Uncle Wiggly to Broadway:
When I was in the 1st grade in Harrison New York the grammar school spring concert was held. The climax of the 1st grade section was that Uncle Wigley’s airship had to travel to stage right. This scenic piece was a cardboard box painted by the class and had a piece of clothesline tied to it for the magic moment when it “flew” off stage. I was assigned to pull the airship with my classmate sitting in the box offstage. I was hooked.
My theatre dreams did not reappear until the 4th grade. We were again doing the spring concert and I was now in the acting part of my career. It was short lived, I went from acting to lighting in one day. Seems I misbehaved and was taken out of rehearsal and told to sit on the stairs stage right in the wings. I was sad but in front of me was the light switches for the auditorium. I figured out what did what and then it was the end of the day. The following day, after being reinstated into my acting role, we went to the auditorium to rehearse, and it was dark. I said “I can turn the lights on” and I did for the rehearsal. Miss Cook impressed by my knowledge of the light switches gave me a new job. Running the lights. My big moment came when we did a blackout, and all the gingerbread boys became real. I stood on a stool and pulled the main knife switch and sparks flew, I then quickly turned off all the other switches and put the main back it and faded the lights up but turning them on switch by switch. There were no dimmers. The grammar school cheered and all I ever wanted to do from that day forward was lighting.
After that moving experience, I was always re-focusing the flood lights in the back yard. The tress looked good, but you could fall down since there was no light on the ground. I was making the scenery look good even then.
Moving forward to Junior high school I was on the stage crew but then the Harrison Players were formed, and their performances would be in the junior senior high school auditorium. I got the job of lighting their first production Ten Little Indians. I was a 9th grader so what did I know. The players had the good fortune to enlist as director Phillip Mathias. Phil had retired to Harrison after being the stage manager on many shows including the original South Pacific and The Skin of Our Teeth. He jumped in, probably not knowing what he was getting into with amateurs but embraced all of us. He treated me like I was Jo Mielizner of Abe Feder the great Broadway designers. He helped form me as a designer and he and his wife Alice Hammerstein became lifelong friends.
A number of years after that Phil called me and said Alice had written a musical and I was going to light it. I met with them and Alice had written a review of Uncle Jerry’s music. Uncle Jerry being Jerome Kern and many of the song had lyrics by her father Oscar Hammerstein. Phil said I found a great director gal and she is going to be a star, but she needs someplace to start so you will be working with Susan Stroman. Phil was great at helping us young kids along.
I was now really hooked and wanted to be a lighting designer. I spent the next 4 years lighting the Harrison Players as well as anything I could get my hands on. Including dances in the gym. It was now time to go to college and at the time there were only a few university’s that taught lighting design. Carnegie Tech now Carnegie Mellon was one of them. I applied knowing I had made the right choice and would get the education I needed to be a Broadway Lighting Designer. I did not get accepted.
Summer Stock to Broadway:
With no college education in my future and knowing exactly what I wanted to do I felt, where do I go from here. Leslie Ogden who had started the Harrison Players called a producer of children’s theatre that he knew and asked about schools, and she told him of the Lester Polakov Studio and Forum of Stage Design. This was where college grads went to polish up on how to pass the United Scenic Artists entrance exam. The United Scenic Artists local 829 is the union that represents designers and scene painters for Theatre, Television and Motion Pictures. I did not need that, yet I was still in High School, but I needed to learn how to design professionally. I went to Lester’s studio on west 91st Street and he accepted me into the program. I would take a lighting design class on Saturday morning which was taught by leading lighting designers of the day Peggy Clark, Thomas Skelton and Charles Levy.Summer Stock
That settled it was off the Berkshire Playhouse where I was to be the head electrician for 5 show summer season. There I was in Stockbridge Mass where the other apprentices included a fellow who called himself Tiny Tim, of course I could never get any sleep since Tim would be playing his ukulele all night singing songs like Tip Toe Through the Tulips, later that would become a hit recording. I moved to a friend of my parents house Don Campbell was the town doctor and he and his wife welcomed me like I was their son. I do remember walking into the house and there on the wall was a Norman Rockwell painting of Dr Campbell that had been a cover of the Saturday Evening Post it was the cover with a Doctor about to give a small boy a shot and the kid is on a chair looking at the doctors license. It was there that I met Norman Rockwell who was a family friend. I was introduced to Norm who would often ride his bike to the Campbell’s house. Summer stock was fun. Back in NY I threw myself into learning how to design lighting for Broadway and for cash I worked off-broadway building scenery and hanging lights.
The following summer the Berkshire Playhouse became the Berkshire Theatre Festival and again I was the head electrician. The first show The Skin of Our Teeth starred Anne Bancroft, Estelle Parsons, Alvin Epstein ands Frank Langella directed by Arthur Penn. I was doing pretty good stock. The last show of the season was a new Murry Schisgal play that was not very good but the cast included Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Dustin Hoffman. One Sunday Gene asked if I could drive everyone across the state line after the show to get a drink since Massachusetts was a dry state on Sunday. We go in the car to the State Line Bar where Gene and Estelle wanted to celebrate Arthur Penn having asked them to be in a movie he was making
Bonnie and Clyde.
