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Joel Rubin: A Life in the Theatre

The famed consultant recalls his many careers,
as well as the founding of USITT and OISTAT.

A conversation with Sonny Sonnenfeld / Lighting & Sound America (February 2007)

(In many ways, Joel E. Rubin's career parallels the rise of entertainment technology. His early interest in theatre led him to a number of seminal experiences in both education and business, leading to encounters with many of the people who shaped the theatre lighting industry. In addition, he played crucial roles in the founding of both USITT and OISTAT. In an interview with Sonny Sonnenfeld, Rubin recalls the trajectory of his career, and many of the legendary personalities he met along the way.)

Sonny Sonnenfeld: Let's first talk about your education and how you decided on theatre as a vocation.

Joel E. Rubin: I was lucky to grow up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where the high school had a fine theatre group under the direction of Dr. Dina Rees Evans. I was never much interested in performing, but definitely took a shine to building and painting scenery and lighting. Dr. Evans was also the director of the city's 3,000-seat summer amphitheatre, Cain Park, so it was natural, when I was old enough to apprentice there, [that I did]. After a couple of years, I even got paid to build scenery by day and run the lighting board at night.

By the way, summer stock was a great training ground for many of us in theatre today. At Cain Park, we did 10 shows in 10 weeks with an 80' wide stage to fill. Half of our productions were musicals and they each had three or four different settings. I was at Cain Park several summers; I was a lighting designer for four years, and then I did two seasons at South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, Massachusetts as lighting designer; again, it was 10 shows in 10 weeks.

SS: Do you think the same opportunities exist today?

JER: I think not. In those days, we didn't have packaged shows. We had a basic repertory company rehearsing all week and one rehearsal with brought-in stars. We built everything ourselves-scenery, costume, props- and did the lighting, etc. Today, what's left of summer stock is mostly touring packages, so I think there is less of an opportunity to learn theatre crafts. I had worked on over one hundred productions before I ever hit graduate school!

SS: And your college history?

JER: I thought it would be great to have an engineering background if I was going to work in the theatre. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in the first post-WWII engineering class at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, now Case Western Reserve University. Engineers can calculate, but reading and writing is a secondary skill and, in my case, I had almost no knowledge of theatre history or dramatic literature.

SS: And that led to…

JER: I had been thrilled, reading in Popular Science about the preset lighting console developed by George Izenour at the Yale School of Drama. I wrote to Professor Izenour and he encouraged me to apply for admission. Of course, I was one of the few tech/design/lighting student applicants with an engineering background, and that was the key to admission. George was probably disappointed, because I opted more toward lighting design than work in his laboratory. Tharon Musser and [designer and educator] Lee Watson were my contemporaries at Yale. By our second year, we were pretty bored-not enough production work at Yale, though Tharon had Lee and me at the YMHA in New York [lighting dance concerts] on weekends.

SS: And you co-authored a lighting book about that time.

JER: Well, Lee and I thought we could write a primer on real lighting practice-not only theory, but how it was actually being done, and was there a future in becoming a lighting designer? We actually started the book,Theatrical Lighting Practice, in our second year at Yale, although it took a couple more years to finish. It was published in 1954.

SS: That book is a bit of a collector's item.

JER: It was well-received in its time, and it certainly had a big influence on the books that came later. Many of them started to include practice as well as theory. Richard Pilbrow told me a few years ago that the book was seminal in showing him that there was a future in the lighting profession.

SS: You have an advanced degree as well?

JER: Unless you were going for a Ph.D. at Yale, the tech/design/lighting degree didn't include a lot of play reading or theatre history, beyond the required one- year course. My high school mentor, Dr. Evans, was the first woman to earn a Ph.D in theatre from the University of Iowa, and she encouraged me to reinforce my theatre background and to apply for admission either at Iowa or Stanford. I chose Stanford, because I was promised I could work on a joint degree in theatre and engineering.

SS: After you finished your studies at Stanford, what happened next?

