LIGHT MENUS AT THE NEXT GENERATION OF THEMED RESTAURANTS

Thanks to the well-publicized fiscal woes of Planet Hollywood, Fashion Cafe, and Motown Cafe, it's become the conventional wisdom that the era of the themed restaurant is dead. Don't believe it. The public may no longer be interested in munching on cheeseburgers in the presence Star Wars' R2-D2 and Kim Basinger's handcuffs from 9 1/2 Weeks; still, the era of the themed restaurant is far from over. The next generation, however, is sleeker, more sophisticated, adult-oriented. Two new projects, located on opposite sides of the country, provide striking examples of this trend. Both of them provide diners with a link to the world of show business - in one the glamour of old-time Hollywood, in the other the aura of one of pop music's reigning divas.

Located in the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, WB Stage 16 pays tribute to the history of Warner Bros. Studios, from its early years of backstage musicals and gangster thrillers to the summer blockbusters of today. As designed by Columbus, OH-based firm, Fitch Inc. (Lynn Rosenbaum, project manager), each room recalls the ambiance of a Warner film. The idea behind WB Stage 16 is that guests are dining on a soundstage, with each room representing a different movie set. (The entrance to the restaurant is designed to look like the large, forbidding doors of a typical Hollywood soundstage.)

The largest room, Golddiggers of 1933, recalls one of Busby Berkeley's musical extravaganzas, with particular references to the musical number "We're in the Money." Rick's Cafe Americain is designed after the most famous nightclub in film history, the North African nightspot operated by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Ocean's 11, a heist film set in Vegas, is a natural - the film was shot on location at the Sands Hotel, which was torn down for the construction of the Venetian - so the WB 16 features an elegant 1950s dining room suggested by the film. Finally, the urban gothic look of Gotham City recalls the studio's highly profitably franchise of Batman films. Warner Bros. provided plenty of creative input, largely through Ed Strang of Warner Bros. Studios' scenic art department; besides providing background and inspiration, he and his staff painted backdrops and oversaw the fabrication of the restaurant's many interiors (which was done by the firm Architectural Details).

And there was plenty of scenery to fabricate. Golddiggers features a large theatre proscenium with giant coins bolted to the stage, and a mural of chorus girls sweeping down a spiral staircase, playing violins. Rick's Cafe Americain is based on the Casablanca set, with its tiled floors, wicker chairs, and fringed table lamps. Ocean's 11 is a dream of 50s Vegas luxe, with curving banquettes, wrought-iron chandeliers, and gold-flecked mirrors. Gotham City is a sinister, film-noir-in-color kind of place, featuring a nighttime cityscape, gargoyles, and a Medusa head wall piece. In keeping with the soundstage theme, LD Marsha Stern partly lit each room with old studio fixtures (2kW and 10kW fresnels) that have been refitted with modern wiring and lamps. All in all, one wouldn't be surprised to see Ruby Keeler, Bogart, Frank Sinatra, or Jack Nicholson wander in, ready for his or her next closeup.

However, says Stern, the restaurant's elaborate scenic design posed certain problems. "There was a lot of authenticity in recreating these movie sets, including the use of lighting fixtures," she says. But the big issue was, she adds, how to light the set pieces without blasting the diners with thousands of watts of light. Her original plan called for key lighting on the scenery with ellipsoidals, with the big 2k and 10k movie lights focused on the crowd. These units were purchased from Warner Bros. Studio Services and LA-based Raleigh Studios. "We replaced the guts with UL-code incandescent sources," says Stern, adding, "We stayed in the 3200-3600K color range, to keep everything nice and warm and soft. We had lenses made for the bigger units. The 2k Warner Bros. units were Mole-Richardson lights - they were perfect, just what we wanted, lying around in the studio stock."

Modifications were made by 4Wall Entertainment, based in Vegas; the company has handled similar jobs for the MGM Grand Hotel, located down the Strip from the Venetian. 4Wall supplied the theatrical fixture and dimming/control package, as well as color and gobos; the company also provided on-site project management and helped coordinate all aspects of the lighting's installation.

However, Stern adds, as the project developed and the interior design and budget were reconceived, many of the conventional theatrical fixtures were dropped and, more and more, the studio fixtures were responsible for the bulk of the lighting. "The studio lights became the key lights, set lights, fill lights, and scenery lights," the LD adds. Just to make things interesting, these changes happened during a very short time frame.

Stern, who lives in New York, signed onto the project last September. "I literally did a 48-hour turnaround on the first draft," she says. The project had a soft opening in mid-December and a grand opening in late January of this year. All of which meant, she says, that "design decisions were made on the fly, every two to three weeks on a trip to Vegas."

