Usually the road to becoming a concert LD starts with just that--the road--and lots of it. While Michael Ledesma has had more than his fair share of the touring life, this LD has carved his own unique path. Starting with high school and university training in all aspects of theatrical design, Ledesma quickly graduated to a house position at Caesars Palace at Lake Tahoe where he worked with many of the leading names in lighting design and a variety of acts, from pop groups to Vegas-style revues. While at Caesars, he also moonlighted touring with concerts and getting his feet wet in television, including programming moving lights for American Bandstand in the mid-1980s.
For Ledesma, this was an invaluable time in his career, when he not only learned at ground level the art and science of a new technology known as automated lighting, but was allowed, as Caesars' house designer, the stability to focus on building a family--his wife Carol and their two children, Danielle and Mikey.
More than two decades later, Ledesma is a master of his trade, making the rounds with a client list that includes heavy hitters, like Paul Simon and Gloria Estefan, and spans musical genres from Megadeth to John Tesh. Ledesma talks about taking his unconventional road, designing for such diverse musical acts, and bearing witness to the lighting industry's coming-of-age.
Leanne B. French: When did you first become interested in lighting design?
Michael Ledesma: I was a junior in high school in a suburb of San Diego when I started taking drama and got interested in technical theatre, both sound and lighting. By 12th grade I was the stage manager and I lit my first play, a musical called Dracula, Baby.
I was also fortunate enough to go to a school that had just gotten a lot of money for the arts, so we had a brand-new theatre built on our campus. At that point, they were trying to recruit people to understand the lighting setup, which was a Berkey-Colortran system.
LBF: After high school, did you think you wanted a career in technical theatre?
ML: I went to college [Southwestern College in San Diego, and later, San Diego State] and took drama classes, some television, and technical theatre. I didn't really think I would ever get a job in the industry; I was doing it more because I liked it. I really didn't know how to get a job in the industry at that point.
During college, I studied legitimate theatre. I took color theory classes, scenery design. That's all I did--played in bands and took theatre classes.
LBF: What bands did you play in? Any we might have heard of?
ML: I was the lead singer in a band called Teaser. We played a lot in San Diego and were pretty well known there. I actually learned a lot about sound and lights from being in my own rock band. We had some homemade lighting systems and we had our own little light show. But I left the band about 1978. That's when I started realizing that I might actually be able to do lighting for a living.
LBF: What made you realize lighting could become a career?
ML: Well, I went to the University of California at Davis and became a student producer there from about 1978 to 1980. Being a student producer means I worked for the associated students of UC Davis and they promoted shows. We had a 300-seat coffee house, a festival-style open-seating theatre, and an 8,000-seat arena. I was a production manager.
We brought in the Police, Dire Straits, Talking Heads, a lot of acts. The first show I actually did a big production for in the arena was Hall & Oates. We provided sound and lights, and most of the time the acts would bring sound guys, but they wouldn't bring lighting guys, so as time went on I ended up catching the lighting gigs.
I also made some connections doing that. I met John Richardson, the old owner of Morpheus Lights. I developed a relationship and did some one-offs with them when I was in college. Then I started realizing this is how you do it.
LBF: How did you get the job at Caesars Palace Resort in Lake Tahoe?
ML: A brand-new facility was going up in Lake Tahoe in Nevada where they were going to have gaming and casinos. My advisor at UC Davis ended up being the booking agent at Caesars and he hired the person who ran the arena as the stage manager. So they got me an interview, I got the job, went straight from Davis, forgot my last year of college, and went to work at Caesars Tahoe as a lighting stagehand. I was the kid who got up on the ladder and focused every light, and I ran the followspot.
Within two years I became the board operator. It was a Kliegl Performance board, one of the early computer boards, which in 1980 was brand new and not many people had it. I learned how to run that, and then within another two years I became the lighting director/designer. I was a real go-getter, plus I had the legitimate training, so it was easy for me to jump into that.
LBF: What did you do as lighting director/designer at Caesars?
ML: Basically I did the in-house design. There was probably about 400 lamps and a full complement of everything, which most of the acts used when they came in. We also produced, and I designed our own shows. And then I started doing scenery when I was working for Caesars. So I was the staff lighting and scenery guy.
While I was working at Caesars, I also met and worked directly with designers like Peter Morse, Steve Cohen, Sid Strong, Ken Billington, Jim Moody. I started seeing how the big-time guys were doing it. So I met and worked with all of these people and a lot of times these acts would depend on me as the house designer, because Vegas-style rooms had the reputation of having quality people and equipment. I was able to work with a lot of acts that way.
LBF: When did you leave Caesars?
ML: Officially in 1994. It took me so long to wean myself from Caesars because I had never been an independent before. I had a house job with security, and I was able to have my family. Caesars was really good for me because my children were born at that time. [Ledesma's daughter Danielle just finished her first year of college at Notre Dame, and his son Mikey is 14 years old. He and his family still live in Lake Tahoe.]
LBF: When did you start going out on the road?
ML: I did some tours when I was at Caesars. I knew the Kliegl Performance board from Caesars, and the Morpheus system--the original moving light people along with Vari-Lite--was controlled by that board. I was one of the few guys to know the board, so I started to get some work, mostly on television shows.
