It was sad to hear last week of the death of John Gleason at the far-too-young age of 62. As a lighting designer and an educator (at NYU), John was an enormous influence on a generation of LDs, particularly with his ideas about color.
I interviewed John about ten years ago for a profile in TCI (as Entertainment Design was then known). I was very intimidated to be talking with someone who had been associated with so many Broadway shows, but he was surprisingly easy and open. I have never forgotten the way he described his early and deep-seated fascination with light. As a young man, he told me, “I went over to Kleigl one day and bought three pieces of gelatin. I didn't even know how to ask for it. I only wanted to have it in my hands, to touch.” I've interviewed God only knows how many designers in the course of my career; we've talked about everything under the sun, on and off the record. But I've never heard any speak about that movingly about his or her work.
I lost track of John after he retired and now, I'm learning, most people did. Apparently, when he stopped teaching and designing, he pretty much retired from the world. Of course, his health wasn't the greatest, but still, it's sad to think that his wisdom and experience were lost. In many ways, he was a transitional figure in theatre lighting; his union exam was conducted by Jean Rosenthal, Peggy Clark, and Tharon Musser, and he learned his trade doing repertory theatre at Lincoln Center. But he was never afraid of new technology if it suited his purposes, and he kept up with latest products. By the early 80s, he had lost interest in Broadway, but he continued to pursue new ideas in his opera designs.
Interestingly, he had one major criticism of his students, that they had little sense of the past, a lack of curiousity that left them with diminished visual vocabularies. “Do you know how many haven't seen Gone With the Wind,” he aked. “Everybody has seen the Godfather films, right? Well, they haven't.”
He was right. Preserving a sense of the past is vitally important, and while I suppose his ideas live on with his students, it's a terrible thing that there is no more permanent a record of his work and his ideas. The ESTA History Project is hard at work, interviewing people — designers, technicians, businesspeople — with the idea of creating an archive that documents the story of the industry. At times, it's slow going, as it's a project manned by volunteers, who have plenty of other things to do. But it's an urgent task. We only need the example of John Gleason to remind us that a little bit of our history is slipping away every day.