Joe Tawil is the head of GamProducts, the Hollywood, CA-based company that was previously known as The Great American Market. Because of GamProducts' diverse product line, and also because of his involvement with so many key companies over the years, Joe Tawil's career reads like a mini-history of the entertainment technology industry over the last four decades. Recently he sat down with David Barbour to talk about that career, the industry, and GamProducts.
Two or three things you may not know about him: Joe attended Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, whose graduates include lighting designer Imero Fiorentino. His college classmates included Jules Fisher and Roger Morgan. And he got the idea for his product Blackwrap when he saw TV lighting designer David Clark spraying pieces of aluminum foil with black spray paint.
David Barbour: How did you get into the theatre?
Joe Tawil: In high school, where I worked backstage. I decided to pursue it as a career, so I went to Carnegie-Mellon. After college, we were all struggling young designers in what was a nonexistent business. There was no lighting designers' union and, apart from a handful of people, like Abe Feder or Jean Rosenthal, the person who lit a Broadway show was hidden under the title of the scenic designer. So, after service in the Army, I wound up at Kliegl Brothers, where I became fascinated with the business end of the business.
It was an interesting time, the 60s. The state universities were all building theatres, and nobody understood what they were doing. The architects and the engineers had no idea of how to build a theatre. So there was an opportunity to become their very best source of information about lighting. I found it fascinating--more fascinating than lighting the shows themselves.
DB: What happened next?
Tawil: From Kliegl, I went to Century Lighting, where I met George Gill, the founder of Stage Equipment and Lighting in Miami. George was very interested in television. I was a theatre snob: I thought television was beneath me. But he introduced me to the talented and wonderful people in that business, and I began to see the exciting and creative side to it--so I started working in television. Then I left Century and I went to Colortran, because George had gone there. At that point, I started working with people in the film industry. Eventually, I wound up in California, as the president of Colortran in 1969.
DB: Was Colortran based in California?
Tawil: In Burbank. I didn't want to go there. I was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker; I thought that LA was a giant farm town--and in some ways it was. In the theatre, we work late at night, but the movie industry starts at six or seven in the morning. When I first got there, it was hard to find a restaurant if you wanted dinner after eight o'clock at night. It's certainly a much-changed city--it's a very exciting place today.
DB: You left Colortran in 1975 to start The Great American Market.
Tawil: Yes, Berkey was Colortran's parent company. It was the second-largest photo finisher in the United States, second only to Kodak. We were innovative at Colortran--we really turned the industry upside down in terms of how it functioned. But the parent company was not allowing it to grow. So I started The Great American Market, to do things that nobody else was doing, things that larger companies would not spend time on. For example, off-the shelf patterns were an unknown product then. Although I started with them at Colortran, it was of no interest then.
DB: Off-the-shelf patterns?
Tawil: Custom patterns had been around and there were off-the-shelf products made by both Kliegl and Century, basically radiator grills, cut into round cookies. It was something you did for television, because the large, plain backgrounds would undulate unless you put something back there, like a breakup pattern. One day, I had lunch with Jules Fisher, who said, "It takes so long to get custom patterns and it costs so much, wouldn't it be nice to have a collection of off-the-shelf designs available?' The problem was, most of the companies were selling big products like dimming systems, so they were not interested in such a small item. But I suspected this could be an interesting product--if there was a much larger range of choices, and if we educated people as to how to use patterns. Most people didn't know where to put the pattern. That may sound silly today, but I had many conversations with top lighting designers who asked, where do you put it?
DB: When did you start doing color as well?
Tawil: I pioneered the first deep-dyed polyesters at Colortran, called Gelatran. Before that, you had acetate and you had gels. But we were now making very small, high-intensity tungsten halogen light fixtures that disintegrated the gels. I came across the dyed polyester and thought that we could create a product. It was far more expensive; the original Gelatran was $4 a sheet, when Cinemoid was only 75 cents and gel was 35 cents. Most designers said they would not use it--they all said it was too expensive. I pointed out that they had no choice, because they had all these new tungsten-halogen lights and the other stuff wasn't working. About a year after we first introduced the first deep-dyed polyester color filters, Jules Fisher, who said he'd never use it on Broadway, used it on a show. He said, "We figured out the cost of bringing in an electrics crew for a gel change, and if we can go from a three-week to a six-week cycle, we'll pay for the gel in the first gel change. And if the show runs, we're savin g money forever after." Designers started to use it. But then I left Colortran and they sold it. Years went by and I thought, this is too good a product to let it die. So in 1987, we reintroduced it.
