In the annals of automated lighting there's nobody more central than Jim Bornhorst, who was present at the birth of Vari-Lite. Beginning 30 years ago with Showco, Vari-Lite's predecessor, he started out as a touring technician, but has played a key role in developing the technology that has done the most to shape this industry. In recognition of this, Bornhorst was honored with the Wally Russell Award at LDI 2001. It was the capper to an extraordinary year, in which Vari-Lite made stunning changes in its business strategy and launched a daring new product. Bornhorst recently spoke with David Barbour.

David Barbour: How did you get into the business?

Jim Bornhorst: I started 30 years ago, with Showco, as a touring sound technician. I had a degree in electrical engineering and I answered an ad in the paper — they sent me out with Three Dog Night. I ended up in 1972-73, going out as house sound man on an Alice Cooper tour. That was the most problematic tour, because of the theatrical stuff in it, the props and special effects. We had to mic the gallows, to get the kerplunk, when the blade fell! But it was a great show, we had a great time doing it. Alice is a great guy. We'd go into small towns and the crowd would leave dazed. Then in 1973-74, I was involved in developing electronics for Superboard, a 30-input quadraphonic mixing console, with full parametric EQ on every mic channel, which was very successful.

DB: But somewhere along the line you switched over to lighting.

Bornhorst: Showco started a lighting department in the mid-70s — it was part of the company's full-service concept. We were doing turnkey production services. Of course, it was all conventional lighting, and the shows were so big — I remember, Van Halen had 700 PAR cans — the wire bundles were bigger than oak trees! It was so laborious. Rusty [Brutsché, Vari-Lite CEO and president] asked what we could do to make the lighting more efficient.

DB: This was the birth of the moving light?

Bornhorst: Well, we started talking about gel changers, how to get more functionality out of a PAR can. Meanwhile, Rusty was just trying to keep the business afloat, because, in the late 70s, the touring business cratered. Paul McCartney got busted in Japan. John Bonham, of Led Zeppelin, died of an overdose. It was tough, so Rusty shut down the lighting company and sold it off.

DB: Then how did you get into moving lights?

Bornhorst: In August of 1980, Rusty said, ‘You can have a crack at making that gel changer.’ We had 90 days to come up with a gel changer of some kind, with a department of three people. It looked like a daunting task, moving gels out of a hot fixture. About that time, John Tedesco of Phoebus, who was a former employee of Showco, developed the Ultra Arc Spotlight, with a 350W arc light. I got a look at it, and it put out as much light as a 1,000W incandescent unit. So we got the bulb, it was bright as hell — but it vaporized the gel. It just burst into flame, because of the small, concentrated beam.

DB: So much for gels.

Bornhorst: I was an avid photographer, and optics was a hobby of mine. I knew about dichroic filters, that they were a good color medium. We ordered a set of dichroics from Edmond Scientific, and stuck them in front of a light and they survived just fine. It was most interesting. Depending on the angle of the light, the filter changed color. We made an analogy between a tunable sound console and a gel filter. So the three of us, working in the back-room lab, handmade the VL-0 prototype, with four dichroic filters on model airplane servo motors. I was the lead on the project, with John Covington and Tom Walsh. The unit had color crossfade, dimmer, douser, and zoom ability. It panned and tilted. It was a washlight without any beam control.

DB: But you set out to do a gel changer.

Bornhorst: Rusty became aware we weren't building a gel changer for a PAR can. We did a demo and he said, ‘We need a partner.’ Now, Genesis was a great client; Alan Owen was their lighting designer. So Rusty set up an appointment with him at his farm north of London. The band came out with Tony Smith, their manager. We showed the light and it looked darned good. We committed to delivering 50 units in September — nine months from then.

DB: That was for the famous concert in Barcelona, where Vari*Lites made their debut.

Bornhorst: I said to Rusty, ‘I don't think this is what they need.’ Genesis used a lot of beams in their shows, and this wasn't a good beam light. So we redesigned the unit and built a hard-edged beam light. We started building the VL-1 in January. It had a gobo wheel, a dimmer, pan and tilt, and about 60 or 70 good colors — and it changed colors in a 10th of a second. We built about 55 units in eight months. We called Brooks Taylor, a software guru, and he and Tom Walsh built a controller, just for the moving lights. We rehearsed it for a month in England, and it was pretty amazing as it came together. We had visions of Vari*Lite luminaires replacing PAR cans.

