This March, when the Skaneateles High School presents the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the title role will be played by a car created by Design Director Todd Abernethy of ChaseDesign, who last year created a vintage pickup truck for the school’s production of State Fair. But that one didn’t have to fly.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a magical conveyance named for its noises, first appeared in a novel by Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame) and then in a 1968 film starring Dick Van Dyke as the car’s inventor. The film’s original “hero car” was purchased in 2011 by New Zealand film director Sir Peter Jackson for $805,000. When the musical was presented on the London stage in 2002, their car set a new Guinness World Record for the most expensive stage prop, at £750,000. Both, as it happened, were out of the school’s price range.
Enter Abernethy, whose scavenging and fabrication skills are legendary, and he put them to work on a magical car “built from scratch.”
The car began with a steel chassis and wood wheels (for show) created by the Technology Club at the high school, with concealed wheel chair motors and wheels (for on-stage movement via remote control). Plywood formed the frame, and the “boat” body was shaped from insulation foam, shaved and sanded, then coated with a mixture of Elmer’s Glue and joint compound, topped with a faux wood finish that would fool a woodpecker. The fenders and hood were made from styrene, and aluminum flashing was added to the hood. PVC pipe formed the exhaust pipes and axles; the headlights, taillights and lanterns were made from scrap wood and plastic, and illuminated with LEDs.
On stage for rehearsal: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Finishing touches included red vinyl upholstry with antique brass buttons, an extraordinary paint job with reflective tape pinstriping, a plexiglass windscreen, and a dazzling Photoshop dashboard by Design Director Ron Kingston. In all, the project involved four weeks of late nights – the last ending at 3:30 a.m. the day of delivery – with Building & Grounds Maintenance ace Clint Smith working side-by-side with Abernethy every step of the way.
And so Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, said to be “the most fantasmagorical stage musical in the history of everything,” will have a truly magical vehicle center-stage.
Todd Abernethy readies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for flight, nylon wings extended.