All photos by the author.

Meet the Elvis Impersonator Who Builds Exact Replicas of Star Trek Sets

Located in upstate New York, housed in a former dollar store, he built the thing himself.

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Oct 25 2017, 7:30pm

All photos by the author.

Lots of folks likely consider themselves the ultimate Star Trek fan, but there's a good chance none could hold a candle to James Cawley, a 50-year-old professional Elvis impersonator living in a tiny town in upstate New York. Cawley is the owner/curator of the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour in downtown Ticonderoga (population: 5,000), open to the public for just over a year now. He built the thing with sweat equity and money he made performing as Elvis, and it's become a bona fide mecca for Trekkies.

The 13,000-square-foot building that houses it certainly doesn't look like much when you roll up, owing to its prior history as a long-shuttered grocery store-turned-dollar store. Inside, though, is an astoundingly precise recreation of the Starship Enterprise sets used during the filming of the series that debuted in 1966 (roughly nine months before Cawley's birth) and ran for three seasons before hitting syndication nirvana.

Accuracy is the selling point of Cawley's Star Trek experience, and the painstaking fidelity to the original designs is jaw-dropping as you walk the corridors of his Enterprise and peep the transporter room, sickbay, engineering room, the Jefferies tube, and the pièce de résistance, the bridge—all laid out exactly as it was at Desilu Studios Stage 9 in Hollywood a half-century ago. The dimensions and colors are spot-on, the fabrics and ambient sounds piped into the rooms and hallways. The liquid in the squeeze bottles on a table in the back of Bones McCoy's science lab are the correct color and level. Panel buttons sound the familiar klaxon when pressed. Gobos cast the same shadow patterns on the walls that draped over Kirk as he discussed a Klingon menace with Spock and Scotty.

"The drive to get it right is what makes it special, because people grew up with this and they know the details intimately—their eyes would go to what's wrong, not to what's right," Cawley said during a recent visit to his Trek-land. As he speaks, a retired couple from Connecticut—who trekked four hours to take the tour this particular afternoon—geek out over a Tribble and the authentic gold vest-and-sash costume Kirk wore in the second-season episode "Mirror Mirror," both of which sit in a long memorabilia display case nearby.

The tour, Cawley said, "is emotional for a lot of people." He pointed to the sliding doors that the thousands of fans who've made the pilgrimage here since last year—some from as far away as Ethiopia—pass through to begin the guided hour-long tour. "When they go in there, I've had people cry. I've had people say, 'I never thought I'd actually see this,'" Cawley said, noting that nearly all of the original sets, except for a few pieces that are now in private collections or museums, were destroyed shortly after Star Trek was cancelled in 1969. "This is wish-fulfillment for a lot of people."

The set tour is the culmination of two decades' worth of work during which Cawley established himself as the O.G. of the modern Star Trek fan film. Cawley created and starred as Captain Kirk in his popular (and mostly self-funded) original web series Star Trek: New Voyages from 2003 until just a few years ago, along the way attracting such Trek luminaries as George "Sulu" Takei and Walter "Chekov" Koenig to reprise their iconic roles in his productions. The hour-long ST:NV episodes were filmed in and around Ticonderoga using Enterprise sets Cawley started constructing in his grandfather's barn in 1996 purely as hobby, with the idea that he and his local Trekkie pals could use them to film their own little Star Trek vignettes for kicks.

Cawley's Star Trek obsession goes back a lot further than that. Like many children of the 70s, he and his friends ran around the streets playing Star Trek while bedecked in store-bought costumes. When he was 17, Cawley recalled, he wanted to make his own Kirk costume, so he picked up the phone and dialed Paramount Studios in the hopes of speaking to Bill Theiss, the costume designer for the original Star Trek series.

