Robert has been a dear friend since 1960. Beginning as my assistant in those very heady, early days of my lighting 12-20 shows a year, he soon became a designer in his own right. He probably pioneered the Brit designer working around the world and went from theatre into Military Tattoos and massive spectaculars in the Middle East as well as launching ships. Is that called convergence? Robert was always upbeat, enthusiastic, and always up for the next greater challenge. He was a smashing man and great human being.

Early memories of Robert: I first met Robert at the Princess Theatre (now the Shaftesbury) in 1960. I was to light a dubious play named Girl On The Highway for director Peter Cotes. Robert was the theatre’s resident chief electrician. Perhaps because the play was so poor, we spent a good deal of time in conversation. Theatre Projects was then in its third year. We were attempting to break into the stage lighting business in competition to the monopoly company of the 1950s, Strand Electric. Through surprising strokes of good fortune we survived and were accumulating some reputation in what was then a very new profession indeed: lighting design. But initial success had brought some chaos in its wake and we badly needed help.

“Would you like to come and work for me?” I asked. Robert replied, “Well, yes, I would.” Thus began a friendship and a lifelong association.

The remuneration was modest: £15 a week, but the timing was appropriate. Robert joined on a Monday and we always joked that he went home three weeks later. Well I was lighting three shows that week and I recall we swapped duties, focusing, plotting, and attending rehearsals turn-and-turnabout. We did survive. Twenty productions followed that year.

Robert and I had a favorite catch phrase: “If we can get through this weekend, we can get through anything!”

In those far distant days, an assistant lighting designer had to double as production electrician, rigger, and vital source of support. Robert and I had an amazing partnership. Always elegant and eloquent, he could keep interfering producers away from interrupting our work at the production desk and at the same time spur me onto greater efforts. He quickly moved from being a most indispensable assistant to a designer in his own right.

In 1961, I devised a new system of large-scale scenic projection. Robert was a brilliant mathematician. He performed all the calculations necessary to calculate the distortion of the slides to compensate for angular projection and supervised the photography. Our first show, One Over The Eight, for producer Michael Codron, was a great success and—thanks to the scene designer Tony Walton—led to our designing the projection for the Broadway hit: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. This in turn led to Golden Boy, with Sammy Davis Jr. and other successes on Broadway and in the West End. He later wrote articles on this technique in theatre journals.

—Richard Pilbrow, November 24, 2008

Related Article:

In Memoriam: Robert Ornbo, Theatre Lighting Designer, 1931-1977