JER: There was still a doctoral dissertation to research and to write. The research materials were mostly in New York, so my wife and I moved to New York and both of us went job hunting. Professor Stanley McCandless, of Yale, was also head of R&D at Century Lighting. McCandless was a great friend and mentor and he set up an interview with Eddy Kook, the president of Century Lighting.

SS: There are some interesting stories about that interview. Can you tell me what happened?

JER: Well, Mac had told me before the interview that Kook was ready to hire me. After a few pleasantries, Kook got right down to business and, quite frankly, I was shocked. What Kook basically said was that McCandless was getting old and tired and he had decided that I would be his replacement. I guess I was naïve, but Mac was my mentor, and I told Kook that in no way was I interested in displacing or replacing McCandless and-I don't think too many people had done this to Mr. Kook before-I walked out. In later years, Kook and I became fast friends. In fact, I converted him from a negative opinion on USITT to a very active interest.

SS: When did you go over to Kliegl Bros. Lighting?

JER: I called Herbert Kliegl within the next couple of days. I had been corresponding with him about researching in the Kliegl archives. He set up an appointment to meet. In that happy way that the world sometimes turns, George Gill [later the founder of Stage Equipment and Lighting in Miami] had just left Kliegl for another firm, so there was both an empty desk and a slot to be filled.

SS: I seem to remember that John H. Kliegl, one of the founding Kliegl Bros., was still alive at that point. When did you start at Kliegl?

JER: 1954. John Kliegl was alive and still very active, 8am to 6pm every day and half a day on Saturdays. You know, he was really amazing, really had a remarkable aptitude for stage effects. Among Kliegl's regular clients were Gene Braun at Radio City Music Hall, Rudi Kunter at the Metropolitan Opera, Hans Sondheimer at City Opera, Arthur Knorr at the Center Theatre, Jean Rosenthal, and Abe Feder. When I received their calls for special effects, I would turn to Mr. Kleigl. Within a few minutes, he would come back with a new sketch or show me a drawing from an old pattern book, and if I thought that was what was wanted, he would give me a price for a "one-off." And he was usually right on target.

SS: And John Kliegl was succeeded by his son Herbert?

JER: Correct. Herbert became president after his father died at age 91. Herbert Kliegl was one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met. He was a brilliant engineer, very inventive, an excellent businessman; he loved opera and theatre, and really had his heart in the business. I enjoyed working with him for some 20 years. And they were really inventive years; SCR dimmers, tungsten-halogen lighting fixtures, and lighting control memory systems. Great projects from Lincoln Center to Los Angeles Music Center, the Guthrie Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, exterior lighting of the Pan Am building and 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and a lot of projects in educational institutions.

SS: I know that Herbert Kliegl died prematurely and was succeeded by his son, John II. How did that work?

JER: The second John was completely different from his father and his grandfather. He had very little interest in theatre and opera and had a lot of interest in sports. I suspect history will not remember him as a great manager because, after a few years, Kliegl Bros. filed for bankruptcy. I had left the firm a few years before that.

SS: Tell me about USITT.

JER: Do you know of David Hays, [scenic and lighting designer of many Broadway plays and] founder of the National Theatre for the Deaf?

SS: Yes, and also the author of one of the best books on lighting,Light on the Subject.