"I've always had this thing where if I take something on, I want it to be right or perfect or as close as I can get it, so that's why I called," Cawley laughed. He was patched through to Theiss, who happily provided valuable information about Trek costume patterns and fabrics. The pair became friends, which eventually led to Cawley interning for Theiss on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Soon after, Cawley—then an aspiring actor—began landing gigs as an Elvis impersonator, finding it to be a quite lucrative career. Theiss died in 1992, and willed Cawley blueprints for the original Enterprise sets. The blueprints provided the framework, but to meet his own exacting standards for detail, Cawley filled in the blanks by watching each Star Trek episode hundreds of times, poring over old set photos he acquired, and contacting Trek set designers.

He also started buying original Trek set props at auction whenever possible, using his sweet Elvis money: "Elvis has done a lot for me, he's taken very good care of me for a long time," Cawley laughed. He moved the sets into the vacant dollar store on Montcalm Street he leased nearly four years ago; he now owns the building.

To this day, Cawley obsesses over the minutia. He watches Star Trek episodes like Bill Belichick breaks down game film: Finger on the freeze-frame, eye scanning the smallest details, absorbing patterns and schemes, searching for something he may not have seen before. It often leads to little adjustments and fixes to his sets.

"I never get sick of it," Cawley says of watching Trek. "Never."

A couple of years ago, though, he started to get sick of making fan films. He'd occasionally vent on Trek message boards and Facebook groups that doing New Voyages wasn't much fun anymore, and that the fan-film scene had more drama behind the scenes than on the screen.

By then, a spirit of fraternity and collaboration among myriad Trek fan-film productions began to fracture into acrimonious one-upsmanship and online sniping over whose sets, acting, and special effects were better. There was something of an "arms race," too, with fan films—Cawley's included —spending more and more money on their productions, often through crowdfunding (although Cawley still paid for most of the costs out of his own pocket).

For ages, CBS/Paramount—which owns the Star Trek rights—essentially looked the other way regarding use of its intellectual property by fan films, provided they didn't make any profits off of those productions. The company saw the fan films as helping the Trek franchise live long and prosper.

That all changed in 2015 when the production company Axanar raised more than a million dollars to make a Star Trek "fan film" and hired a professional crew for a studio-quality effort, spurring CBS and Paramount to file a copyright infringement lawsuit to put a halt to something they saw as decidedly more-than-amateur. The parties settled last year, but in the wake of the incident, CBS/Paramount established new fan-film guidelines that, among other things, limited fan films to 15 minutes and capped crowdfunding at $50,000.

The latter wasn't a big deal to Cawley. But the New Voyages episodes he was executive-producing (he'd already ceded the on-screen Kirk role to another actor) were still in post-production and clocked in around an hour. He shut the whole thing down so as not to run afoul of CBS, but still wanted to do something with the sets. To that point they had been closed to everyone except his friends and those who volunteered on his films.

A subsequent licensing deal with CBS—with whom Cawley's had a long and very good relationship—struck last year allowed him to throw open the doors for the set tour. When he's not on the road playing Elvis, he's in Ticonderoga leading tours, working on the sets, expanding the lobby museum and gift shop, and hatching other ways to improve the fan experience.

To that end, in August, Cawley unveiled another partnership with CBS: the "Star Trek Film Academy," set to debut in the spring of 2018, which will be like a fantasy camp for Trekkies in which participating fans will work with veteran Trek actors, directors, makeup artists, costume designers, and others on his sets in the making of a short Trek film in which they can star or work behind the cameras.

And earlier this month, Cawley announced his dream-come-true: Shatner himself will be making his first visit to his sets during a "Captain on the Bridge" fan weekend in May. "It's a big deal, to get him, it's…" Cawley said, his voice trailing off as he shook his head, momentarily overcome by the idea of his boyhood hero venturing onto his hyper-accurate original Trek set and sitting in the captain's chair Cawley built.

Cawley knows how emotional it will be for him. He's curious to find out how it will be for Shatner. "You never know how he's going to react," Cawley said after a minute. "But there's got to be a part of him that's gonna say, 'Wow, this is a time warp.'"

Follow Michael Goldberg on Twitter.

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