This year, the Kentucky Derby's Opening Festivities were lit by something even more spectacular than the usual display of what is said to be the country's largest fireworks show. April 18 saw the first of what may become an annual lighting of the bridge from which the pyrotechnics exhibition is projected. The mile-long bridge, which connects the Derby's hometown of Louisville, KY, with neighboring city Clarksville, IN, was illuminated by Jim Tutorow of Vincent Lighting Systems. His design involved 100 Vari*Lite(R) VL4(TM) and 300 VL5Arc(TM) automated luminaires, controlled by a mini-Artisan(R)2 console.

"I wanted to do something with the bridge," Tutorow explains, "but something different than had been done before--something with automated fixtures." Two years ago, Tutorow first contacted future client Wayne Hettinger of Visual Presentations. Although "at the time there wasn't anything bright enough, I knew that things were going to come out. In January 1998, Wayne called and asked, 'Do you still want to do something with the bridge?' Isaid, 'Well, heavens, yes,' and we went from there."

Tutorow is no stranger to such prominent undertakings. As the lighting designer for the Proctor & Gamble year-end meeting, his work has been broadcast via satellite to 12 countries. The Proctor & Gamble show used a total of 48 lights, which was "a lot, I thought, at the time," Tutorow admits. But the Kentucky Derby project, named "Thunder Over Louisville," was "the largest non-rock and roll Vari*Lite gig ever attempted." With the longest span (4,000' [1,219m] on both sides of the bridge), it was also the "largest Vari*Lite show ever programmed on a single console," although Vari*Lite programmer Benny Kirkham said that he "would have run the show off two consoles just to have a little more flexibility in the programming."

Originally, Tutorow had been "looking at using 200 VL5Arcs when we were going to do every other steel structure. But the night we looked at the demo, we thought it would look fantastic if every steel structure got a light. So we basically doubled the package." However, because the VL5Arcs were such a new product, there hadn't been a sufficient amount produced--the Derby project consumed "almost all of [the existing VL5Arcs] in America." The end result was the use of only 300 VL5Arcs and 100 of the pre-existing VL4s. "I didn't want to call [other companies] to have to get 400 studio lights together. I just called Arthur [Smith, of Vari*Lite in Nashville] and said, 'I need 400 fixtures' and he made it happen."

Tutorow's project, "the largest VL5Arc demonstration to date," was a convenient means for the company to display its technology. "The client, the reaction from the crowd, plus the video all got excellent reviews," Smith says.

Tutorow agrees. "People were just ooh-ing and ahh-ing." The bridge lighting and the 30-minute fireworks display were set to a music track designed by Hettinger. This year's theme was fantasy; accordingly, the music included pieces from Titanic, The X-Files theme, and Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." A MIDI converter "allowed us to trigger all of the lights and fireworks so that the visual displays were in conjunction with the music. Everything flowed together."

Despite poor weather conditions, over half a million spectators appeared for the event. "We got into town on the night of the 14th, started work on the 15th, and it rained all day," Tutorow stated ruefully. "I want to start a day earlier next year, even though we were on time with everything, to have that extra day just in case."

Commending the VL5Arcs, Tutorow claims "they didn't have a single problem with the rain." In fact, the only weather-related problem that Vari-Lite experienced occurred when "we had to cover a fan and a VL4 overheated," resulting in a melted amber filter.

For next year's repeat performance, Tutorow is "pushing for all VL5Arcs," as well as more complex programming that will involve more multicolored effects. Setup will also "begin a day earlier, and we'll probably also rotate the crew out a little more." The 18-person crew, comprised of both Vincent Lighting and Vari-Lite technicians, worked the entire time. "By the end of the week, we were all just dead."

But Tutorow believes all of his efforts paid off, and he's eagerly anticipating similar projects. "My branch office is across the river from Cincinnati and there's Riverfest every year. I'd love to do something for them. Detroit has a big fireworks display as well."