Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ken Billington: Lighting Designer, Hello, Dolly! 1994 Tour and Revival Starring Carol Channing and Jay Garner

Ken Billington, Photo: Aubrey Reuben

Manny Kladitis, producer of the soon to be 1994 tour and revival of Hello, Dolly, asked Ken Billington to design the lighting. Ken had already done many Oliver Smith, the designer, shows and they were going to be using the original Smith scenery. Ken loves Manny. Ken is Manny’s lighting designer of choice. He’s a friend and he produces with loving care. He really did a first class production of Hello, Dolly with this company. 
They weren’t “saving money” or it didn’t look like they were!   
The original lighting design for the original production was Jean Rosenthal. Ken had seen the original many times but there is nothing listed anyplace of what the original design was or how it was. Ken sort of made it upset himself.
He knows the show and the show is a given. As stated, he had seen it. 
This was basically going to be a reproduction of the original. The scenery would be based on the originals. The costumes also would be based on Freddy Wittop’s originals, but moved up a notch. They were designed by Jonathan Bixby. Jonathan Charles Bixby (1959–2001) was a costume designer and a founding member of Drama Dept., a New York-based theater company. The original staging and direction, for the most part, would be replicated. Ken knew what the production was. He had worked many times with Oliver Smith. He passed away prior to this production of Dolly.   
Oliver Smith
Smith died in January of 1994 prior to this tour commencing. Ken knew what his scenery was to look like and what Smith would desire it to look like and what he would be happy with. Ken knew Lee Roy Reams who would be directing the production. Lee Roy wanted more chaser lights in the Harmonia Gardens than had previously been done in the design. 
Ken did as Lee Roy desired. Dolly is very much an old-fashioned musical in its approach in terms of full production numbers and book scenes. There is nothing ground-breaking in its structure of how you do a musical. It was sort of very straight forward. Also, everybody knew it was going to be Carol Channing. She was very particular about lighting. You deal with that on the “front half” of the production rather than the “back half” when you are in tech. Ken knew that Carol always wanted all the follow spots on her. He took that to mean she wanted to be “bright.” They toured the brightest follow spots made at the time to every city. One of them was always on Miss Channing. Normally, on a touring show, you use whatever follow spot each theater has and you don’t bring your own unless some venues don’t have them. It is not a standard touring piece of equipment. Ken took what she needed and put it in. It was good and Carol was always of the right intensity. She always believed that brighter was better for comedy. Ken doesn’t disagree with that. Interesting note, when she was on the stage, she would look at all the lights. During tech rehearsals she was so busy thinking about everything else that Ken rarely if ever got notes from her. It was all positive. The show moved along around the country. They got the strategy figured out that when they would go into a new venue. Normally when going into a new venue, they do an orchestra sound check. If a curtain is at eight o’clock, they will bring the company in between four and seven o’clock for an hour to have the orchestra play and have the company sing with the orchestra so the sound department can balance and everyone can hear everything. 
1994 Revival Cast Recording Cover
It’s very standard with a touring musical. At these orchestra sound checks with this tour, the stage manager would also bring in the follow-spot operators and they would cue on stage that moment where she makes her first entrance on the horse cart. They would put that cue on, which is a bright spot, with the follow spots on her. What they learned was that Carol could check the lighting for what she thought it should be as opposed to when she made her entrance when they didn’t do that.  If that didn’t happen, after she dropped her newspaper, she would spend the whole front scene looking for the lights. The lights weren’t at the right places or it wasn’t bright enough. They learned to keep the actress focused to avoid that happening by doing it during the orchestra sound check. 
She could then see what the lights were doing and it made touring life better for everybody.
Ken Billington is very happy with that production and thought it was terrific. They fluffed it up a bit and added a few more extras when they came to Broadway. The show worked exactly the way it should work. It had all the emotional moments it was supposed to have and it looked good. Would he do anything differently with it today? Perhaps. There is much different equipment today.  We are at a different point. That was seventeen years ago. He might think a little differently now but the outcome would be the same.
There were “updates” to the Harmonia Gardens. In the original, the hay and feed store came in on a diagonal. In this production, it was brought out straight forward and pushed downstage. The traveler in the opening, the horse cart, had never been done anywhere except on Broadway. They put that back in. Everything was as close to the original Broadway production than any of the other productions and tours, including London. It was a duplicate of the Broadway original. They utilized roll drops, which had been used nowhere else except on Broadway. 
That is a method of rigging a backdrop when flyspace is limited or non-existent. All of the original drops that fly in for scenes look like they’re rolling down as an olio. That’s the way it was done originally. It is a rigging nightmare. It just takes more time. They had changed that on all the tours with just the drop flying in. With this revival, they went back to doing the roll drops. It was all in the original ground plan so they knew how to do it.
Ken got along with Carol. He knew where she came from. She knew what she knew. She always felt the follow spot needed to be in front of the balcony rail like they are in Vegas. Everything in Vegas is mostly a very low flat angle. Not what is done in theater. She thought that was where the light should be. It’s not practical. It’s not where or how it is done in the legitimate theater. It always goes up in the booth. What Ken ultimately learned about Carol was that it was not about intensity of light, it was about the number of lights. She knew that had three follow spots and thought all three should be on her. Even though Ken had the brightest follow spots made, one of them on her was as bright as sunlight. All three of them would have been grotesque. 
If they didn’t have two follow spots pick her up, when she dropped the newspaper, she would be upset, so they ran two at half intensity. She was happy with that. When they went to one at full intensity, she was upset. They learned her thoughts on lighting and would proceed. 
Quite honestly, it was Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! You have to keep the star happy. Whatever tricks he needed to do that, he did.
Ken also saw Ginger Rogers as Dolly. She was a glamorous movie star on Broadway. He doesn’t know if she was good in the part but she was glamorous. The one thing he does remember is that her microphone was in her cleavage in her dress. 
When she came out during the curtain call to take her bow, she would put her right hand up over her chest so you wouldn’t see the microphone and take her bow. He remembers that very clearly. He doesn’t remember much more. He also went to the closing night performance of Ethel Merman.
Ken went with a producer friend of his, Peter Bridge. They were in the last row of the orchestra. The houselights went to half and the audience started to cheer. 

