Ken Billington: A Performing Arts Legacy Project site

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 were 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 and faded the lights up by 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 Mielziner 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 four 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 universities 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.

To be continued…