DB: What was the next step? The Scene Machine?
Tawil: Actually, the Scene Machine was one of our first products. I hated projections. They were very problematic, because projectors had these anemic light sources, with very little output. Then my dear friend Ryu-San from RDS in Japan came over with a scene projector. If he wasn't a dear friend, I probably wouldn't have gone to see it. We saw it in a garage, using a Venetian blind as a screen, with sunlight coming through the window, and I realized that it was amazingly efficient. It was exciting to see this 1,000W unit putting out nearly as much light as the existing 5K unit. Even the people at RDS were shocked when I said, "I want 10 complete systems sent right away." Again, projections had been around for a long time. But they were a giant pain in the neck, and GAM made it possible to do them very easily.
DB: So they were more of a boutique item up to that point.
Tawil: They were very esoteric, something for the opera. You certainly didn't have them in rock and roll. But we put them there. Bill McManus was doing a Barry Manilow tour; they had a scenic drop that was disintegrating, what with all the one-night stands, and it was badly painted to begin with. So he called me and said, 'We have a Manhattan skyline on this show; I'd like to project it." The drop went, because it was so much cheaper to hang the two projectors and project the skyline. Before long, there wasn't a major rock-and-roll group that GAM didn't do projections for--Rolling Stones, Air Supply, Cat Stevens. We put the Scene Machine in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We put them in high schools. We really made projections a popular item.
DB: Throughout the 90s, you added other products to your line.
Tawil: We're always looking for unusual things, trying to fill a hole in the marketplace. We did the first double pattern rotator, the Twinspin, which is an idea that grew out of the Scene Machine. The first Twinspin was gear-driven and terribly noisy. Despite that, it was such an interesting effect, we sold thousands of them. The new model, which is belt-driven, is very quiet, continues to be a big, big seller for us. We introduced the first rolling color changer in 1981 and Blackwrap in 1983.
DB: Rolling color changer?
Tawil: Color scroller, yes. And again, when GAM first introduced the Colormax, everyone--dear friends, top lighting people--looked at me and said, 'We'll never use this. It's too noisy and too expensive.' But GAM went ahead with it, because I feltit would change the way designers think about the use of color. Now is there a Broadway show without a bunch of color changers in them?
DB: But you don't sell them anymore
Tawil: We worked with Wybron; Keny Whitwright brought the idea to me. He had showed it to a lot of people who kept saying, we don't know what to do with it, and several of them said, go see Joe Tawil. We worked together for about 10 years; then, Wybron wanted to go out on their own, so we parted friends.
DB: Do you have one dominant market--theatre, film, television?
Tawil: We probably do more in theatre. But I've never seen them as separate industries. When I came into the lighting business, people did 'theatre' or they did 'television' or they did 'film.' There were theatrical companies, like Kliegl, that had television departments. People did not see that it was all basically the same equipment; the fundamentals--lighting, dimming, control--were very much the same. I saw that, and I attribute that insight to George Gill.
DB: Looking back from Kliegl to today, what do you think are the biggest changes that have happened to the business?
Tawil: When I came to the industry, there were a few major players, and we were all having a tough time. There was a time when the industry was shrinking. It had not exploded into what I call the themed-everything. Now, the theme park has led us to the themed restaurant, themed shopping, and the themed hotel. The other big change is the size of the business. Kliegl and Century dominated the US market, Strand was big in Europe, but in many ways, they were provincial companies, centered in London and New York and the world of lighting revolved around their vision of how things were done. Now it's much more worldwide.
Having said that, I reflect on the old saying, 'There's nothing new under the sun.' The moving light is the most exciting new product of our time. But, you know, the followspot has always been around--that's a moving light. When GAM did the first rolling color changer, I thought, what an innovation. But somewhere in my files, I have a French book on lighting from the late 1800s, showing how they used to dye silks and put them on a pair of rollers and roll them in front of a light. It took us 100 years to put a motor on it. It gives you a little humility. In some ways, there are a lot of changes in the technology. But in fundamental ways, what we're doing, which is telling a story, hasn't changed at all.