DB: I guess you knew what you had.

Bornhorst: There was a moment in Dallas that July. We had 55 units on a truss. Tom Littrell was the board operator. He spun the tilt and opened the iris; the beams moved up and everybody just shit. It was one of those moments that you never forget.

DB: How did it go in Barcelona?

Bornhorst: We rode into the bullring, where the concert was held. They'd had a fight there the night before — we saw a couple of guys dragging something that looked like an old carpet — it turned out to be a bull hide from a kill the night before. There was blood everywhere! We put the show together on our makeshift stage. When the show started, the place was packed. We looked across this sea of Spaniards. Midway through the first song, all the lights opened their irises and swept over the crowd. They loved it!

DB: There must have been problems.

Bornhorst: Lots of technical problems. The mechanics were horrible. We had a Vari*Lite hospital backstage. But it was the dawn of an era.

DB: Did other acts pick it up?

Bornhorst: At first, it was out exclusively with Genesis, then it went out with Diana Ross, and others picked it up. My group was madly redesigning the luminaire and control console, getting the bugs out of the system. Rusty was building them at a horrible rate, investing every penny in new equipment. At first, it was rare to finish a show with every light still running.

The next generation of units was 90% redesigned. John Covington and I focused on giving it more reliability. As part of that, we had a business plan of support, which included a duplicate console at every concert.

DB: How did you get beyond the concert market?

Bornhorst: Rusty took Wally Russell to a Genesis show and it blew him away. He became a huge ally — in fact, he was on our board of directors. He also took a chance on them in 1987, for a production of Tristan und Isolde at the LA Opera, where he was the lighting director. By now, we had the VL-2 spot luminaire and VL-3 wash luminaire. But we turned them on in the theatre, and the fans were roaring! So we worked on solutions, turning units off when they weren't in use. David Hersey took a chance on the VL-4 luminaire for Miss Saigon, and did a fabulous job with it. That was our first West End and Broadway connection. The VL-4 didn't address the noise problem, but the miniaturized beam light size was a big selling point.

DB: When did you get into television?

Bornhorst: The VL-5 wash luminaire was a big hit there. Wally Russell inspired it. He wanted a tungsten light, crossfading, and silence — and he wanted it cheap. It had the 1,000W tungsten lamp, which was the right color temperature for television.

DB: But the changes didn't stop there.

Bornhorst: The VL-7 spot luminaire is a great leap forward in terms of optics and functionality. I was running the Advanced Technology Group, our think tank. We worked on the optics for the VL-7.

DB: But now the company is moving in another direction. For the first time, you've developed units for sale.

Bornhorst: That's why we have the VL 1000. The primary goal has been to make it low cost yet functional. I alluded to this in my Wally Award speech. It will behoove all of us in the automated lighting business to try and make products that will appeal and be affordable to those under the top level of designers. That includes civic and academic theatre, trade shows, architectural applications.

DB: You're not going to abandon your original market, are you.?

Bornhorst: We're certainly working on top-level professional equipment as well.

DB: We were surprised by the decision to drop the Virtuoso console.

Bornhorst: It was a surprise to me, too. It's disappointing for everyone. Control has been in the forefront of our philosophy; even in the Showco days, we built our own control. Or course, we haven't dropped it — we just stopped making it. VLPS continues to own and rent the product and Vari-Lite will continue to support it, as we do with every other product we manufacture. It's a business decision. The economic situation has changed.

DB: It's been a crazy year for the entire industry, yet you ended it by winning the Wally Russell Award. What was that like for you?

Bornhorst: It is an incredible honor, which was enhanced by the timing of the award as we had just celebrated the 20th anniversary of that first show in Barcelona. It is also especially gratifying to be recognized by one's peers in this great industry. Wally was my secret mentor; he influenced me greatly, as he did everyone who had the privilege of knowing him. So receiving the award named in his honor is the pinnacle of my career.

Two or three things you may not know about Jim Bornhorst: An Air Force brat, he spent his childhood in postwar Europe and his teens in Washington, DC. He trained as an airborne infantry fireman in the Texas National Guard. He is a licensed glider pilot and PADI scuba diver. He and a friend once built an all-metal sailplane with a wingspan of 57'. It still flies, at a speed of 170 mph — “not nearly as often as we would like,” he adds.