Stage Lighting History:1990

A rememberance of how things were done in the past...

Having recently acquired the User's Manual of the original ETC MicroVision™, I've created this page in the hopes that some younger viewers will be informed and amused at the practices and technologies in place in 1990, and some of the older ones might enjoy it also.


I have stated publicly that the only ETC console I absolutely abhor is the original ETC MicroVision™.  Today, being older and maybe wiser, I now think that “abhor” is too strong a term, as actually the console did everything it was designed to do, and not once did I have any stability or control issues.  I had previously used the ETC Vision™, and Expression™, as well as the Colortran Prestige™ and many others. Having just closed a one-year show run, when I received a call from a dear friend acting as Production Manager for a Chicago Off-Loop commercial open-run show, asking if I would come in and be “Lighting Board Operator,” I answered, “Sure, but I’m committed to moving to Las Vegas in two months.”  She assured me that would not be an issue, as they could find someone to replace me once the show was open.  Pay was negotiated and I was on-board, so to speak.  I was credited in the show program as “Production Lighting Operator.”

The show was the U.S. premiere of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, written by Brad Fraser, who later became best known as a writer/director of the Showtime series Queer as Folk.  Produced in a large 350-seat storefront theatre near Wrigley Field, the building is now, or at least used to be, a Jamnastics Aerobics Studio.  The first sign of trouble came upon load-in, when the delivery of equipment was delayed as the driver had instructions not to unload until a check was issued.  Apparently this producer’s reputation was already tarnished, as he had recently done some flops that closed prematurely.  Two hours later, a check appeared and we unloaded the truck.  The rental package included 360Qs, 6” Fresnels, CD-80 dimmer packs, and what was supposed to be a Colortran Prestige 1000, purchased specifically for this show.  As it turns out, the original deal was to be a long lease-to-purchase arrangement, but was then changed to a straight rental, to reduce the show’s “nut.”  So the vendor substituted a less-expensive console, and my Prestige, which had already been purchased, went to a different theatre and I got an ETC MicroVision.  “No problem, I know ETC consoles,” I thought to myself.  

So we see the cardboard box and it says: MicroVision. “A smaller Vision?,” I thought to myself; as the original Vision was already tiny, measuring, what, 16” x 16”?  With great anticipation, we opened the box, and pretty much all burst out in laughter simultaneously.  Here was this Vision-sized console, but whereas the Vision was computer putty-beige, this thing was dark gray, with pink accents, and a large faux-granite wheel hanging off the side.  I was used to the wacky color scheme of the Expression, but this thing looked liked something Fred Flintstone had used/invented, or that I could buy for $9.99 in the Fisher-Price department of Toys-R-Us.  Then I noted what later would become the bane of my existence for the next few weeks, the tiny, silver, unlabeled keys—all forty-seven of them.  Yes I counted.  Rather than silk-screening the label on the actual key, the manufacturer had chosen to put the identifications on the case, above or below, and who can remember?, each key--in six-point type. 

So I set it up in the house next to the designer’s table.  Everyone who came by commented on the brand-new, state-of-the-art lighting control console, usually derogatorily.

The show had about 100-125 focusing fixtures, all Altman if I recall correctly.  The dimmers were eight 12x2.4Kw CD-80 packs.  I think the house owned four and we rented four.  The Lighting Designer was Kevin Rigdon, then Production Designer of Steppenwolf Theatre, who had just returned from doing The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway.   He later paid me what may be the greatest compliment I’ve ever received on my life:  In the LD’s absence, during a preview I had changed the time on a cue from 5 to 3 seconds, or something like that, and neglected to tell the Stage Manager, who called the show sitting beside me in the booth.  The SM called the cue early, it went too fast for him, and he read me the riot act.  I called Kevin, as he had been gone for a number of performances, yet I continued to “tweak" cues.  Kevin came the next day and said to the Stage Manager, in my presence, “Look! I trust this man [indicating me] with my life and my reputation.  Anything he wants to do concerning the lighting for this show, you let him.”  I felt vindicated, but now upon reflection I realize I was in error by not informing the SM of my change.  I also learned it’s a good idea to question the Lighting Designer about things like that before he/she leaves the show in your hands, and have done so every show since.

Another interesting vignette occurred during previews.  One Friday afternoon I came to the theatre early to work on the focus charts.  In the booth I found the Lighting Vendor removing the control-cards from the CD-80 packs.  Surprised, as I hadn’t called them, I innocently inquired as to what they were doing.  They informed me that the current week's check for the rental had bounced.  I had picked up my paycheck from the Box Office on the way in, so I immediately went to the producer’s bank to cash mine.  The bank informed me: insufficient funds.  So I went back to the theatre, saved the show on several different floppy disks, then deep-cleared the board and went home to call the Production Manager.  She apologized and told me to go back to the theatre; she was on her way, with cash.  When I got back, there was the Lighting Vendor, re-installing the control cards.  Once I got my cash from the PM, I restored the programming on the console.  Not the best reason/method to test a console, but something that should be done at least once during the preview period, to insure that the desk is recording properly, in case you have to change-out the console for some reason.  Some guy running a Kliegl Performer taught me that.

The Lighting Plot was hand-drafted, but Kevin Rigdon did the paperwork in ALD, Rosco’s then new, Assistant Lighting Designer, the grandfather of Lightwright.  I used ETCedit™ on my 286/12 with amber monitor to do some clean up of cues at home.  I believe ETCedit was THE first offline editor (OLE).  Other than the Obsession™ in 1994, the labeling with alphanumeric text of cues would not come, for ETC, until 1996, on the Expression2x™.  In 1989, Strand’s LightPalette90™, which is what Kevin had specified for the new Steppenwolf Theatre, introduced text labeling.  No moving lights were used or harmed in the production of this show.

Back to the MicroVision for a moment.  I solved the unlabeled-keys issue by putting little bits of white gaffer’s tape on the keys and using a sharp Sharpie™, and black taping the console’s labels between the keys.  I apologized to the Lighting Vendor, who said, “Do what ya gotta do.”  It really was a nice little board, and I taxed it, even having a couple of sub-routines running.  And sub-routines are always 5xx series, thanks to the Kliegl Performer, just another of “Derek’s Rules.”  The ergonomics of the little round silver buttons, and burying the “GO” buttons in the middle of the board made no sense to me, and still doesn’t.  This console was only on the market for about one year, before being replaced by the MicroVisionFX™. The layout and keys were changed on the FX, and one could chase the submasters (hence the FX--“effects” suffix).  Today, when the MicroVision is mentioned, almost everyone thinks of the MicroVisionFX.

So I left the show, and the Stage Manager took over running the lights, with special dispensation from AEA.  Shortly thereafter, the show closed in Chicago and moved to Off-Broadway, where it closed quickly. In 1993, a film adaptation was made: Love and Human Remains, which met the same fate as the play.  At least I moved to Las Vegas with lots of cash in my pockets!


Edit (02/29/08): I found my original board layout cheatsheet.  Don't know where the rest of the paperwork ended up, however.

A picture of one still in use, albeit as a back-up system, for a venue's houselight control:

(I wonder if William Shatner/Leonard Nimoy come with the StarTrakIII ?)