Two hours before showtime in the heart of Hollywood, an abandoned 6,000-square-foot pawn shop was buzzing with activity. Big band jazz music echoed through the corridors. Actors rehearsing their lines roamed about various spaces separated by elegant, multicolored drapes. A fortune-teller warmed up by reading tarot cards for anyone who would let her. A magician sat, almost unnervingly calm, in the corner amid all the chaos. A team of stage managers, lighting designers, chefs, producers, and gaffers scurried about, putting on finishing touches until the very last minute: Tables were set, crushed ice was poured into buckets, rope was strung around freestanding archways to look like mangled tropical vines.
“You should have seen this place two months ago,” Ryan Ozminkowski ’19 says in between hanging lights and wiring speaker systems. When he got the keys over the summer, the warehouse-sized pawn shop, slated to be demolished, was a wreck. “Nails were sticking out of everything. Pigeons were nesting in the rafters. Mountains of trash were piled up everywhere,” he says. “To turn this decrepit, powerless, waterless space into a world-class nightlife venue, our production team truly worked a miracle.”
The result, just after the sun went down, was Calypso — a three-night, invite-only pop-up event that aimed to redefine the experience of a night out on the town. Hunger Games actress Jackie Emerson, playing the role of the title character-enchantress Calypso, guided guests dressed in formal attire through the space as her story unfolded. Along the way, we were treated to astounding sleight-of-hand card magic by Franco Pascali, acrobatics from Megan Bautista, and a multi-course meal prepared by James Beard-award-winning chef Tony Messina.
But as those frenzied final hours of preparation unfolded before Calypso had first opened its doors to the world, I couldn’t help but feel a simpler sense of déjà vu. Friends since just about our very first week at Princeton in 2015, Ryan and I, along with Ben Jacobson ’19, created a student group called Princeton Tonight, a public-access television show that also arranged concerts, lectures, and film festivals on campus with guests ranging from Art Garfunkel to Cecily Strong. Long were the days and nights of hanging lights and wiring sound systems and managing talented teams to pull it all off.
And at that premiere weekend in Los Angeles, together once more, it was all hands on deck. Ben was mixing drinks and I was taping down cables. Other Princeton friends, including Nicole Kalhorn ’19, Andrew Diehl ’19, Carly Bonnet ’19, Peyton Lawrenz ’19, and Rawlison Zhang ’20, who often showed up when Princeton Tonight needed them most at Richardson Auditorium or McCosh 50, were there washing dishes and pouring concrete. Ozminkowski’s gift for bringing people together was on full display, and looking around, it took me a moment to remember that we were not in school anymore — that any of this was actually real at all.
Indeed, it is an undertaking fit for a dreamer. “Our goal is to create a space that can transport our guests, something they can wander into and explore,” Ozminkowski says. “To get them away from their Excel spreadsheets and the work they’re stressed about and let them indulge and be present in the space that we’ve designed for just that purpose.”
To do so, Ozminkowski brought a number of Princeton alumni onto his team, all of whom he met during his time on campus. That included David Bengali ’04, a projection designer and projectionist who has designed for broadcast, opera, dance, and theater both on and off Broadway. Bengali served as a Princeton Arts Fellow at the Lewis Center from 2017 to ’19, which was when he met Ozminkowski, still a student, and first heard his vision.
“The more he described the project, the more excited I was,” Bengali says. “In the midst of a growing sea of immersive experiences that seem like they are mostly focused on just being Instagram-worthy, Ryan was envisioning an event that was all that and more — that would also have a strong narrative, a story and characters that would really mean something to the audience.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who dreams on as big of a canvas as Ryan does, and I find that so inspiring about him,” says Lovell Holder ’09, an executive producer on the project who first met Ozminkowski on campus in 2017.
Calypso is the first offering under the umbrella of Ozminkowski’s new immersives company, Figment Entertainment. He has described Figment as the natural, if ambitious, next step forward in his multifaceted career in entertainment and business since graduating from Princeton. He has worked, among other roles, as the head of development for Academy Award-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle and as the co-founder of a startup backed by Y Combinator, which supports emerging companies. But the kind of large-scale event that Calypso embodies has been Ozminkowski’s dream ever since he began building haunted houses as a middle schooler in rural Lodi, California.
If all goes according to plan, Calypso will soon return in a more permanent way. After the smashing success of its exclusive three-night run in September, Ozminkowski is now in talks with investors and entertainment executives who were in attendance to purchase a space where the production can exist in long-term residency in Los Angeles. The dream is to eventually expand to cities around the world.
“I’m excited to continue to explore how Figment, under Ryan’s innovative and inspiring leadership, will invent and bring people unique and unexpected experience pairings: high-end cuisine with circus, cardistry and illusions with cocktails, and projection mapping. This immersive enterprise is just getting started,” adds Bengali.
“All we’re trying to do is bring a little more magic into the world,” Ozminkowski says. The lights dimmed. Bengali’s world-class projections, a wall of glowing clocks, began ticking, counting the very first hours of a new dream.