"Resumes don't get you work--friends and colleagues do," is just one pearl of wisdom from lighting designer and programming impresario John McKernon. His multifaceted career has ranged from designing lighting on Broadway to creating one of the industry's most popular software programs.
After graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts, McKernon was at loose ends, and offered to help his friend Christina Giannini build costumes for Spiderman Vitamins. "Five costumes became 30, and I ended up doing all sorts of costumes for six months."
But McKernon quickly ventured back into the lighting world, and after a few seasons of summer stock and regional theatre he found himself designing for choreographer Pauline Koner. After touring extensively with the Pauline Koner Dance Consort, McKernon found himself doing what seemed like endless instrument schedules and dimmer hook-ups. In Raleigh, NC, McKernon decided he had had enough.
During a weekend off, McKernon found himself waylaid by endless paperwork. That was when he realized "a machine could do this!" That was the germination of the idea that eventually became Lightwright. McKernon trekked to Radio Shack, learned BASIC, and began to program. This was in the early computer days of 1979.
McKernon began work on what was then called ALD (Assistant Lighting Designer) on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I computer. An article in Lighting Dimensions led him to Rosco, which was selling software for LDs. Rosco was interested in ALD but stipulated that the software had to be compatible with an IBM PC. At the time, McKernon was teaching a variety of classes at SUNY Stonybrook and didn't have an IBM computer. So he borrowed a friend's PC, and ALD became ALD-Pro, which transformed into Lightwright.
While Lightwright was going through its various incarnations, McKernon was working on a variety of projects. He taught at the Madeira School (while Jean Harris, of the Scarsdale Diet doctor murder, was still the headmistress), and did stints at the Stony Brook Summer Playhouse, the Santa Barbara Ballet, the Pearl Lang Dance Company, and assorted regional dance and Off Broadway projects.
Over the years, McKernon tried sporadically to join the United Scenic Artists Local 829. In time, he was convinced that he had to be a member of the local to be professionally successful in New York. So, in 1984, McKernon went into the union interview, hands filled with computer paperwork, which was scandalous at the time. He was then asked to take the practical.
While waiting, McKernon found he had some time on his hands. "I was tired, so I put my head down on the table and slept for a while before I had to go in." This attracted the attention of one of the exam monitors, Jason Kantrowitz. This time, McKernon passed the exam easily.
But his napping at the exam would help him in ways he couldn't have imagined at the time. About a week later, McKernon got a call from the office of the inimitable Ken Billington. As McKernon tells the story, "Jason works for Ken and they were looking for somebody. And Jason noticed that I was relaxed enough that I could fall asleep before the practical, and no one had ever done that before." McKernon interviewed with Billington, who was primarily looking for an architectural designer. "I had never done this, but I'll try anything," McKernon says with a smile.
As McKernon discovered, the world of architectural lighting was vastly different from that of the theatre. "There, everyone accepts that there is going to be a first electric right behind the proscenium. In architectural lighting, there is no assumption from any department that you need to put lights in any particular place."
One of McKernon's earliest architectural projects as an associate designer with Billington was a Mikasa China shop in Freeport, ME. "We had little halogen lights under the shelves to light the china," he explains. "We thought about the problem of people hitting the bulbs themselves, but we hadn't thought about how close the shelf was to some of the china." At the time, they didn't think about what happens when a piece of china sits next to a halogen light all day--customers picked up the china, burned their fingers, then dropped it. "Those are the kinds of things that lead you to believe that perhaps you don't want to do retail lighting," McKernon says with a laugh.
Today, McKernon continues to do architectural lighting with Billington, mostly restaurants and nightclubs "that can be theatrical, interesting, and different," rather than retail or office buildings. His projects with Billington range from Cafe Marimba in New York to the Sabai Dee nightclub in Phuket, Thailand, to the wildly extravagant King Xmhu Nightclub in Japan.
For the past two years, McKernon (along with Billington) worked on "Journey to Atlantis," at SeaWorld Florida in Orlando. It includes a water coaster, the building exteriors, a gift shop, and an aquarium. The aquarium itself has tanks everywhere--above the guests, under the floor, and on the walls. The complex opened in late April.
McKernon is also involved in lighting several touring companies of Chicago. This summer, McKernon is taking time off from his numerous duties with Chicago (as well as Riverdance) to write Lightwright for Windows. "Please send money for software," McKernon says with a hearty laugh, programming while he's chatting on the phone.