At any rate, to light each room's extensive scenery, Stern worked like a film lighting designer, hanging green beds with film and theatrical units to get adequate coverage. Each room has a different feel. For example, Golddiggers, with its soaring ceiling, is bright and airy, to show off its grand-scaled wall decor. "Golddiggers has six green beds, each of which has approximately eight to 10 fixtures," she says. "We also have a row of single-circuit Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips along one wall, lighting the staircase painting. Onstage, over the coins, we had some three-circuit L&E Mini-Strips. There are also [ETC] Source Fours and Source Four PARs, of varying degrees."

Rick's Cafe is a smaller, more intimate space, and the feeling is warmer, more incandescent. "We had four green beds, around 20 modified studio 2ks, and an assortment of Source Four PARs and ellipsoidals," says Stern. Palm-shaped Lee templates are used help create a tropical atmosphere. "There's also a new Lee color in the room - Moroccan Pink," the LD adds. "The overall look is darker than Golddiggers, with a lot more texture and patterns on the walls. The big dilemma was how to use color yet at the same time light the work of the scenic artists - these craftspeople created beautiful sets - without blasting out the diners." The solution to this problem, she says, was to be "careful about angles. I sat in every chair while focusing, to make sure I wasn't blinding anybody." Bar sconces and table lamps help boost the ambient levels around the customers.

Another feature of Rick's is a painting of an airfield (site of Casablanca's unforgettable climactic scene), lit with a light box that contains gelled fluorescent units. Upstairs is another room themed to resemble the office belonging to Renault, the corrupt police official from Casablanca played by Claude Rains. "There are dark wood walls with ceiling fans - it's a less romantic look," says Stern, "but again we used a similar texture wall treatment with breakup patterns and templates to soften up the dark walls; I used Source Fours to highlight the map on the walls, which wasn't easy, given the angle I had to work from. Upstairs, there are five green beds, plus a few pipes in odd spots where we hung Source Fours, Source Four PARs, and 2k fixtures."

Ocean's 11 is also a two-level room. "Downstairs," says Stern, "there's a stage with a shimmering curtain. The room has three green beds, and also two pipes over the stage - one in front of it and one over it. On the downstage pipe we used old Altman PAR-64s, just like you see in the movie Ocean's 11. There are photos of the Rat Pack on the walls, as well as other items from Warner Bros.; they're highlighted and keyed by ellipsoidals coming from the green beds. There's also key lighting from Altman scoops and some 2ks. Upstairs, the look is white tufted leather - it's white everywhere. There are three green beds as well, with most of the lighting coming from 2ks and a few ellipsoidals. It was a difficult room because of all the mirrors: Every time you lit an object, you were creating glare." Altman Micro-PARs were used as uplight on the liquor bottles in the bar areas.

Certainly the most dramatic space in the restaurant is Gotham City, which, like Golddiggers, has a soaring ceiling. "In Gotham," says Stern, "we've got five green beds, with between 12 and eighteen 2k units. We also have about 20 Source Four ellipsoidals and 10 Source Four PARs."

Gotham City, with its ominous gothic architecture, posed a number of other challenges as well. Stern used a series of 15 three-circuit L&E Mini-Strips, which served as backlighting for the backdrops in the room; the LD employed a variety of saturated colors to keep that dark, slightly menacing look familiar to viewers of the Batman films. In addition, "I had to light under an open-grate staircase, which I did with straight runs of neon," she says. "There are neon light boxes depicting windows built into certain set pieces" which were fabricated by Bright Light Neon, out of LA, working with Architectural Details and Warner Bros. Studio Services. "I also had to uplight a piece we called Beam Lady - a structure built around an I-Beam which supports the upstairs area." To do the job, "we burrowed into the concrete floor around the front and two sides, creating troughs into which we put fiber optics from Fiberstars. There are two illuminators, one is 150W and the other is 250W, which allows us to get two different textures with non-dim circuits."

In fact, Gotham City is filled with architectural details that required Stern's attention. "There's a relief of Medusa carved into a wall; we did that using two Fiberstars illuminators and fixtures. I also used a Kim bronze light, which is a 50W MR-16 in-grade exterior fixture, to light the relief on the second floor, as well as two gargoyles - it gave me the kind of pan-tilt flexibility that I needed; given the way the MR-16 sits inside the housing, I can move it, and it gives me a 30ø pitch." Other touches include gooseneck fixtures from Trend Lighting attached to the wall over a wait station. "Ed Strang beat them up and dented them, to distress them," the LD adds. Also part of the mix is a trio of High End Systems Studio Spot[TM] 250s, automated units which project the Bat Signal on the restaurant's walls, courtesy of Apollo custom gobos.

