2011 Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Rusty Brutsché, vice-chairman of PRG , has been in the entertainment technology industry since the 1970s. In 1980, he was part of the team that introduced the first Vari-Lite automated lights, and the rest is history. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux chats with Brutsché about his impressive career as he heads toward retirement.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: Can you describe your working or personal relationship with Wally Russell?
Rusty Brutsché: I met Wally in 1981 when he was president of Strand Lighting. We had just developed the Vari-Lite VL0 prototype, and I called him to see if he would be interested in looking at it because we were looking for a financial partner to develop the idea further. Wally agreed to a meeting, and he flew to Dallas for a demonstration. We connected on a personal level very quickly, and although we were not able to reach any kind of development agreement with Strand, Wally and I became friends and kept in touch. We went on to partner with Tony Smith and Genesis, and when Wally left Strand, I hired him as a consultant, and he later became a member of the Vari-Lite board of directors. Wally was really a great person, with a very deep passion for the lighting industry, and he really understood the lighting market and how it works. I enjoyed knowing and working with him, and when he died so suddenly in 1992, I was part of the group that established the Wally Russell Fund and the Wally Award, so I am particularly honored to receive it this year.
ELG: What made you want to get into this crazy business in the first place?
RB: When I was in high school, I developed a passion for audio systems and music. I started playing bass in a local band, and I designed and built the sound system for our group. I also designed and installed sound systems in clubs around Dallas. I continued to play music all the way through college, and the sound system kept getting bigger. In 1969, Terry Bassett with Concerts West called and asked us to do sound for a rock show that he was promoting at McFarlin Auditorium for a band called Spirit. So I called up everybody that I knew and borrowed all of the high-fidelity stereo amplifiers I could find, rented some additional speakers, and did the show. The show went well, and Bassett kept calling for other shows with Chicago, Steppenwolf, and The Grateful Dead, so I decided to form Showco Sound with two other partners, and things took off from there.
ELG: How has the industry evolved since the “old days,” and where do you think it is going?
RB: The first two artists I personally mixed were James Taylor and Led Zeppelin. I have pictures of the stage from both of those tours in 1970-71, and there is nothing on the stage except band gear and the sound system—not one single light of any kind. We used house spots, and I hauled everything in a single 18' Ryder truck. We were playing arenas with audiences of 18-20,000 people, and we toured all over the world with the same equipment and no lights anywhere. So the industry today would have been unimaginable in 1970. I kept worrying that the rock ‘n’ roll fad would go the way of big band music, and I would have to get a real job! Obviously, the industry is stronger than ever, and I believe it will continue to evolve and grow because there will always be a need for live performances.
ELG: Looking back over your career, what are some of the high points and challenges?
RB: The 1970s were a very challenging and exciting time because everything was so new, and the industry was such a Wild West show. Things that we take for granted today such as sound, lighting, staging, scenery, and rigging did not exist then, and we had to invent and adapt things as we went along and make the most of our own equipment. Working with creative and adventuresome artists such as Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Who, the Bee Gees, and many others allowed us to develop and expand the state of the art of production technology. I think the high point for me was the development and introduction of the Vari-Lite technology. I have enjoyed being a part of the lighting industry.
ELG: What advice would you give to a young person entering the industry today?
RB: I think to be successful in our industry requires primarily a lot of passion. So my advice would be to follow the things that interest you and develop your skill and passion for those areas. The industry is very diverse now, with virtually all technologies being used, so the opportunities are limitless. The best thing that I love about our industry is that there is always a need and a passion for new and innovative ideas, and it is very gratifying to see the results of your efforts on stage or on camera.
The Wally Award was presented to Rusty Brutsché on Saturday, October 29 at LDI2011.