JER: Exactly! David was also the catalyst of USITT. David was a good friend of mine and also of Tom DeGaetani, then the technical director at the Juilliard School of Music. He had listened to each of us discussing the gap between the practitioners of theatre and those who were designing theatres. No one was trying to get these groups together. At some point in late 1959, David called Tom and myself and suggested that we had to meet, which we did at the coffee shop overlooking the practice ice-skating rink at the old 50th Street Madison Square Garden. It took another year for USITT to be born, but, in the meantime, we got a lot of people and groups interested. Walter Diehl, then its vice president, represented the I.A.T.S.E.; Robert Rowe Paddock, then president, represented United Scenic Artists; John Cornell, then chair of the Stage Manager's Group of Actor's Equity, represented that group; Rosamund Gilder represented the American National Theatre & Academy and also the International Theatre Institute (ITI), of which she was president; Peter Cott, then its executive director, represented the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; Ed Cole, a past president of the American Educational Theatre Association, represented AETA, and he brought in his writing colleague and sound expert Harold Burris-Meyer; Eric Pawley, an architect and staff specialist director at the AIA in Washington, represented that professional society; and Arthur Benline, code specialist and commissioner for the City of New York, brought us additional contacts within the city administration. Most important were individuals, like yourself, Sonny, along with [engineer/consultant] Dick Thompson, [Hofstra drama professor] Don Swinney, [Indiana University drama professor] Gary Gaiser, Hans Sondheimer, [California State University-Northridge drama professor] Will Bellman, [director of stage operations, Metropolitan Opera] Rudi Kuntner, Felix Graham of Syska & Hennessey Engineers, Terry Wells, the playwright Barrie Stavis, [theatre consultant] Ed Peterson, and Ben Schlanger, an architect specializing in theatre design and also vice president of [American National Theatre and Academy's] Board of Standards and Planning for the Living Theatre, then headed by Jo Mielziner. My friend Jean Rosenthal was another important contributor. This was our leadership group as we worked toward the first USITT conference in February of 1961. Tom DeGaetani had an unmatched charisma and drive, and I was very good at gluing all of the pieces together and making the organization work, so we were a good team to get USITT going. I have always felt honored to follow Tom when I was elected as the second president of USITT.

SS: You were instrumental in the formation of OISTAT (International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects, and Technicians) as well.

JER: Yes! There had been prior attempts at forming international groups for these disciplines; a "western" one formed in France and Belgium, and an "eastern" one formed in Czechoslovakia. In the early '60s we attended meetings of both groups, but they were both too exclusive and political.

I had become really good friends with the great German technical director and theatre consultant Walter Unruh, and together we started a correspondence that was aided and abetted by Ros Gilder and which requested the International Theatre Institute to call a meeting of interested countries in Prague in 1967. Jean Darcante, then secretary general of ITI, gave us a working draft for a constitution and a little more than 24 hours to finalize that and come up with an agenda for what would finally be called OISTAT. That first group of member nations included Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic from the eastern countries and, from the west, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United States, Belgium, and France.

SS: What did you do after you left Kliegl?

JER: I formed a theatre consulting group that I ran for eight years until Russell Johnson, of Artec Consultants, convinced me to join his group. I spent a very happy decade at Artec as, variously, principal consultant and managing director, and then, in 2005, I decided to re-form my theatre consulting group. We are still doing work for Artec on a freelance basis, and have a number of architect clients as well.

SS: Who were the people who most influenced you during your career?

JER: I've been very fortunate in having great mentors take an interest in me, really starting in high school with Dina Evans, then Stanley McCandless at Yale, Herb Kliegl, Jean Rosenthal and, later, Eddy Kook. It's something I've tried to pay back to our industry, and I have numerous "kids" working in the industry who pay me the tribute of saying that I was of great help to their own careers.

SS: You were always a great competitor when I was at Century Lighting and you were at Kliegl. Is there one incident that stands out in your career?

JER: Strangely, Sonny, it involves you. I never worried about competition, thinking that if you did the work you would somehow be rewarded with the order. But I lost a job to you at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver that I thought I had locked up. That one incident was enough to convince me that you had to be in touch and competitive and not take any order for granted. I give you an "A" grade for being both the hardest-working guy in the industry and a person whose work shows his love for the industry.

SS: Thank you! What advice would you give to young people who are beginning their career in theatre?

JER: Get involved in production work in as many different venues as you can. Take every opportunity that comes up- no matter how menial. You will learn by doing it and by watching how others do their jobs. And love what you are doing. It's still a thrill for me to walk into a theatre-even better if it's one where I've worked on the design-but I still get shivers down my back when the house lights dim and the curtain opens.

February 2007 Lighting & Sound America


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