One of my first TV jobs was American Bandstand. I came in as the board operator from about 1985 to 1987. I also programmed and ran the board on a couple of Solid Golds and a bunch of other TV shows where I would go out as the moving lights guy, because nobody had them in those days. If you showed them a color chase and a pan-and-tilt they were wowed.
LBF: You've done lighting and scenic design for a diverse range of clients from hardcore (Megadeth) to ultra-light (John Tesh). How do you account for that?
ML: At Caesars, one day I'm lighting podiums at the convention center. The next day I'm working in the showroom with Ann-Margret style. The next day we're doing a pop group like the Tubes. I think that's why I'm able to jump from a metal group to R&B to John Tesh.
LBF: Has any other project or person had a major influence on your career?
ML: Near the beginning of my career when I started as an LD, I worked with Allen Branton as a lighting director on shows like Diana Ross and Paul Simon. Diana Ross was my first HBO special--he was designer and I was the director. I learned a lot from Allen about how to take a rock show and still make it look like a rock show, but make it acceptable for broadcast television.
LBF: Do you have a favorite show you have designed?
ML: I think one of the best shows I've done was Paul Simon's five weeks at the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden. It was called Concert of a Lifetime, and we did the whole history of Paul Simon music, starting with Simon and Garfunkel and moving on to his gospel-influenced music then to his more traditional songs like "50 Ways," into the Graceland period. That was one of my favorite shows.
LBF: You've seen the industry evolve from before the birth of moving lights. What do you see for the future of the industry in terms of technology?
ML: I started out when they were using beam projectors and 10" fresnels and lekos. Where I see the future is, the incandescent light is probably on its way out because of the cabling and the dimming. Now it's going to be automated lights with some kind of arc lamp or LED lights. I see the instruments getting more powerful and that the PAR can is going to be a dinosaur eventually. Everything is going to be preprogrammed in a virtual studio, and the computer technology will become more user-friendly and less time-consuming to program, possibly with voice-activated software, so that MIDI and SMPTE will work for us, rather than the other way around. I want to use it so that I can push a button and it's going to go exactly in time with the music, but I want the technology to work for me, I don't want to be a slave to the technology.
Lighting design/direction Gloria Estefan Millennium tour, Evolution world tour, 1996-2000 Shakira Anfibio tour, 2000 Buena Vista Social Club US tour, 1999-2000 Sting New Day tour, 1999 (selected dates) Paul Simon, Paul Simon/Bob Dylan US tour 1999, Concert of a Lifetime, Born at the Right Time world tour Jon Secada Heart, Soul and a Voice world tour, 1997-99 El Reencuentro world tour, 1998-1999 En Vogue EV3 tour, 1997-1998 Toni Braxton Secrets tour, 1997 John Tesh tours, 1995-1997 Megadeth Youthanasia world tour, 1994-1995 Art Garfunkel world tour, 1992-1995 Kenny Loggins world tour, Kenny Loggins on Broadway, 1986-1995 Caesars Tahoe Resort Lighting Designer/Master Electrician, 1980-94 Simon & Garfunkel world tour, 1993 Diana Ross Working Overtime tour, 1989-90 Jeff Beck & Stevie Ray Vaughn world tour, 1989-90 Huey Lewis & the News Back to the Future US tour, 1985 Various artists including Marc Anthony, the Tubes, Glen Campbell, Engelbert Humperdinck, 1980-98
Scenic design Paul Simon/Bob Dylan US tour, 1999 Paul Simon Concert of a Lifetime Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 Gloria Estefan Evolution world tour, 1996-1999 Jon Secada world tours, 1997-98 En Vogue EV3 world tour, 1997 John Tesh Avalon and Discovery tours, 1996-1997 Megadeth Youthanasia world tour, 1996 Kenny Loggins world tours, 1980-1994
Television/Video Shakira Anfibio tour, Live in Argentina, 2000 Gloria Estefan NBC New Year's Eve 2000; A&E Live by Request; Live in Mexico City, Televisa Productions; Live in Miami, HBO; "You'll Be Mine" video, 1996-2000 El Reencuentro Live in Mexico City, 1998 Toni Braxton United Negro College Fund, live segment, 1997 Gala de la Hispana live variety show, 1995 Jon Secada "Where Do I Go from You" video, 1995 Paul Simon Live American Masters, PBS; Live in Central Park, HBO, 1991-1992 Diana Ross Working Overtime tour, HBO, 1990 American Bandstand, 1985-1987
Corporate events Ford Motor Company, President's Club 2000, Beverly Hills, CA, 2000 Quest Communications Corporate Meetings, Las Vegas, NV, 2000 Lucent Technologies "E" Awards, corporate meetings, 1996-2000 Pepsi Center Arena gala opening, Denver, CO, 1999 IMPACT Black Music Association Convention, 1998 New York Auto Show, 1996 Tribute to Clive Davis, Arista Records, 1995 Northwest Airlines Corporate Gold Meetings, 1994 AMFAR Benefit, Meyerson Symphony Hall, Dallas, TX, 1994 Legends in Concert, Hawaii, 1993