Warren native imagined the future
Zabrucky’s props filled movie and television screens
John Zabrucky made a career out of imagining the future and bringing it to life on screen.
The pieces the Warren native designed as the founder and president of Modern Props Inc. helped the crew of the Starship Enterprise communicate, kept RoboCop fully charged and helped the Ghostbusters detect supernatural beings. His work can be seen in big-budget hits like “Total Recall” and low-budget space tales like the Roger Corman-produced “Battle Beyond the Stars.”
And because Zabrucky owned the pieces he designed and rented them to the film and television companies, many of his creations made multiple appearances. One futuristic piece of equipment turned up so often that a fan in Belgium created a YouTube video calling it “the most important device in the universe.”
The 1965 Warren G. Harding High School graduate closed his company earlier this year after more than 40 years in business. And his experiences growing up in Warren — not all of them legal — helped cultivate the interest in art and mechanical ingenuity that served him so well in Hollywood.
During a telephone interview from his home in California, Zabrucky said his fascination with all things mechanical came from hanging around M&M Sandwich Shop on Mahoning Avenue NW in Warren and the private club behind it, both owned by his grandfather.
“My grandfather’s place was a major hub of gambling,” Zabrucky said.
He could earn $5 by watching the door for the police when they were playing craps and roulette at the club. Its pinball machines were used as gaming devices, and he loved watching the machines get repaired.
“It was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen. There were these solenoid electrical fingers, the most beautiful cables of wrapped wire. Everything was so precise, just done beautifully … I’d look down into this rectangle and it was almost like a three-dimensional sculpture, a feast for the eyes.
“It had a certain smell. It probably wasn’t a good smell, but I remember it as a good smell.”
His interest in art goes back as far as he can remember. His traditional Italian mother wanted him to be a doctor or a Catholic priest, but she was a bit more accepting of his desire when he said he would become an art teacher.
Two art teachers made an impact on him — James Friend, his teacher at Turner Junior High School, and Jim Lepore, who he had for art classes in the only year he studied at Youngstown State University.
“To this day I never had a more exciting art teacher,” he said of Lepore. “He was brutal in terms of critiques, but I loved the guy.”
Zabrucky transferred to Kent State University after one year and kept his promise to his mother — at least for a while. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he taught classes at Kent and the University of Akron as well as to inmates at the Mansfield Reformatory (the building used two decades later as a filming location for “The Shawshank Redemption”).
His art career was successful — he won awards in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1972 and the New York Art Directors’ Club show in 1974 — but he wasn’t happy in the graphic design program at Kent for his master’s degree, and he decided to go to California with his girlfriend, who wanted to be a set decorator.
The girlfriend was Howland native Linda DeScenna, who worked for decades as a set director and production designer and earned five Academy Award nominations for her work on such films as “Blade Runner,” “The Color Purple” and “Rain Man.”
“I was 25 years old but looked younger than my students,” he said. “I decided to take a break, get a little more life experience, get some creases on my face.”
Zabrucky struggled in Los Angeles. California was a culture shock after growing up in Ohio, and he wasn’t good at promoting himself or his art.
“It was two years of (awful) jobs,” he said. “It was scary.”
He was living on food stamps, fearful that one of his ex-students might go by and see him standing in line. The only thing that kept him from going back to Ohio is that he didn’t want to go back a failure.
Everything changed one day when he went to the Warner Bros. lot to have lunch with DeScenna. They no longer were dating but were still friends, and she was working on a television series.
While waiting for her lunch break, Zabrucky was watching the crew at work, and shooting had to stop because a poorly designed futuristic microscope that was melting from the heat of the light bulb inside of it.
“I think I chuckled or something,” he said. “I didn’t break out in hysterical laughter, but I laughed.”
A well-dressed woman in her 40s wearing stiletto heels shot him a look, asked him what was so funny and eventually said to him, “Oh, I suppose you could do better?”
“I’m kind of a sarcastic guy and I’m already miserable,” Zabrucky said. “My life is in a bunch of s— at the moment. I lean in really close and say, ‘When I’m sleeping, I could do better than that.'”
The smart aleck remark gets him a meeting. He’s not sure why, but the producer explained how the business works, how Zabrucky could build props and rent them to the studio.
He started out building pieces in his home for her show and eventually others. He started Modern Props in 1977 with $18,000 from a friend of a friend who was looking to invest.
His television work soon led to movies, starting with “Meteor,” a 1979 disaster movie starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood.
Scrolling the timeline on Zabrucky’s website (john zabrucky.com) is a parade of hits from the ’80s to the 21st century — “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” “Blade Runner,” “Rocky IV,” “Ghostbusters II,” “Back to the Future II,” “Batman Returns,” “Speed,” “Independence Day,” “X-Men” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
With more movies and television series being shot outside of California and with more big-budget action films relying on computer-generated effects and sets, Zabrucky decided to close the business. He auctioned off the high-end furniture and other purchased items that Modern Props rented, but he kept about 300 of his own designs.
The success of Modern Props allows Zabrucky and his wife to split their time between homes in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles and Puglia, Italy (although the coronavirus has kept them out of Italy this year).
Now 72 years old, Zabrucky wants to increase the focus on his own art. The large-scale aluminum and steel sculptures reflect that fascination with mechanics fostered by those pinball machines as well as an anti-war sentiment borne out of being a student during the Vietnam War and at Kent State when the May 4 shootings occurred.
“It provided me with a very good living, certainly one that was beyond the expectations of a kid who grew up in Warren, Ohio, and thought, if he was lucky, he’d teach at a university,” Zabrucky said. “I’ve had these successes, but I threw away (my art career). It’s a double-edged sword. … Maybe my life’s not over yet. Maybe there’s another chapter.”