Why Christmas Came Early for one City Tech Grad

Thomas Cavagnaro’s Halloween this year was anything but frightful. A 2007 graduate of New York City College of Technology’s baccalaureate program in architectural technology, Cavagnaro took top honors in a nationwide Halloween costume contest sponsored by Walgreens, one of the fastest growing retailers in the United States.

The contests’ top contenders were guests on the October 31, 2007, “Live with Regis & Kelly” show on ABC, during which Cavagnaro was named winner and presented with a five-figure check for his first place finish. This made the occasion seem more like Christmas than Halloween.

Cavagnaro’s towering facsimile of Optimus Prime, the “good guy” robot in the 2007 hit motion picture Tranformers, measures eight-and-a-half feet, top to bottom, and five feet wide at the shoulders. Laboring evenings and weekends in his Staten Island basement and garage, it took Cavagnaro about 250 hours to model, construct and paint the costume. It’s built mostly of cardboard affixed to a wooden interior frame and wooden stilts. Exterior detail pieces were fashioned from plastic and metal.

“The idea for the costume was inspired by an invitation I received from friends to their ‘Super Heroes, Super Villains’ Halloween party,” says Cavagnaro. “When my friends saw the costume, they told me about the ‘Regis & Kelly’ contest and encouraged me to enter.” He did so right away and the rest is history.

For Cavagnaro, his appearance on the highly popular nationally televised talk show was a cause célèbre. He has heard from friends and acquaintances he hasn’t heard from in years and parents of young children throughout the New York area continue to contact him about doing “personal appearances” — in costume, of course — at birthday parties and other events. “I still have Optimus and will probably hold onto him for a long time,” adds Cavagnaro. “He’s standing in the corner of my living room and is a real conversation starter when friends and family drop by.”

Cavagnaro, now 30, acquired his interest in architecture from his family; his uncle and a cousin are architects and his father is a foreman with a large Manhattan-based construction company. Cavagnaro currently works with a family-owned Staten Island architectural firm and is pursuing his own architectural license. He plans to return to school as soon as possible to learn more about animatronics.

“Tommy Cavagnaro is an extraordinary designer,” says City Tech Department of Architectural Technology Chair Robert Zagaroli. “In his bachelor’s-level design courses, his models and architectural analysis were always at the top of his class, whether he was asked to redesign a townhouse or design a skyscraper. His ability to work with texture, pattern and structure was outstanding, and he keenly understood how form and light contribute to the ‘presence’ of a building.

“All of these sophistications aside, Tommy was very low key with a ‘one-of-the-guys’ personality,” adds Zagaroli. “He was exceptionally well liked by students and faculty alike and had a close circle of friends who also lived on Staten Island and who commuted back and forth to school together on a daily basis.

“Tommy has chosen to work on modest to mid-sized projects, where the production and execution of working drawings appeals to his technical, fast-paced nature. It’s no wonder, by the way, that he chose a robotic character from Transformers for his costume, as the film is a forward thinking, complex and model-heavy production.”

For Cavagnaro, his City Tech experience was a bountiful one. “I made so many friends who shared my passion for design and architecture. All of my teachers were terrific people and I have stayed in touch with many of them. They always made the time to help me with any problem I was having.

“My course work at City Tech provided me with opportunities to learn not only about architecture, but about computers, model-making, animation and mechanics, and equipped me with the skills I needed to present myself and my ideas in a highly effective manner. I don’t think I could have done what I did to win the Halloween costume contest and make it through the ‘Regis & Kelly’ show without the know-how and poise I acquired at the College. Both Optimus and I thank you, City Tech.”

For more information, contact Dale Tarnowieski at 718.260.5109 or dtarnowieski@citytech.cuny.edu.