Though the US theatrical lighting industry is relatively young, its rich, colorful history goes 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 document the full story of the theatrical and entertainment lighting industry, ESTA, USITT, Entertainment Design, Lighting Dimensions, and several lighting manufacturers 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 the eyes of designers, manufacturers, distributors, consultants, and technicians. Interviews for the project will focus on tracing the impact of developing technology on the creative process.
In this newest section of Entertainment Design, we'll be bringing you snippets of conversation from the project. Our first interviewee is Robert Schiller, who spent his entire career with Century (later Strand) Lighting, from 1950-1992. Below Schiller talks about his uncle, Ed Kook, one of the founders of Century Lighting and a legend in the industry. The interview was conducted in April by Marge Romans, a legend in her own right with a long career at Olesen Lighting.
Marge Romans: How did Ed Kook get into the theatrical lighting business?
Bob Schiller: He grew up with theatre people--Jo Mielziner and Kermit Bloomgarten and Herman Shumlin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They all grew up together and were buddies. As a youngster, he enjoyed the theatre and did some work in the theatre, but he was primarily an accountant with a company called Display Stage Lighting. Ed and these three brothers named Levy had bought Display Stage Lighting, and from that formed a company called Century Lighting Equipment, in the early 30s. Joe Levy was an electrical engineer who developed and invented the leko; Irving Levy ended up running the financial department; and Saul Levy was an attorney who had all the money. Ed was the president and financial guy.
It's an interesting story how he got involved with manufacturing lighting equipment. As I said, he was close with Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. And he made a deal with them whereby he would provide lighting equipment for their shows. It would be their property. In return for that, he had the right to keep his equipment in his rental department, guaranteeing them their inventory. So if someone else, like David Merrick, another friend of his, wanted equipment for a show, and Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't need it, he would use Rodgers and Hammerstein's inventory. But then, if suddenly Rodgers and Hammerstein needed equipment, he had to manufacture it. This is how he really got into the manufacturing business--to support the rental business.
And if they needed something special in the way of a glass slide or a special accessory that could do a special effect, he'd say, 'Yes, I can do that,' and then would run back to the shop. And in between Stanley McCandless, and a man by the name of Fred Wolf, they would put together what was needed for that show. It was kind of like, 'Whatever you need, I'll do.' That's how the business got built.
In those days, there was no such thing as a lighting designer; the lighting designer was the scenic designer. Jo Mielziner and Ed Kook worked together very, very closely. Jo was brilliant scenic designer, but he didn't do lighting. And Ed knew lighting and how instruments should be used. And the two of them worked together and formed a close relationship; every time Jo did a show, Century Lighting provided the lighting equipment.
In business, he was absolutely brilliant. His mind was going all the time. Whenever he called people into his office, the windows were wide open in the middle of winter, and the purpose of that was, he didn't want to have too long a meeting in there.