Though the US theatrical lighting industry is relatively young, it still has a rich and colorful history, going back to the heyday of Broadway in the 30s. Unfortunately, some of the pioneers of those early days - Jean Rosenthal, Charlie Altman, Ed Kook - have passed on before a proper record of their contributions could be kept. In an effort to properly document the full story of the theatrical and entertainment lighting industry, ESTA, USITT, Entertainment Design, Lighting Dimensions, and lighting manufacturers have created An Oral History of Theatrical Lighting and Its People. This ongoing effort is designed to create a documented history of this industry as seen through the eyes of designers, manufacturers, distributors, consultants, and technicians. Interviews for the project will focus on tracing the impact of developing technology on the creative process.
In this section of Entertainment Design, we'll be bringing you snippets of conversations from the project. Our first conversation was with Bob Schiller; this month Marge Romans chats with sales legend Sonny Sonnenfeld.
Marge Romans: Can we talk a little bit about your educational background? Did you train in the theatre at all?
Sonny Sonnenfeld: No, no. The way I got involved: I was in kid's camp when I was 12 years old, and it was a rainy day, and we were in the social hall. Some guy asked me to help move a piece of scenery, and I helped him, and I guess I helped him so well that he asked me to come back.
I never had any formal training in theatre. One of my friends was a guy named Gene Morley, who was a wonderful senior lighting designer. One day before I went into the service, I said to him, `Gene, when I light a show, I can do it so it looks pretty good, and once in a while people even clap when the curtain opens. But I really don't know what the hell I'm doing.' So he laughed, opened his file cabinet, and took out McCandless' Method of Lighting the Stage, and said, `Here, read this.' And that was really all of my formal training in stage lighting.
Romans: When you were working on these little shows before you went into the Army, were they community playhouses, summer theatre?
Sonnenfeld: Nothing but summer stock.
Romans: What kind of equipment would you use?
Sonnenfeld: Oh, an auto-transformer pack with maybe 12 dimmers, and some fresnels, and maybe some plano-convex box spots. And once in a while, some ellipsoidals, but more often not.
Romans: And you had footlights. Did you have followspots at that time?
Sonnenfeld: Well, followspots existed. It depended on where you worked. I used to help out at City College, the Dramatic Society, and they had followspots. And later I worked at the 92nd Street Y before I went into the Army, and they had a good complement of lighting equipment, and we had followspots.
Romans: During World War II, as I understand it, there was a fairly active entertainment program called Special Services. Were you involved in that?
Sonnenfeld: No. I was involved in the infantry. I was drafted before the war started, and went overseas in February 1942 to Australia and New Guinea. Because I was in the infantry, I had no choice to do anything else, but I did work on one show in Melbourne, Australia, one weekend. I ran the show there, and I actually used saltwater dimmers. That was my only exposure to saltwater dimmers.
Romans: I don't know anyone still alive who's worked with saltwater dimmers. I'm sure everyone will be fascinated to know: how did they work? Did you stand at one side, and somebody would cue you by telling you to raise or lower the rod, or what?
Sonnenfeld: No, it was a little bit like a resistance board or a transformer board. You had the element that was in the saltwater barrel, and depending on how high up or down it was, that determined the resistance, and that in turn determined the intensity. They had tracker wires going over the handles, and you'd work the handles, similar to the manner that you work on an order transformer board.
Romans: So it was a handle you pulled?
Sonnenfeld: Yeah, you worked it with the handles.
Romans: And that would translate to a vertical lift and move the rod up and down?
Romans: Incredible. You ought to go down in history just for that.
Sonnenfeld: I am in history!