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 bring you legendary lighting designer and author Jim Moody, whose book Concert Lighting has been a must-read for aspiring designers since its first printing back in 1989. Ellen Lampert-Greaux sat down with Moody at USITT in March to talk about his career; here he discusses the mentors who helped him out after receiving his master's degree from UCLA.
Jim Moody: At UCLA, I met Willy Crocken. He was the technical director at that time; he had come from San Francisco Opera. He was quite a character, and still is, to this day. Willy is the one who really took my raw material and directed me in the right ways. He helped me move to the next level, and actually guided me to an area I would not actually have thought of.
I got my graduate degree in 1969, and I'd been offered the TD position at CalArts, which was about to open. Willy advised me not to take the job. I said, “Why? It's right here.” He said, “At the end of the first year, they'll fire everybody.” And that's exactly what happened.
The other job I had been offered was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I'd interviewed there — they were just completing a new theatre — and I was going to take it, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would not pay for moving expenses. I just couldn't afford it — I had two children by then — and there's just no way I could have afforded to go. I'm lamenting this to Willy, and he said, “Well, I don't think you should do that, anyway.” I said, “What do you mean? My whole goal has been teaching.” He said, “There's a guy I know who is coming out here to take over a company, and he's looking for a personal assistant. I think it'd be a good idea if you'd go and talk to him.” And I went, “Personal assistant — what are you talking about?”
Turned out it was at Berkey Colortran, and it was Joe Tawil. Joe had been a salesman at Kliegl Bros., up to that time — he's a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon, but had ended up going to the business part. And Joe had just been hired as the president of Berkey Colortran to move that company forward. So I went and interviewed with Joe, liked him right away, and got the job. For the next four or five years, I worked as his assistant, which really meant I got to go out and play with all the toys and investigate the ideas that Joe was having. I got to play with all the manufacturers' gear, I got to design studio spaces, I got to go to all the shows, and see all the equipment and get real insight from it.
Joe is still one of my best friends and mentor. He's the person that, to this day, I can call on the phone, say, “help” and he'll direct me to answer my own question. That's really what a good mentor does, right? I've been very fortunate to have mentors all through my career. I think that's absolutely essential — to have that sounding board, that your spouse can't be, and your best friend even can't be, sometimes — and so that, through the whole college career, and then going into business, at the end of it, Joe was very supportive of me doing theatre at night.
In fact, he's also the one who made me write my first article. He actually conned me into it; I didn't know he was doing it. We'd been doing some things at the company that certainly had value — and Joe said, “Well, you've got an English degree, you should do this. I really don't want to do it.” So, he basically conned me into. I had written an internal memo, and, all of a sudden, one day, it showed up in a magazine. Some 60 articles and three books later….[laughs] He certainly helped me get over that “fear of flying” kind of thing.
Ellen Lampert Greaux: What year was that? 1970?
I was his assistant from ‘69 to ‘72. At that point, they were really moving on to broaden the scope of the company, and Joe wanted me to move to this new theatre division. I really felt that was a point that I was making a life decision to be in manufacturing, and I wasn't really ready to give up the dream, if you will. So I opted out, at that point, and went to free-lance designing in California.
I go to Joe and tell him, “I'm going to take the shot.” And he said, “OK, it's a good idea.” He walked over to his desk and he picked up the phone, dialed a number, and said, “Jules, how are you? Need an assistant? Here.” And I had met Jules Fisher, who was a classmate of Joe's, at Carnegie-Mellon, and I'd met him on several occasions. And it was serendipity that Jules was getting ready to mount Jesus Christ Superstar in Los Angeles. It was perfect timing. So I flew to New York, helped with the final drawings and the setup for LA, and came back to LA to do a really complicated outdoor load-in. I also ended up doing with Jules a show called Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign” which cost Zev Buffman his career as a producer, and several other people. It was a colossal failure. But I had the experience of working with someone like Jules, without actually having to live in New York.
In between that I was free-lancing and doing as much theatre work as I could get in LA, but in the Seventies, theatre in LA was pretty grim. But all of a sudden, along came this new field, called concert touring. Because of my musical background, and through a couple of people who were able to say, “Use him,” I got involved in that. A classmate from UCLA, Marilyn Rennegal, who was Tharon Musser's associate, and I started Sundance Lighting in 1975, which was one of the first concert companies — certainly, the first one on the West Coast. Bob See had started See Factor in New York, Tom Field Associates was in Boston, Bill McManus was in Philadelphia, and Show-Co was in Dallas. They were really the first companies supplying equipment to the tours. That was exciting, because it was building things out of whole cloth, taking the techniques that we knew and the materials that we could find. A lot of that was led by Chip Munck, another designer who had really opened up the business to new ideas with trusses, and lifts. He did great things for The Rolling Stones, and saw the opportunities to try new things and make things work in found space and all sorts of things. It was a challenge to do that, and for the next 10+ years, I did mostly touring, but I would throw the theatre stuff in every chance I got.
I also continued to write articles and, of course, those all culminated in doing the first book on concert lighting. The first one was published in ‘89, but then it was reprinted in ‘91 and ‘94. Then, the Second Edition of that came out in ‘98 and was reprinted in 2000, and just reprinted again.
Trying to live just on the concert market, I knew, was not realistic, and the bubble had to burst at some point. Unlike most of the companies who went out and added sound, or other types of services, I stayed just in lighting, but looked for other markets. Being in California, obviously, film, television, corporate shows — events like that were ways to supplement the company's income, when the tours were not out there. I was able to take them my theatre skills and use them in film and different things.
Once I did a demonstration for the Hollywood grips, in which they'd brought a 10K and a Venetian blind. I said, “OK, set up the 10K the way you do it, and the Venetian blind and that — go!” We timed how long it took them, and then I wheeled out the Leko, with the pattern and said, “Time me. Go.” I was using theatre techniques, using Leko patterns, when the film people just didn't. It took them 10 minutes to set it all up, to put the 10K out, to put the Venetian blind on — and I was doing it with a pattern, very quickly. Because I believed that everything you did in the theatre is stolen anyway from somebody else, so now it was just sort of payback time by using it in other areas.