Ken Billington: A Performing Arts Legacy Project site

Broadway to Projectionist

After a successful career as an assistant to Tharon Musser, Peggy Clark, Tom Skelton and William Rittman here I was at 24 having worked on 15 Broadway shows and giving up my assisting career because now I wanted to do design my own shows. I knew many of the Broadway producers, directors and general managers and had designed the successful Off-Broadway production of Fortune in Men’s Eyes so how hard could it be to get a Broadway show? It was not easy. I would walk into one of the theatre bars and knew lots of folks but not much was happening work wise. In fact, to make my rent I became the projectionist at the Theatre 80 St. Marks which was branded The Movie Musical. They showed double bills of old movie musicals. This was before video tape so the only way to see these old films was at a theatre or perhaps on late night television. It was fun and lots of stars came by the theatre, to this day you can see their footprints in the concrete sidewalk in front of the theatre.

I had taken a job trying to sort out the lighting for the Broadway revival of Lost in the Stars; the lighting designer had never worked on Broadway and the producers hired me to figure out how to move it from the Kennedy Center to the Imperial Theatre. We were doing a work call when the doorman stuck his head around the portal and said, “Ken Billington there is a phone call for you. This was the time of pay phones and answering services. It was my answering service calling me, I asked how she had found me and she said, “You told me you were working on a show called Lost in the Stars”, so she looked up the theatre and found the stage door pay phone number,. “You need to call the union back. They have a Broadway show for you and I like the title Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, so call them and do the show. In those days if the any designer was not a member of the United Scenic Artists union a supervisor had to be employed. The business agent asked if I wanted to supervise the lighting of a musical Don’t Bother Me. I Can’t Cope.

That was a great phone call. I went to the Playhouse theatre to meet director Vinnette Carroll who was grumpy, since they had to hire a lighting supervisor which financially would not allow them to purchase the shoes that they needed for a production number. The lighting designer had to leave after the dress rehearsal. Then when changes were necessary Vinnette asked if I could implement them. She liked what I did and I proceeded to re-light much of the show. To make a long story short “Cope” played 2 ½ years on Broadway and opened duplicate companies in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles all of which ran for over a year. This was long before shows did long engagements in other cities.

I was receiving multiple royalty checks each week plus fees to open each company and making a living. I guess I was on my way to being a designer.

The next phone call changed my life on Broadway.