I was having fun and back in NY the same routine. I had the dumb luck to go to the load in of the Lion in Winter at the Ambassador Theatre where I met the brilliant lighting designer Tharon Musser. She invited me the following week to the Winter Garden Theatre to watch the load in of MAME. I guess I impressed her, I wrote Tharon and said I wanted to assist her. She said she needed an assistant at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Connecticut. I was off and running for the weekly salary of $65. Working on great theatre with an amazing company of actors, designers, directors. There I was at 20 sitting with Cyril Richard, Donald Onslauger, John Houseman, Bill and Jean Eckert I was in heaven.
Towards the end of the summer Tharon said she needed a Broadway assistant and would I be interested. I was interested and the first show was the national tour of Mame starring Celeste Holm then it was plays on Broadway The Birthday Party, After the Rain and The Promise followed by the National Repertory Theatre. Which was a touring rep company. NRT had the privilege of opening Ford’s Theatre which had not had a show performed there since Lincoln had been assonated. There I was in this historic place doing John Brown’s Body and She Stoops to Conquer starring Sylvia Sydney. The following season with Tharon included the musicals Maggie Flynn with Shirley Jone and Jack Cassidy, The Fig Leaves are Falling directed by George Abbott and A Mother’s Kisses starring Bea Arthur directed by Gene Saks that one closed out of town. Also, multiple companies of Mame including the Las Vegas company starring Susan Hayward. I was now 21 and had worked with many star actors and directors but Susan Hayward really seemed special to me. Tharon did not come to Las Vegas, and I had to remount the show alone. There was a scheduled dress rehearsal and Sue comes onstage before the afternoon tech rehearsal and says where’s the lighting man. So, I ran up onstage to talk to her. She said she had been told she had to wear makeup for the evening dress and that she had Ben Nye coming in the next day, but she said the lighting guys always know about make up. So here is a 21 year old talking to an Academy Award winning actress about makeup. I thought for a second and said pretend you are Susan Hayward who has just flown the super constellation from New York and are being met by the press when you land in Los Angeles. She said she could do that, I then added but you will need some false eyelashes. She went to the ladies’ chorus room and borrowed some eyelashes. The next day before rehearsal Sue comes onstage and says Ken I called Ben Nye and told him not to come.
After three years of working on big shows, with all the glamor you can think of, it was time to hang up my assisting shoes. My last job for Tharon was to go to Boris Aronson’s studio and pick up the scenic drawings for Follies.
Then I was on the street out of a job and it was time to try and make it on my own.
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 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 foot prints in the concrete sidewalk in front of the theatre.
I had taken a job as 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 me they could not get the shoes that they wanted for some number. I sat around and then the lighting designer left after the dress rehearsal and Vinnette asked if I could light a new number. 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 sit down companies in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. 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 called changed my life on Broadway.
Phoenix Repertory Company:
My life as a designer was moving forward with one Broadway show “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” that had multiple companies as well as Broadway sending weekly royalty checks and all was good.
In 1972 the Phoenix Repertory Company was resurrected as the New Phoenix Repertory Company with Harold Prince and Stephen Porter as artistic directors. They produced a 3 show Broadway season with my old boss Tharon Musser as the lighting designer. It is now the second year of the Phoenix company and I get a phone call from Marilyn Miller the general manager asking me if I wanted to light the three-show repertory season which would be performed at the Barrymore Theatre. I was not unknown to the company, the previous season I had lit 3 Off-Off-Broadway staged readings that they had produced. I believe Tharon had told them she was not available for the new Broadway season and that they liked me, and should hire me to do it. The shows were The Visit directed by Hal Prince, Chemin De Fer directed by Stephen Porter and Holiday directed by Michael Montel. I did not interview with any of them I just got the job.
A production meeting for The Visit was called on a Sunday afternoon at Hal Prince’s home office in the east 80’s. Remember, I had never met Hal Prince, I get to the meeting and in attendance were the set and costume designers, production stage manager, Hal and his associate Ruth Mitchell. The meeting started and the set was talked though as were all the costumes then the sound cues and finally the schedule was figured out with the stage manager. I was never asked anything and then had this sinking feeling that they did not know who I was. The meeting ends and I go up to Hal and say we did not talk about the lighting, he said what do you want to talk about Ken. This was a good sign he knew who I was. I then said there are two ways to go about lighting the show, one is with shafts of light and lots of shadows. Before I could get the next part of out of my mouth Hal said I love shafts and shadows do it that way. With that in mind I drew my light plot for 3 shows in rep on Broadway.
The Visit opened after an out of town tryout in Philadelphia and was a hit. That spring I received my first Tony nomination for my work on The Visit. That started a 44 year collaboration with Hal Prince that included 5 Plays and 7 musicals on Broadway 6 operas and 1 off Broadway musical. My meetings with Hal were always as easy as the first. For example, when we did Sweeney Todd, Hal handed me a picture of Grand Central Station with light streaming through the windows. From that scenic designer Eugene Lee and I created the original Sweeney Todd arguably one of the greatest musicals of the 20th Century.