Alan J. Blacher Brings a Bit of Broadway to the Talk Show Circuit

Lighting designer Alan J. Blacher is winding up his tenure at The Rosie O'Donnell Show, but there are plenty of daytime divas still clamoring for his services. In addition to Rosie, which Blacher took over from original designer Bob Dickinson after the show's 1996 premiere, the LD is finishing up the run of Sally with Sally Jesse Raphael, and continues to light the Ricki Lake show, Judge Hatchett, and Maury with Maury Povich. He's also been asked to assume design duties for O'Donnell's replacement, Caroline Rhea. The two-time Emmy winner sat down to talk in March, after a Rosie broadcast that included “At the Fountain,” a number from Broadway's Sweet Smell of Success. Given his background in theatre (including theatre design and theatre management degrees from UCLA, and a decade-long stint as resident designer for the Japan Society), and his experience in television (including 15 years at ABC, split between All My Children and Good Morning America), staging such moments on this Broadway booster's TV show has been a remarkably satisfying gig for Blacher.

John Calhoun: What's the process when you adapt a number like this?

Alan Blacher: There's a lot that goes into getting three and a half minutes of video out the other end. We all go see the show. I note the angles and palette that the designer [in this case, Natasha Katz] is using, then the art director and I try to distill the essence of what we've seen, and bring it into our budget guidelines. In this particular number, Brian d'Arcy James' character is dwarfed by skyscrapers. We didn't have the money to build the skyscraper surround. The only design we were able to do was a cyc and scrim, so I projected a number of cloud templates in different blues to try to get the feeling. I couldn't get the darkness Natasha introduced and get good television, so I took liberties and cued red to signify impending doom. I thought that was justified by the quality of the video I was getting, even though it wasn't accurate to the designer's look on the stage.

JC: How did The Rosie O'Donnell Show evolve from Bob Dickinson's original design?

AB: I came in just after they had loaded in equipment, and became basically an assistant designer to Bobby. His parting words to me were, “I don't care if you move every light in the place, just make it look good.” As Rosie decided we should start staging Broadway, I asked him for advice, and he gave me an equipment solution. We rented and then purchased [Morpheus] ColorFaders, so we could mix color in an instant. I use them every day. Bob also used his clout to help us get a wonderful package of [Vari*Lite®] VL5s and VL6s. I've added gobo rotators, and bought more striplights. The show grew, and I've been challenged to grow with it. I have every reason to believe that, with Rosie's support, I raised the production bar in daytime TV with this show.

JC: Talk about your other shows, and what you've learned about lighting daytime talk TV.

AB: I light a show like the layers of an onion. Ricki Lake said to me at the beginning, “I want to be able to go anyplace in the studio and look good.” She's the eye of the onion, and I wrap her with key light from every position the camera is going to see her. And I designed lots of color washes on the set, with details picked up as if I were lighting a soap opera.

The lighting has to support the personality of the host, or at least the direction the show has gone in. At Maury, he used to appear in a suit, and the set was very masculine, very wood-toned. Now the show has become much more combative. We did a redesign for this season, and I went to saturated colors in a warm palette. On Judge Hatchett, the producer said it's the Ricki Lake show guests meet the Judge. That says to me a high chromatic value that we don't see in any of the other judge shows. On Sally, they wanted to make a softer, less harsh look for her this year. We laid in several levels of pattern and color on the cream set, with a lavender backlight that makes for a softer image on camera.

JC: What was your road to becoming daytime TV's lighting expert?

AB: I'm one of those who bucked the trend and came to New York from Los Angeles. I had my first dose of theatre in high school, and I went to LA City College because they had a professional training program. As a result of the education I had there, I was one year ahead of the students at UCLA when I transferred over. When I went to work at California Institute of the Arts, I was in the administration for the first two of my nine years there. Then I was asked to put together a small design program, and we became the support system for the schools of theatre, music, and dance.

But I was itchy to get into television, and I decided to move to New York, because my partner was here. Three months after I had landed here in 1979, I got a call to join The Monte Carlo Show, a syndicated variety show [in Monaco], as lighting director. I panicked — I didn't know anything about television. I called Jo Mayer, who was working in soap operas at ABC, and said, “Can you help me learn how to use a light meter quickly?” So I went down to One Life to Live many times in the ensuing 10 days, and then flew over and did the show, which lasted only one season, because it wasn't that great. But it was a wonderful experience for me. I had 12 followspots, and the new Strand Lightpalette. The way the show was formatted, we had a new star every day — Ethel Merman, Kris Kristofferson, Cher. There were variety acts in between, so I would do Ethel Merman followed by a bear act.

When I came back to America, I had no job. So I called Jo Mayer again, and I got hired as a vacation relief lighting director on soap operas. Then I ended up doing All My Children. Now, I can tell you that for a lighting designer, a soap opera is a real challenge. You have to be able to do everything — interiors, exteriors, location, studio, fantasy, music — and they throw it all at you and you have no time. After eight and a half years, the schedule was just too brutal. So I went to Good Morning America, which was much less of a grind: You're on live from 7am to 9am, you're out of there by 10:30, you have a life. I relit home base and did lots of changes to the show.

JC: Then you went freelance and started your own company. How was that transition?

AB: I planted my seeds early. My director from Good Morning America was also directing Ricki Lake, and he brought me to that client. The cameramen were so impressed with my work on Ricki that they introduced me to the director at Maury. So I had those two jobs lined up before I left. I didn't have the economic pressure; I only had the creative challenge. And I was mentally active again, because I was newly challenged. It's been that way ever since.

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.