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 1930s. 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 several lighting manufacturers, including Barbizon and Altman, 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 its participants.
This month, we listen in on a fascinating discussion between Marshall Spiller and Joel Rubin, co-author of the seminal lighting book Theatrical Lighting Practice with Lee Watson, cofounder of the USITT, and currently a consultant with Artec Consultants, about his early days at the seminal Kliegl Lighting.
Joel Rubin: I completed my studies at Stanford University, finished my PhD and university orals, and when it came time to write my dissertation, I picked for my subject “The Development of Stage Lighting Technology in the United States, 1900-1950.” I needed to do research, and where better than the great city of New York? If you're broke, and you need to work, and if Stanley McCandless, who was at Century Lighting, was one of your mentors, where would you first go and knock on the door? Century Lighting, of course. Stanley was very cordial, he took my wife and myself out to dinner, and said, “Tomorrow, ten o'clock, Edward F. Kook [then president of Century Lighting] will be waiting for you.”
At ten o'clock, Edward F. Kook ushered me into his office. We sat down, we started to talk, and I don't think I've told this to anyone, ever: Ed Kook said to me, “You know, Joel, Stanley McCandless is getting old, and he's less useful than in earlier years, and I need to replace him. I look upon you as his replacement.” And I said to myself, “Now, this is very strange. The man knows that Stanley is my mentor, I'm here because of Stanley; he's either testing me, or he's really mad.” I said, “Mr. Kook, I count Professor McCandless as one of my great benefactors and great friends, and if you are serious about what you just said, I don't think I want to work for you.” And I walked out the door.
Next day, I get a call from George Izenour, who says, “You walked out on Kook!” And I said to George, “Now, look, George, I know you and Stanley were not the best of friends, but I'm going to tell you why I did it.” And after I explained George said, “Well, I understand that.” Next day, I walked over to Kliegl Lighting; I had been corresponding with Herb Kliegl. It turned out that George Gill had just left Kliegl, as head of the television department, and Burt Moore was taking over. He had been doing some of the theatre lighting sales; there was a place and a desk, so Herb Kliegl said, “We're glad you walked in the door.” So, if George Gill had not walked out the previous week, I probably never would have worked for Kliegl, and I would have had to go back to Ed Kook and say, “I'm sure you didn't mean what you said, sir.”
This would have been about October 1954, about the time the book I had written with Lee Watson, Theatrical Lighting Practice, had been published. We had started working on that when we were both in the MFA course at Yale Drama School.
Marshall Spiller: I was going to ask you what the purpose was behind that.
JR: Well, you see, as young lighting students, we were anxious to see if there was a bloody future out there, so we said, “Well, we'll have to do some research.” In the course of doing the research, we had enough to write a book. I knew a lot about opera lighting and ballet lighting, and Lee knew quite a lot about dramatic theatre lighting. I had been working in the open-air theatre and in the arena theatre fields as well, Lee had not, at that point, so the information that's in that book really came out of the combined knowledge. Neither of us could have written it alone at that point. What is really new is that we tried to access, in 1954, the possible role and career for a profession in theatre lighting design.
Anyway, there I was in New York, trying to earn enough money on what I thought was a temporary job, to research and write my doctoral dissertation. Well, I got really interested in this job of designing and selling lighting equipment. To be there at the source was kind of wonderful.
In 1954, Kliegl Brothers Universal Electric Stage Lighting Co., Inc., was about 58 years old. It had the longest pedigree of any of the companies then in business. It was started by John and Anton Kliegl, who came over in the great blizzard of the late 1800s, bought a company called Universal Electric Stage Lighting and changed the name to Kliegl Bros. Universal Electric Stage Lighting. I think the first catalogue with the Kliegl name on it is 1900 or 1902.
