With Oscar buzz starting to build, the spotlight is shining brightly on Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed historical drama “Lincoln.”
One element of that film’s authentic period look was produced in a faded-brick building by Ymittos Candle Manufacturing Co. of Lowell, a century-old chandler that has lit up 23 films, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to the upcoming “The Lone Ranger.”
Ymittos was founded by Greek immigrants who made candles to illuminate Orthodox churches. But through the years, the company’s sacred flame for altars became a must-have for film set designers. Now, Ymittos fills candle orders for about two movies a year.
“They have such beautiful products. So period-correct and the colors are so wonderful,” said Christine Wick, the set decoration buyer for “Lincoln.” On location in Virginia last fall, Wick, who has hired Ymittos for films in the past, purchased beeswax candles from a local purveyor.
Her boss was not impressed.
“The whole tenor of the movie is dark and brooding. When we bought these other candles they were glaringly wrong,” Wick said. The creamy hue was too light for set designer Jim Erickson. “He said, ‘These are not going to work. We have to have the real thing,’ ” Wick recalled.
Made with pure beeswax, the candles emit a warm glow that softened the powerful Civil War drama. In one scene, Lincoln’s son Tad holds a thick taper to view grainy images of slaves. In another, a Lowell-made votive silhouettes Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, during a bedroom imbroglio.
Artisan craftsmanship has kept New England’s oldest continuously run candle manufacturer in business since 1910. Entering the shop is like setting foot on a stage set. Up a creaky flight of stairs, industrial-size kettles rattle and hiss with molten beeswax.
Facing a wooden carousel, candle maker Kevin McMullin pushes a lever and racks of cotton wicks sink into hot liquid. He counts to two and releases them. Rows of caramel-colored stalactites begin to appear. Manually, he rotates the next bay and repeats the process a dozen times.
To monitor the number of times a wick is dipped, candle makers slide a poker chip on a string. “Everything’s done by feel, by eye, and by instinct,” Kaplan said. “We are very analog.”
How analog? Orders come by phone or fax. There might be a website, but no one knows the address. “We have a computer downstairs, but I’m not sure if it’s plugged in,” McMullin said.
In candle making, Kaplan’s biggest concerns are power outages and heat waves. “Humidity can invade in the last dip,” affecting the way the wax burns and a candle’s shape, he said. “We are performance-driven. They not only have to look good, but they have to work.”
Beeswax, made by bees to store honey and incubate their young, can be tricky to work with and requires more care, Kaplan said. Such intense execution makes them pricier. At Ymittos, a regular candle costs $3.50, but beeswax goes for $9.50.
Kaplan was an engineer, laid off from his job at a computer printer manufacturer, when he discovered Ymittos was available for sale more than two decades ago.
Figuring the candle business would be sounder than the volatile software world, Kaplan and a partner bought the “sleepy tech” company in 1990 from its founding Dristiliaris family.
“If you invest in high-tech you can get knocked off by the next chip change. You always have to be worrying about things you can’t control,” he said.
Churches remain the company’s main trade. That business slowed during the recession, but orders from inns and national parks picked up the slack. Kaplan said sales have increased in the past two years, but he declined to provide details about revenues and profits at the four-person company.
Movies may not be Ymittos’s biggest customers, but Kaplan relishes the company’s 15 minutes of fame. He got his first taste of Hollywood shortly after purchasing Ymittos, when he took an unsolicited order to supply candles for the 1992 film “Ethan Frome.”
“It started with a call,” Kaplan said. “It was God’s gift.” Many other calls would follow.
Wendy Weaver, a Los Angeles set decorating buyer who ordered candles from Ymittos for “Pirates of the Caribbean” and around 1,700 candles for “The Lone Ranger,” both starring Johnny Depp, trusts the company completely.
“They are one of the few places that can do it the way we want them,” she said. “They always come through for us.”
Using a secret formula, Kaplan can modify the chemistry of a candle to slow down its burn time. Such precision appeals to set designers.
To satisfy a last-minute request from Hollywood, Kaplan once halted an order in progress. “Lincoln” had wrapped, but Wick needed 50 candles to reshoot a scene.
Customers — in Hollywood and elsewhere — find Ymittos despite the company’s low profile.
Kaplan doesn’t advertise, unless you count the movie posters in his window. Like an expert tailor, he lets the artistry speaks for itself.
“We are helping to preserve craftsmanship in America,” Kaplan said. “You have to keep on it or else it will go away.”