The lighting in WB Stage 16 is controlled by a system from ETC, featuring Sensor dimmer racks, a Unison external processing rack, and an Expression 3 lighting playback controller. In addition to Bill Lairimore and his team at 4Wall (including Randy Kee), Stern has nothing but praise for other members of her "support system," including Gary Dulanski of Stan Deutsch Associates in New York, Todd Von Bastiaans of Stiles Associates of Las Vegas, Will Leaman of Lightly Expressed Fiber Optics of Salem, VA, and John Fuller and Kirsten Vitale of Lee Filters, all of whom worked to specify and procure the correct equipment for Stern, under severe deadline pressure.

There are three additional spaces in WB Stage 16, for which the lighting was designed and supplied by Kurt Thomas of Lighting Management Inc. The first-floor lounge, which is located just at the entrance to the restaurant, is a moody, romantic environment, which seems specially designed for one-on-one socializing. It features general illumination from warm 3000K 32W triple-tube compact fluorescent units, with decorative glass pendant fixtures hanging over the bar by Sonoma Lighting. The balance of the lighting comes from clamp- and track-mounted theatrical metal-halide fixtures by Times Square Lighting.

Upstairs is a screening room (with a bar) and an area called the sky lounge. In the sky lounge, the mood is romantic and intimate; Thomas says his focus was to have the lighting "emanate from nowhere," thus choosing to drape the curtains and columns from a mixture of halogen 36W PAR-36 wide floods and narrow spots located above. The fixtures are by Times Square. One imaginative note: The rest rooms feature a fiber-optic system, which constantly changes colors, courtesy of Orlando, FL-based Super Vision International. "As you enter the rest rooms," says Thomas, "the light color changes, from green to red to blue, at alternating frequencies."

The screening room is lit with 120W PAR-38 halogen incandescents in pendant-mounted cylinders from Progress Lighting, plus a number of 70W metal-halide recessed units from Atlite (a division of Cooper Lighting, which also distributes Super Vision). A few Times Square track fixtures complete the look. Downstairs, in the retail area, track lighting is the main source of illumination, with metal-halide high bays from Lightolier and theatrical Philips 70W PAR-38 MasterColor fixtures from Times Square. A number of 50W PAR-20 narrow floods in border lights accent the perimeter features, creating a "stage" effect.

After Stern left the project, LD Ted Ferreira came on board to make some final refinements, including the addition of some fixtures and some refocusing. Having been open for about six months, WB Stage 16 adds a note of Hollywood glamour to the overwhelmingly Italianate atmosphere of the Venetian. Think of it as Planet Hollywood, but for adults.

In contrast to the multiple movie theme of WB Stage 16, Bongos has a much more unified concept. Located in downtown Miami, next to the new American Airlines Arena, (home of the Miami Heat), it is the second restaurant owned by Cuban-American pop diva Gloria Estefan (the first Bongos is part of Downtown Disney in Orlando), with a Cuban-culture theme. As designed by the Rockwell Group (David Rockwell, principal; David Mexico, senior associate, and Jorge Castillo, project architect), Bongos is defined by a vast open space, with a large curved staircase leading to an upper level. The front wall of the restaurant is almost entirely composed of windows, for dramatic two-way views. Inside, hanging from the ceiling is a huge centerpiece structure, designed to look like a giant pineapple. The main body of the pineapple was constructed by Capitol Signs; within this is a central "pit" that was constructed by Clair Brothers, the Lititz, PA-based designer and supplier of lighting and sound systems.

Paul Gregory's firm Focus Lighting handled the interior and exterior architectural lighting for Bongos, with a team headed up by Jeff Nathan and Chuck Cameron. Speaking of Bongos, Nathan says, "We approached it like all our projects: What are the big looks? What is your first view of the restaurant? At Bongos, when you walk through the doors, what you see is that giant pineapple." To give the piece a sufficiently glamorous look, the designer devised a plan to light it both inside and out.

Thus the pineapple is lit from the outside by ETC Source Four PARs, mounted on various locations around the room, including the ceiling and the front glass wall. From the inside, lighting is provided by Altman cyc washes, hanging on interior truss; coated glass filters by SFX, matched to several Rosco colors (amber, magenta, yellow) provide a palette of saturated colors. In addition, MR-16 accents are placed on the inside edge of the pineapple; the light streaks the inside of the structure, giving it an extra bit of punch.

The restaurant is divided into various areas, each of which has its own look. The first-floor Cuba Bar is anchored by large, stylized palm fronds that grow from the back of the full, round bar, built of glass panels and fabric; these are lit from below by MR-16s in strong colors, with Altman 360Qs placed behind them to provide backlight. A similar treatment is given to four giant palm trees (built of metal, glass, and fabric) located at the entrance to the restaurant, with MR-16s built into the trunks of the trees, lighting the fronds from below, and Source Four PARs placed above.

