neighborhood revitalization.
When Koch's third term ended, Kesner began consulting, providing management, policy analysis, program development services, and advice on real estate issues and financing to private and nonprofit organizations. A few years into his work as a consultant, he met again with the Sunas, who offered him a job at Silvercup. "Silvercup was one of my favorite projects," he said. "You take a building that was not utilized at all, and bring it back to life and have a business that grows and benefits the City. That is the story of New York City. It continues to regenerate itself."
As Executive Vice President at Silvercup, Kesner has been instrumental in developing the company into a critical player in the birth of the New York City film industry, now thriving with other facilities such as Kaufman-Astoria and Steiner Studios. Silvercup itself has grown from one building with 10 studios to two lots with 19 studios, and the business has largely shifted from commercials to film and television. In addition to the critically-acclaimed "30 Rock," Silvercup has been home to such hits as "The Sopranos" and "Gossip Girl," and "Girls." Movies shot at Silvercup include, "Date Night," "Julie & Julia," and "The Devil Wears Prada." Silvercup has also added a location lighting company, Silvertrucks, and a real estate development affiliate that develops market-rate, middle income, and affordable housing projects. It is also in the process of developing what will be known as a property known Silvercup West that will include studios, retail, and residences, and a waterfront promenade in Long Island City.
Yet, after nearly 20 years of hobnobbing with celebrities (standing in line for Mister Softee with James Gandolfini is a favorite memory), Kesner remains rooted to his mission to "do good." He is Chair of the Long Island City Partnership, Vice Chair of the Queens Theater, and works with The Explorers, a city-wide high school mentorship program. "I feel I have had an impact. I feel like I am doing good," he said. "That's what I have always wanted to do."