My high school guidance counselor told me to get my head out of computers and books and get involved in an extracurricular activity or it wouldn't look good for my college applications, I think. So I stumbled (quite literally) across a flyer asking for volunteers to run the lights at the theatre club's spring musical production. And lo, a techie was born. (And I even got to don my first set of Clear-coms…sigh)
To this day, I wonder what would have happened if it had been the bicycling club instead.
In seventh grade I went to my high school's dance concert (with fairly dubious intentions), and for some reason I was mesmerized by the lighting almost as much as the girls. I was curious as to how anyone controlled all those lights, and I figured knowing how might even get me backstage with the dancers. Intent on learning, I “borrowed” some keys and went exploring. Just after discovering the console's GO button, I got the reaming of my life from the instructor who was apparently trying to hold class onstage. Getting kicked out really lit the fire: I wanted to learn more just because somebody didn't want me to be there.
Later, I stumbled onto an internship at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, where I met the designers who enlightened me. John McLain, Andrew Ostrowski, and Jeff Davis taught me a great deal — from the color of light to the color of life. They showed me how fulfilling working in this business can be, and from them I discovered that the industry's best asset is its people.
Well, it was two events, really. The first was a Yes concert that I went to back in 1976 at Anaheim Stadium (Peter Frampton was also on the bill). It was my first “stadium” concert. I was sitting about five miles from the band, so couldn't make out anyone, really, onstage. But it was then that I was struck by how the “essence” of the band was amplified visually by what, at the time, was a very sophisticated lighting design for a rock show. Being in a band myself, I wanted to know more about this medium of visual amplification.
This evolved into the second event, which was deciding, on top of my engineering, computer science and music classes, to take a class in lighting design my freshman year at Stanford. This is where I met Michael Ramsaur. It was this class, and the sensation that one feels rarely, if ever, in one's life that one “gets it,” that led me to where I am. Michael was there at my epiphany, and gave me tremendous latitude with the resources of the drama department. I lit just about everything for four years.
When I was a little boy, around eight to 10, my grandfather had retired as a charter member of the Motion Picture Projectionists local in Cleveland. He used to come over on Saturday and take me to see his buddies at the different theatres to help them fix problems they couldn't figure out. We'd go up those back stairs into the projection booth and there would be those monstrous projectors. They'd have this bright light coming out of them and they would be spewing smoke out the top. I'd stand on a box and watch the movie through the little window. It was just so cool I loved it.
When I got to junior high school there was a semi-professional children's theatre company that worked out of our auditorium. I quickly learned that I could get out of class if I was on the stage crew. Something about working in that room, the flyrail, the FOH catwalks above the seats, the autotransformer dimmer board in the booth at the back of the house, all was so great. I felt that it was where I belonged. Most of all was the smell of freshly cut and burning Cinemoid and Roscolene gel. It's one of those odors that brings back memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I was in kid's camp when I was 13 years old. I was in the social hall on a rainy Tuesday morning. The theatre tech asked me to help him move a piece of scenery. I did. He asked if I could come back in the afternoon to help. My counselor said yes. I went on to help at the Central Jewish Institute on 85th Street, then to the 92nd Y a few years later, where I became the tech. I like to say that I worked at the Y after Abe Feder and before Tharon Musser.
When I got out of the army after WWII, Kelly [Sonnenfeld, Sonny's late wife], who I was dating then, made an appointment for me with Kermit Bloomgarten for an assistant stage manager's job. Kermit couldn't use me, but he sent me to Century Lighting to meet with Ed Kook. I also met with Stanley McCandless, who was head of R&D. I went to work for Century Lighting the next day, and the rest is history.
My first epiphany came while playing the pipe organ in my high school auditorium for the concert choir. I realized that running the big light board backstage was just as creative and fun as playing the organ. I could orchestrate the lights just like I could create music on the organ. That sold me right there and I ended up both running the lights and playing the organ for many productions in the auditorium. Talk about split-second timing, running from backstage to the orchestra pit.
The second epiphany came at age 17 when I met Jean Rosenthal while sneaking backstage at the Pasadena Civic to watch a load-in of a big musical for Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. I had no idea who she was until years later, but all I remembered at 17 was that she was a wonderful person who let me watch the load-in and showed me her light plot (the first light plot I had ever seen). I learned how exciting lighting could be.
The third epiphany was a production of Kismet that I saw at the old Biltmore theatre in Los Angeles when I was a child. It featured Alfred Drake and the choreography was by Eugene Loring. I remembered how beautiful it looked and sounded. The images stayed with me for years and to my surprise, I found myself working with both Mr. Drake and Mr. Loring in the 1980s, lighting a musical that Drake directed and lighting Loring's Billy the Kid ballet. They challenged me to create beautiful images of lighting and music like I saw in their performances when I was a child.
What finally convinced me to stick in the business was Tharon Musser. Her style, talent, and personality told me that lighting was worth the time and effort. She showed me that the business of lighting could have a human element.
I left high school with the dream of becoming a Tony Award — winning actor. I was greeted with brutal reality in college that I would not, in fact, win a Tony for my acting. I had a wonderful design instructor, Jim Lile, who suggested that I double major and get a BFA in Acting and a BFA in Design. I declined, but continued to design lighting as a hobby. A few years after some devastating acting auditions, I had the opportunity to direct plays at several high schools, where I also had to build my own sets sometimes and almost always do my own lighting. I was glad that Jim Lile had suggested I continue my interest in design. I was able to create some very functional designs.
Today, I work in the background of the background, selling theatre technology to all manner of end users through Vincent Lighting Systems. I have had more fun working backstage on shows in the last five years than I ever had working onstage in the previous 15.