Pedestrians passing through New York's Times Square district earlier this summer could be seen craning their necks towards the giant billboard above the Palace Theatre. Over a period of several days the space was covered with thousands of tiny spoons. Was it some strange reference to Beauty and the Beast, the musical at the Palace, which features dancing cutlery? In fact, it proved to be an ingenious advertisement for Jell-O; the final billboard features 3,850 ten-inch spoons, a Jell-O logo, and an electronic zipper sign, which broadcasts messages from consumers.
Even in the overcrowded, outrageous theatre district, the Jell-O billboard makes quite an impression. Therefore, it's all too fitting that it received a gala launch on May 19, in a ceremony which featured Jell-O spokesperson Bill Cosby. A stage was set up in Duffy Square, the little island that divides Broadway and Seventh Avenue, where the TKTS booth resides. Onstage, Cosby introduced the billboard, which was then hit with a battery of lights, creating a prime photo opportunity. "All the whole world really wanted was a picture of Cosby standing in front of the sign," says Mike Irwin, whose company, Irwin Lighting Design, worked on the project with Signet Staging. "Everything was made for that one shot."
>From the beginning, the project was filled with challenges. For example, Duffy Square is a narrow piece of land with very little clear space. But the Parks Commission, which supervises the area, wouldn't allow any changes. So the stage had to be built around concrete planters and the statue of Father Duffy, the square's namesake. "There were two little dogwood trees that the Parks Commission wanted protected to the utmost," says Irwin, who adds that his team offered to dig up the trees and replant them after the event was over, a plan that was rejected. "We ended up going through an insurance company, and taking out a $30,000 policy on each tree, because we were told that if we damaged them, that's where the fine would end up," he says. "So we had to design the stage to go up, over, and around every possible obstruction. It was quite a challenge, but Corky Boyd, from Hudson Scenic, was instrumental in keeping it all in line." Other key players included Dave Hendrickson from Signet Staging and Steve Irwin, Mike's brother, who programmed the lighting.
The Duffy Square stage was surrounded by four truss and scaffold towers which contained the lighting instruments. "They were all Martin moving lights," says Mike Irwin. "We had 24 MAC 600s, 18 MAC 500s and a dozen PAL 1200 framing fixtures. The PALs were focused on the sign itself. The sign was 106' (32m) away from the lights, so we framed it with the PALs. The rest of the lights were focused on the stage, but they were all in position to swing around and hit the sign, at the moment of the lighting." The entire event was controlled from a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console located at stage left of the Duffy Square stage. "Steve and I specialize in using the Wholehog II," says Irwin. "We use it a lot for industrial shows."
Obviously, such a project required enormous preparation. "We only had three hours to program everything," says Irwin. "I designed the whole thing on WYSICAD and then Steve preprogrammed everything he could on WYSIWIG. I designed Times Square, with all the buildings, so we could plan our sweeps and where the gobos were going to land. I really couldn't have done it without WYSICAD. It was the only way to make the whole thing come together. Because of it we were able to see where the bad angles were. Anytime you can use a lighting simulation program, it just makes your life easier."
The Irwins put together a website for the project, with site survey photos and CAD drawings (pictured) of the project so that all the participants, who were scattered all over (Irwin lives in Miami; Signet Staging is located in Poughkeepsie, NY), could have instant access to the most up-to-date information on the project. "The best thing we did was to put together the website, because that way, everybody was always on the same page."
Irwin worked closely with the Hollywood, FL-based office of Martin Professional. The Martin equipment, he notes, "held up really, really well," even when it was left out in humid, rainy conditions. "We bagged them the night before, after we got everything set up. There was a little condensation in the bags the next day, but they ran without any problem--I was really impressed with them. Martin sent up a guy named Larry Picker to babysit the instruments and, out of everybody, he had the easiest job, because the equipment was so stable."
In spite of the many challenges (they also had to set up an indoor version of the event, in the nearby Marriott Marquis, in case of rain), Irwin insists, "It was really a pleasurable job. And," he adds, "it was the best union crew I've ever used--and I've been doing this for 25 years." Thanks to the hard work of everyone, Jell-O is now the biggest star on Broadway.