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 lighting designer/consultant/educator Van Phillips, a founder of Jones & Phillips Associates who recently stepped down from teaching design and consulting at Purdue University in Indiana. Phillips spoke to interviewer Marshall Spiller about the people who influenced his decision to specialize in architectural lighting.
Van Phillips: I started out as a child in California. My mother raised thoroughbred jumping horses for the US Army Olympic team; we lived in Burbank, and went to church at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I was in the Boy's Choir, which was hired to do a Preston Foster waterfront television show, back in the days when they used to film them at Hal Roach Studios.
Out of that, I got into acting, did a little thing at the Pasadena Playhouse and that whetted my appetite, because right when I was at the Hal Roach Studios — this would have been 1949-50-51 — they were filming all those postwar movies, like Run Silent, Run Deep. I was fascinated, watching them blow up ships in these tanks and whatnot. I'd look at the front end of this tugboat and walk around the back to see what it was like behind it. Whenever they couldn't find me, I was backstage. So I guess I came by it early.
I went to New York — or New Jersey — to live with an aunt and uncle, and during that time, I wound up working around the theatre, in summer stock tours all over New England. One of the people who hired me as an advance man was that actress Nancy Walker, who was big in New York at the time. I had worked a little bit in New York — I was an understudy on Bye, Bye Birdie — and gotten to know some of the guys who were stagehands there. So when I came back through, they found out I was Nancy's advance man, and said, “Why don't you join the union?” I didn't know — “union-schmunion.” What did I know? I said, “How much does it cost?” He said, “$500.” I said, “I don't have any $500.” This was 1957-58. He said, “Well, I'll pay for it, you pay me back.”
Here was this kid, about 18-19 years old, who was not a nephew, not a son, of any of the members of Local One, who suddenly got a union card. I didn't even know what I had — total naivete.
I wanted to go to school in the theatre, and I was talked out of it by a guidance counselor — it was not the profession you went into — so I went to the University of Wyoming for a year. I rodeo-ed, worked in the theatre, pitched baseball, and flunked out. Then I got a job as the technical director for the Lutheran Actors Company that summer, and a technician there thought I was good enough that he recommended me to be the assistant TD at the Dallas Theatre Center, which was just opening.
So, I went there, worked with a man by the name of Gene Diskey for two years. It was an interesting building; that's what started my interest of theatre consulting and theatre architecture and lighting, which then led me to architectural lighting — because it was just a terrible theatre. Marvelous sculpture, but it was terrible having to walk scenery out of the shop door, around the parking lot, up the hill, through the lobby, and down, because nothing could fit up the side ramps.
After that I went back to school at Southwestern University, in Georgetown. They gave me a chance to get an education, if I'd be their TD. And then Gene Diskey and some others at Yale recommended me to Yale for my graduate study. Right after I was accepted, they hired Robert Brustein, and he suggested, I found out later, to Donald Oenslager that it was time for him to retire. That was who I wanted to go study with! So I asked my friends what I should do. And they said there's a bunch of young guys teaching down at the University of Texas; it was David Nancarrow, the lighting designer, a marvelous teacher, and John Rothgeb, the scenic designer, now passed away, who was a fellow of USITT. It was a great education, and John Rothgeb, while I was there, took off one year, while I was working on my MFA, to go to get his doctorate at Case Western Reserve. Guess who they brought in? Donald Oenslager. I got him anyway.
He was a sweetheart. He kept sitting in on my basic scenic design class. He came into my office one day, and he said, “Have you ever thought about teaching?” And I puffed up and said, “Oh, I want to be a professional designer.” I said, “I don't see how you can do both — I don't think you can do both successfully.” And then I realized who I was talking to [laughter]. Of course, I got about as red as a tomato. He kind of grinned and said, “Yes, it can be done — it's harder to be both a professional and a teacher, but it can be done.” He told me, “You have a gift for sharing your teaching, and, I think you ought to pursue it.”
After school, he also got me into Jo Mielziner's studio. At that time Jo was working on the University of Michigan Performing Arts Center — Power Center — and on the one at the University of Illinois, The Krannert Center. That fascinated me, because all through my graduate program, I had taken architecture courses, and they kept asking me to come back, and whatnot. From my experience at the Dallas Theatre Center, I was fascinated by how much the building that surrounds the production controls it. How a bad building makes it almost impossible to do good shows, and a good building can make it quite a platform.
One day, when we were busy working on things — I was drafting and all the things I had done as a graduate assistant — I asked him, “Does it bother you to do this, as opposed to doing scenery for the theatre?” He looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Van, it's the ultimate set. They don't strike it on Saturday night.” [Laughs] And I realized, at that point, that here was a designer who realized he would live past all the productions of Death of a Salesman, because they were going to be standing through our lifetimes.