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 30s. 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 pioneer TV lighting designer Imero Fiorentino, who spoke to interviewer Marshall Spiller about the mentors in his life.
Imero Fiorentino: My uncle used to take me to Radio City Music Hall. My family had nothing to do with the theatre, certainly not television — it didn't exist back then — but as I grew up, he would take me to every show. I was fascinated by the color. I went to high school in Brooklyn, and there I joined the stage squad. I had a wonderful teacher, Florence Druss, who encouraged me to do lighting. She said that I had a lot of talent and that I must go to school and learn it. I had no idea what she was talking about; how could I go to college? We were not a poor family, but certainly a Sicilian immigrant family, and college was not quite in our catalog of things to do.
From 1942-46 I was in high school, building scenery and lighting shows. I was fascinated by it. I read every book there was. Mrs. Druss kept telling me that I had to study this and be involved in it, to the point that she sent for the curriculum and the application to Carnegie Tech, which is now Carnegie Mellon. She went to my parents and said, “Your boy has to learn this; I've never seen anybody with more of an aptitude in lighting. He is going to be the best.” Well, she convinced them. They scraped and saved for years and sent me to college.
I couldn't be happier, waiting for high school to end, so I could go to Pittsburgh — I didn't even know where Pittsburgh was — but I had to wait. In that period of time, she kept saying, “You will be the best lighting director ever,” over and over, every day. I thought, “Of course.” I believed my own reviews.
But then a terrible thing happened — I don't know if many people know this, but I think it's an interesting point — there was an accident. And I lost an eye. I was in the hospital, and my teacher was there. I was devastated, because to me the whole idea of “light” and “vision” worked together. I said to her, “I don't know what I'm going to do now.” She said, “How's anyone going to know you only have one eye, except ‘us kids?’” I said, “This a visual medium — we're not making shoes here — how can I do that now?” She said, “You'll be the best one-eyed lighting director ever.”
Now, wasn't that wonderful? I said, “You know, I can do that.” I adore teaching, not just for that reason, but that certainly reinforced my love for teaching and teachers — anybody who gives you support. No matter how crazy the idea is, when that support comes, it's really something else.
A year later, I went to Pittsburgh, and started on my career as a lighting designer. I spent four great years at Carnegie Tech, working day and night, and I loved it. I did everything, but lighting was really what captured my interest. After school I applied for a job at Indiana University and was hired to do what I thought was going to be the greatest job in the world — to teach lighting.
But I had to wait for the semester to start, and in that period of time: disaster number two. My father died. Suddenly, I became the breadwinner with no job. The bills that were accumulated over the years — by my family, to send me to school, were now my bills. So I had to look in New York for a job. I went to Macy's, Gimbels, exhibit companies, anywhere to get a job. I went to all the networks — NBC, ABC, DuMont — I knocked on all the doors; eventually, ABC Television called me. I interviewed with the boss. I said, “I need a job. And I don't know television lighting,” He said, “So what? Nobody else does.”
He called back later and said, “I can hire you as a lighting director for television.” I said, “Who's going to teach me?” He said, “Nobody's going to teach you.” I said, “Well, how will I know if it's right?” He said, “If it looks good, remember how you did it.” I started the next day.