Though the US theatrical lighting industry is relatively young, it still has a rich and colorful history, going back to the heyday of Broadway in the 1930s. Unfortunately, some of the pioneers of those early days — Jean Rosenthal, Charlie Altman, Ed Kook — have passed on before a proper record of their contributions could be kept. In an effort to properly document the full story of the theatrical and entertainment lighting industry, ESTA, USITT, Entertainment Design, Lighting Dimensions, and several lighting manufacturers, including Barbizon and Altman, have created An Oral History of Theatrical Lighting and Its People. This ongoing effort is designed to create a documented history of this industry as seen through its participants.
This month, we listen in on touring vet Pete Heffernan, chief operating officer of Bandit Lites, who spoke to interviewer Jared Saltzman about the early days of the concert industry versus today.
Interviewer: You started working for Bandit Lites in 1978. In your experience over 25 years, what has changed, both in terms of technology and the business in general?
Pete Heffernan: I always like to refer to myself as “Analog Pete.” When I toured, everything was analog — how many PAR cans you could throw up. That was basically the business. Pin matrix for the board. Now the industry is so digital, and the number of control channels is mind-boggling to me.
Interviewer: The first time you went out on the road, with Kenny Rogers, what board did you use?
PH: First time, we used a Rainbow Console — that was the predecessor to all the CAE products. It was made in Ypsilanti, Michigan — I can remember driving up to pick it up — and I mean it was an event. We were getting this wonderful console.
Interviewer: It had the small pin matrix on the side?
PH: Yes, with the little glass thing you flipped open, and you put the little pin matrixes in. That was the first big board that we had. We used PNB trussing with Kenny when we got into the large arena shows. You could slap 12 PAR cans into a piece of truss, and go for days, and put them into a truck pack. The English came over here and had a big influence on the way things were done. The Avo consoles became very big; CAE and the Rainbow went away, and Thomas trussing, with its 12 lamps per bar, became popular. Everything seemed to move in kind of an English mode for a while.
Interviewer: Where are we at now, in terms of boards? What's the difference between those early Rainbow boards and the type of equipment you're traveling with now? Is it easier for you to travel with a bunch of what I refer to as “wiggle lights,” or moving lights? Or was it simpler back then?
PH: You could look at it two different ways. Back then it was how many PAR cans are you going to put up. But if you had a problem, like if you lost the analog signal, it was not a good thing. Back in those days, we did Quiet Riot, when they were big, and we had about 1,200 lights up.
Interviewer: 1,200 1kWs?
PH: Yeah, it was quite a large rig. And it was before the digital days — it was still back in analog, and if you had a problem, you had to trace it down from the dimmer to the fixture. It was very painstaking. Today, if you get a moving light that's bad, you take out your spare and put it up. I think it can be a lot less complicated today, using moving technology.
I personally like moving technology that doesn't move much. I don't like moving technology that wiggles. I like moving technology where the scenes are beautiful, but that's probably just because I've come from a background where you color the stage with PAR cans and a few lekos for specials, and there you go.
Interviewer: What's the difference in the people and their skills for the road? When you and I first started, clearly you needed a certain type of electrician who could trace things down.
PH: I think in the early days of lighting it was a more physical thing — snap 'em together, and have some electrical background. Now, I look for the best testers I can find and the best people that can use that equipment. The people I look for now are so computer-oriented, and in tune with digital technology. We still put out shows that have a majority of PAR cans and that kind of thing — but you can no longer be someone that just snaps together truss. You can no longer be an analog person.
Interviewer: So it's a question of carrying around the right spare parts and knowing what to test for when they need to be put in.
Interviewer: Twenty-five years after you started, the corporate world has clearly taken over the industry. How has that affected an owner-operator company like Bandit?
PH: I think we have been always able to find the niche in the market that we are able to work through. From 1986 until now, we've had a lot of expansion and growth and opening different offices and, you know, we rode the country music market for a long time, but we also ventured out into rock and roll and other genres of music — and now, today, it's not who owns the company, or who's running the company, as much as what bank is backing the company, and how much money are they going to be able to put into it? Bigger is better in some situations, but there must be some sensibility and organization. I think the most important thing is that customers can get a better feel for the quality of what they're getting from a company that's not caught in the conglomerate.
I think you can carry takeovers a little too far, and all of a sudden it gets convoluted. There are a lot of businesses we're so familiar with that no longer have the identity that they once did. That identity has gone. In my opinion New York is a prime example of that. The identity and prestige of certain companies have slipped because there's a banker there instead of the person who loved the business. I think, luckily, that Bandit Lites is one of those companies that there's a lot of people there that still love the business. Yeah, it is a business, and there are a lot of bankers that we have to deal with, too. But if you lose that identity, the client and the people who are dancing on the floor are the people that lose. They might not know it, but they do.