Ken Billington: A Performing Arts Legacy Project site

Summer Stock to Broadway

With no college education in my future and knowing exactly what I wanted to do I thought, 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 mornings which was taught by leading lighting designers of the day Peggy Clark, Thomas Skelton and Charles Levy.

Summer Stock

That settled, it was off to the Berkshire Playhouse where I was to be the head electrician for five-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, 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 doctor’s 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 NYC 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 and Frank Langella, directed by Arthur Penn. I was doing pretty good stock. The last show of the season was a new Murray 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 went 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 NYC 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 Oenslager, 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 assassinated. 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 Jones 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 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.