Next to the Cuba Bar is the dining area, located under the mezzanine. MR-16 recessed downlights are placed in the ceiling to illuminate the tables. Nearby is a mural made up entirely of old cigar box wrappers and gold leaf; this is also lit by MR-16s. Separating the Cuba Bar from the main dining area is a line of conga drums, each one internally illuminated with an A-lamp. By the coffee and dessert bar is a wall covered with approximately 100 bongos; about 15% of them have a lamp behind them, which creates a glowing pattern.

In the main dining area, under the pineapple, table lighting consists of custom fixtures designed by Rockwell; the units are shaped like pineapples, with a conical shade. Upstairs, on the mezzanine, tables are lit by pendants shaped like blue glass cones (from Lightning Bug) hung at irregular intervals. Track lighting hung from the ceiling also washes the walls of the upstairs area. Also upstairs is the Mojito bar, which features custom glass pendants, in the shape of lines, with small incandescent lamps. The bar is topped by a fabric awning which is streaked by PAR-38s mounted on tracks behind it. The back wall of the bar, behind the liquor risers, is internally illuminated by gelled fluorescent units; also, low-voltage striplight is placed under the bar's nosing.

Overall, this design approach makes for a sophisticated dining ambiance. However, two or three nights a week, Bongos also functions as a dance club. Bill Simmons of Clair Bros. Systems designed the entertainment lighting. Not surprisingly, much of his work centers on the giant pineapple centerpiece. The bottom of the pineapple is a translucent drum, containing a mirror ball; the drum is lit with three Borealis LED units from Avolites. Hidden in the centerpiece are eight High End Systems Technobeams[R], three Dataflash[R] AF-1000 strobes, and one Clay Paky Astroraggi ("my all-time favorite disco light," says the LD). These various units work with the centerpiece and mirror ball to create what the designer calls "a cacophony of lights bouncing all over the place."

In addition, the centerpiece is surrounded by a 24'-diameter triangular black truss, on which Simmons has put four High End Systems Cyberlights[R], four Clay Paky Stage Light 1200 Zooms, four Clay Paky Stage Color 300s, four Clay Paky Stage Light 300s, and four additional Clay Paky Astroraggis. "The Stage Zoom was the brightest of any of the moving-head units at the time we spec'd this job, and has the ability to create a wonderful assortment of visual effects," says Simmons. To complete the rig, 32 ETC Source Four PARs are mounted atop the truss, to provide fill light on the dance floor, and on the centerpiece unit.

Finally, there are four small chandeliers distributed around the main room. Each one has a Clay Paky Stage Light 300. Thus, Simmons says, there are three levels of light. "The centerpiece unit is about 27' (8m) high, with the triangular truss at about 22' (6.8m) and the chandeliers at 18' (5.5m) - that gives you a real low-angle light shot right at the mirror ball." (Each chandelier also has a JBL subwoofer and six Factor 5 speakers, part of the sound rig, and an AF-1000 strobe on it as well.) Two High End F-100[TM] foggers are built into columns on the first floor.

Interestingly, all these High End and Clay Paky units are controlled by a Martin Case controller, a board that Simmons holds in high esteem. "The board has 10 submasters," he says. "One submaster controls the speed with which all the moving yokes respond. The second submaster has all the pan and tilt information. During a chase, those two subs control how fast the lights respond and the size of the area they encompass. The next two subs are for the moving-mirror fixtures. The fifth through ninth submasters dictate intensity, with the last controlling the output of fog. You can have units sweeping all over the dance floor or you can contain them for a slower song. It's all pre-programmed, but it's flexible; a board op can leave it alone or take it out of auto control and play it like a keyboard."

Focus also provided the dramatic exterior lighting for Bongos. "We have a main wash on the entirety of the building with a Kim wall wash, with SFX coated glass for colors," says Cameron. "Currently, we're using a vibrant yellow-amber, but we may be moving to a cooler palette with blue." There is yet another pineapple, this time on top of the building; Altman Exterior PAR-64 fixtures provide a color wash, while more of the same units are inside the pineapple and are focused outward. There are also uplights on the leaves: 128W PAR-38s from Lumiere. With the Altmans, says Cameron, "There's a magenta inside and amber outside, we cycle from frontlight to backlight to both lights, to create a sense of movement." All architectural lighting, inside and out, is under the control of the ETC Unison system. (Other members of the architectural project team, aside from Gregory, Nathan, and Cameron, were Jaie Bosse and Paul DeSimeon. Also part of the Clair Bros. team were programmer Patrick Dierson and sound designer Jim DeVenney.)

With its colorful exterior, and the glass wall that reveals the lighting inside, Bongos makes a very strong visual statement. "We were concerned with competition," says Nathan. "With the lighting from the exterior of the arena, we needed enough movement to bring the eye down to restaurant level." Mission accomplished: No matter what goes on next door, Gloria Estefan's glamorous new nightspot will not be ignored.