The Bushnell Theatre Brings A McCandless Project Back To Light
Jean Rosenthal reportedly referred to Stanley McCandless as “the granddaddy of us all as lighting designers.” Beyond the legacy that McCandless (1897-1967) left as a designer and educator, there is at least one tangible project that has been restored, using the McCandless RGB additive color-mixing theory with contemporary fixtures to light the Mortensen Hall auditorium at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT.
The restoration of Mortensen Hall was part of an ongoing building project at The Bushnell, spearheaded by Wilson Butler Architects from Boston, as Bruce Herrmann AIA, a principal at Wilson Butler Architects explains. “We had designed an addition to the performing arts center,” he says. “They were a happy client and then wanted to renovate the existing space.” Once the new 907-seat Belding Theatre was complete, the architects, along with the architectural lighting designers from the New York City firm, Fisher Marantz Stone, turned their attention to the Mortensen auditorium, where the visual point of interest in the room is an original Art Deco ceiling mural that evokes everything from Greek drama to the industrial revolution with stylized images of cars and trains. “The mural runs down the center-third of the room on fabric that is laminated to the ceiling. The walls and plaster frame it,” notes Herrmann.
For the architects, a project like this has a few inherent challenges. “You have to satisfy a lot of people,” says Herrmann, but it seems that, in this case, everyone ended up on the satisfied list. Life safety issues were of importance, with sprinklers added in the auditorium and the attic. (Only the stage had them before.) “We had to find a way to integrate the sprinklers into a historic ceiling and the mural to meet the code. We used a special type of sprinkler head and were able to avoid cutting holes in the mural.” The attic was also insulated to keep the water from freezing and potentially damaging the mural from the top side.
One of the biggest challenges was the paint. “We wanted to bring back the interior, which had been painted all one color, an ugly yellowish white, and there were too many layers of paint, almost 80 years' worth.” New York City-based EverGreene Painting Studios was responsible for the painstaking restoration of the creamy-white and beige walls, as well as decorative columns and the ceiling with its gold and aluminum leaf.
There are a few interesting things about this renovation, including the recreation of the original house curtain. “We only had old photos from a local newspaper and a description of the pattern of the curtain from the 1930s,” says Herrmann. A local historian luckily unearthed a postage stamp-sized piece of the magenta fabric, and the new curtain was woven and custom-dyed by Greensboro, NC-based Stage Decoration & Supplies.
But the real item of interest was a lighting system designed by McCandless when the theatre was built in the 1930s, a period in which the master was teaching lighting design at Yale in nearby New Haven. (Rosenthal, as well as Tharon Musser, were among his students.) “The lighting system allows you to change the look of the room from red and gold to blue and gray,” Herrmann explains.
The updating of the lighting system fell to Robert Schoenbohm, a senior associate at Fisher Marantz Stone. “The system used the McCandless RGB additive color-mixing system,” he explains. “The original fixtures had been replaced by Kliegl ellipsoidals.” This time around, ETC theatrical fixtures were used, with 48 Source Four PAR MCM fixtures placed in the six faux boxes that decorate the sidewalls of the theatre, with four units in each box, or 24 on each side of the auditorium. “These are vectored straight across so they light the opposite wall,” notes Schoenbohm.
These fixtures are fitted with dichroic glass filters from Special FX Lighting with a dozen each in clear, blue, amber, and red filter colors. To add to the color-mixing capability of the system, there are also 24 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12 fixtures mounted in the sconces on the sidewalls. “The dichroic colors were used as they best matched the colors of the ColorBlast fixtures. We hoped that this would keep at least some basic color relationship between the PARs and the Blasts,” says Schoenbohm.
Schoenbohm describes these large Art Deco sconces as “three-tier wedding cakes turned upside down, like buckets of light, with a 30" diameter on the top.” In the original system, colored A-lamps supported the McCandless RGB idea with a large mogul-base 300W incandescent pear-shaped lamp in the center.
“We took out all the A-lamps and replaced them with Color Kinetics RGB LEDs, with a clear incandescent 100W PAR38 lamp in the center and an adaptor in the mogul-base to help push incandescent light up toward the ceiling,” adds Schoenbaum. “The Color Kinetics fixtures replace the A-lamps and more effectively move the colored light toward the ceiling while maintaining McCandless' idea of additive color mixing, with nice pale tints, a real warm, soft off-white light.” All of the original sconces and decorative fixtures in the auditorium were reconditioned.
To light the ceiling mural, 10 ETC Source Four Juniors with HPL 575W/115X 2,000-hour lamps and high hats were placed behind sconces at the base of the faux boxes where there are small platforms to hold the fixtures. Six Source Four ellipsoidals were placed in a slot in the balcony rail to light the show curtain and gold-leaf proscenium arch. The architectural lighting was also improved from above so that audience members sitting in the orchestra level could actually read their programs. Groups of three custom fixtures by Forum Lighting with Q250 lamps were placed above existing 12" apertures in the ceiling. “They have a directional tilt, with three fixtures in the same opening,” Schoenbohm says. “Before, they had just one PAR lamp straight down and it was on the dark side.”
An ETC Express 24/48 console was used to program the lighting, but as Schoenbohm points out, “I didn't even have to go back there for the programming. The theatre's electricians just took it and ran with it.” The ETC console is used primarily to run the architectural lighting as The Bushnell is a roadhouse, and the tours bring in their own boards.
While all of the fixtures are concealed, as they were in the original system, the result is a contemporary color-changing scheme based on what McCandless designed in the 1930s. “You can create just about any colors with the new lights,” says Schoenbohm. “The new system gives us a lot of flexibility to change the look of the room.”