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 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 bring you Jim Maloney, a longtime Broadway electrician, who alks to lighting industry legend Marge Romans about his early days working on touring shows such as The King and I, South Pacific, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Jim Maloney: You traveled every week. You put a show up on Monday and you had a show Monday night. Took it down Saturday, traveled on Sunday and you went back to work on Monday in another town. You worked with different crews, different theatres, different in-and-outs. Every theatre was not the same to get in and out. Some you could get in, some you couldn't. Some you got a back door, you come on the stage. Others you come up, down the aisle and up over the proscenium, and onto the stage.
Marge Romans: Did you carry most of your equipment with you?
JM: You carried the entire show with you. When we went into the theatres there were the three walls and the proscenium arch, and that's all that was there. Iif they had lighting that was permanent in the place, like an old movie house, you would have to hang around that. But you used only your equipment.
MR: Did you have limitations on the equipment? You go from one theatre and it would be like, a Shrine Auditorium with a huge stage and all the power you needed and then you'd go into a small theatre and it would be different?
JM: No, the only difference would be the size. The size of your set was what you used, no matter how much room you had. You could have ninety feet, and your set is only twenty feet. You didn't go back ninety feet.
MR: You just mask it off.
JM: You were in to twenty feet of your show, and that's it. You're boxed in anyway with drapes and stuff. And that's what you used. Some theatres, you had to cram it because you didn't have the full size.
MR: What about the electricity and power?
JM: Sometimes you had to double up boards. You'd sit and figure your capacity. Then there were times when I had the meter. I'd put a meter on the darn thing to see, with all of them running at the same time, how much I was drawing and how long it would last before we'd blow. The fuse would blow, and we'd get some idea what the capacity of what you were using. If you had, say 400 amp fuses in your board, you would know that you might be using 250 on that particular leg. Another board might have the same thing, so you could add those two together to get both boards working. Because this board would be down a little and that board would be up, and then this board would be down and that board would be up.
MR: Tell me about the boards you took on the road. What were they like?
JM: Monsters. We called them piano-boards. They actually looked like a piano in a box, like an upright type piano. When took off the cover you had fourteen dimmers, fourteen switches, and fourteen plugs to plug in. And you had a master switch on one end.
MR: Dimmer capacity was how much?
JM: Two-fifty. The 5K boards were the fives. We had 250 amps on the three-thousand watt. And we had the 500 on the six. I used one of them things for years. I think Annie was the last one in which I had piano-boards, in 1980. When that closed, that was the last of the piano-boards.
MR: How many lights would you put on a dimmer?
JM: Your dimmer would be 3,000 watts and you could only put whatever equivalent of 3,000. You could use three 1,000 watt lamps or could put four 750 watt lights. You had a pocket in the board that you plugged a plug-in box into that had four pockets.
MR: What would happen when you went into a theatre where there wasn't enough power?
JM: You would have to cut something out.
MR: Who made that decision?
JM: We had The King and I on the road, and we went out with five piano-boards. And we actually played it in Ohio with two, but we also used some of their house stuff. We had different versions. Two, three, four, five versions of a show. We knew ahead of time what the theatre had. Because they had an advance person who used to go there and write out a whole list of what was in there, and they'd mail it back to you.
MR: So you actually went on the road with three or four different light plans…
JM: In your head.
MR: In your head! Nobody put it on paper?
JM: No, it was never put on paper. Because you never knew. You started with what you originally had, and then you'd cut down to what you think would be important, or what had to be put in. And that's what you'd use. We had different versions. And we had trains that traveled the show, not trucks; we used to load our train with the version we were going to use in the next town.
MR: You had to sometimes reduce the size of the show ‘cause you just couldn't get everything up in the theatre that you were in. Not enough power there, not a generator. You had to take out something and leave in what was important. Who made that decision?
JM: The head electrician.
MR: And if you were not the head electrician, he would say to you, “Cut this, cut this, cut this.” Or, “Don't hang this. Don't hang that.”
JM: He was the electrician. The electrician of the show made the decisions.
MR: He had worked with the designer to start with this?
JM: No. The designer came out and did the first stop. And, say we went to Philadelphia or Boston; he would come out, and you would have your show the way he designed it. He'd leave and you never saw him again. It was left up to you. You could go three, four, five months with your regular show, and then all of a sudden you would hit a theatre. You knew a week in advance of going there what the power situation was, and how much you could use. You would have to go over in your head what you were going to use. The only other person I ever talked to would be the carpenter: what I was going to hang? And I'd talk it over with the stage manager as to what we were going to be using.
MR: I'm trying to make a connection here, which I think is probably much more important than you're aware of. You saw yourself as a nuts-and-bolts electrician kind of guy, but I don't think you thought of yourself as part of the original creative team.
MR: But, the thing is, when you took that show on the road, and you had to decide how to reduce the lighting, you were doing it for more than just the just the mechanical point of view of how many watts of power had, but how to still make the play as effective visually as it'd been in New York. And that's a very important contribution, I think.
JM: Well, it is a very important one. The only problem is that we weren't trained for it. I mean, you have a lighting designer. He goes off to college. He learns all his stuff in college. He goes to design school. And then he hands it to us, and then we get into these situations we had no training for. But seeing the show, working the show, every single night. You got an idea what you were going to do.
There were times when you had a three-spotlight show. You'd end up with two, because there was no room for three. And what you had to do, you had to double the amount of work you were doing. Some people were left in the dark. But this was known by the actors on the stage. So if I'm this distance from you, and I knew that my front light's not going to be here and you had one, I'd move closer to you. And that's what the actors used to do. Or we'd make the light a little bit bigger. We tried to satisfy everybody.