The old gentleman, John H. Kliegl I, was still alive when I came on board in 1954; he was in his mid-80s, and he had every bit of his wit and wisdom. If you went to him and said, “Mr. Kliegl, I have a client that wants a so-and-so” — perhaps a lamp that would have a flame torch that was not in the catalog anymore — he'd say, “Ja, Rubin, I look it up for you.” He would go back to his rolltop desk, where he had a whole series of pattern books, and in about five minutes he'd point to something the Kliegls had made, in 1923 or whenever. He had a way of finding the stuff. He'd say, “Ja, at $3.90, that price is not any good. I give you new price, $23.80.” He could do that, day after day.
John Kliegl I always had a marvelous sense of humor; I came up the back hall at the Kliegl plant on West 50th Street one day, and he was doing push-ups — he was probably 85 or 86. I said, “Mr. Kliegl,” wagging my finger at him, “at your age?” And he got up, and he said, wagging his finger back, “Wouldn't do you any harm either, young man.”
MS: What did the Kliegls do in Europe before they came to the United States?
JR: They were tinsmiths in Austria. Anton died in 1928; John and his family bought out Anton's interest. John had two or three kids, one of whom was Herbert Kliegl, who was the operating president when I joined the firm in 1954. Herbert Kliegl was another mentor, an absolutely marvelous man, a real human being: no bigotry, no prejudice. I may have been the first Jew ever on staff, but I never, during 20 years that he was there, felt the slightest prejudice in any way.
Kliegl had all these special effects. They were still painting disks, by hand, up on the third floor, when I arrived. There was a fabulous guy, Adolph Kirshner, who headed the testing of the instruments. Adolph taught me more about lighting instruments and how to align ellipsoidal reflectors, and what real quality was, than anyone I ever met before or since. He absolutely knew his subject backwards and forwards.
The Kliegls had a building that had been built for them in 1928 on 50th Street, opposite what was then Madison Square Garden, and on either side they had brownstones that they also owned, which were used as storage areas. Now, imagine this: You're writing your doctoral dissertation on “The History of Stage Lighting Technology” and you start going through those brownstones, and what's in there? The silk color screens that David Belasco used in the 1902 production of Madame Butterfly. There are carbon arc source ollivetes, there are 1902 and 1904 Edison-factory lamp sources, there's this whole history that John H. Kliegl I had saved, and savored, and maintained: sand-filled dimmers, early Ward-Leonard dimmers, early Cutler-Hammer dimmers, original effects discs — it was all there! Absolutely, totally amazing.
MS: What happened to all that stuff?
JR: Well, here's the sad thing: when the company moved, in 1962, out to Long Island City, John H. Kliegl II decided that this was all garbage and sent it off to the dump. Now, if I had never collected it, probably some of it would have arrived out in Long Island City and could have been salvaged. And I've always kicked myself that I had managed to pull all this stuff together because if I had never done any of it, it might still be around somewhere. I did a lighting demonstration for the American Society of Theatre Historians, using a bunch of this stuff; in fact, reproducing, probably for the first time in 60 years, the David Belasco sunset and sunrise effects for the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III of Madame Butterfly — I mean, if you can imagine being able to reproduce that with the original equipment.
MS: But you couldn't do it now.
JR: I'd have no way to do it now. It's all gone — if you said “silk color screen” to someone, they'd have no idea what you're talking about.
MS: Now, why, when these tinsmiths came to the United States, did they go into theatre lighting?
JR: I think it was a business they could buy. I think it had nothing to do with any knowledge or aptitude. But remember the state of the industry — there was no electric lighting industry short of a few guys who bent sheet metal, made some effects discs, and some carbon arcs and followspots. The companies that existed back then were the ones with the pre-electric names, like the New York Calcium Light Company, the Murray Bros.
These guys were making and inventing, as needed, for a specific show. There's a memo of David Belasco, where he claims to have invented a lot of things, including the making of spotlights. He claims the first baby spotlight and all that stuff. John Kliegl I was listed in programs as the electrician for Belasco, and he said, you know, David Belasco was always writing about this stuff as though he had invented it himself. But David should have given a little credit to those of us that really did the work. The fact that John Kliegl actually had saved the multicolored silk screens from Madame Butterfly was proof enough for me.