Ken knew it was going to be a great night no matter what happened. Out of the horse cart, everyone is moving sideways so it looks as if the horse cart is moving at the same time. 

Four people went across and Gower Champion was in the middle of it all doing the dance across stage. That was the only time he was seen that night, by the way.
Ken has done Broadway shows that were much bigger than Dolly. He would put his production in the standard size of a Broadway musical. At the St. James Theater, where Dolly originally ran, the back wall from the curtain is twenty seven feet, six inches. That isn’t very big. Some people’s living rooms are longer than that. 
It is not a lot of room to get a lot of scenery. By the time you get the scenery in, where do you put the lights? Dolly was probably a good size musical for its time.
Dolly fit into the Lunt-Fontaine Theater more easily, because the theater is deeper. There was also no problems on the tour.

Ken loved doing this production of Dolly
He loves this period and style of musical. It’s what he was raised on. Ken is also the guy who designed Sweeney Todd so he understands all of it!
Opening night, he is standing at the back of the house and at the end of Sunday Clothes and everyone is standing on the train, and hanging off of girders, and magenta and yellow and turquoise costumes, it was wild. Ken thought, “That’s the end of an era.” It doesn’t exist anymore. As beautiful and wonderful as it was, it isn’t what is done in the theater anymore.
Ken has always dealt with stars. He knows how a star works. Carol was difficult at times, not unreasonably so. Charles Lowe would always diffuse any situation that got out of hand.
There was a terrible evening with Carol one night. Ken went to see the show. It had been running on Broadway for about a month or so. The show was great. It was just like opening night. Ken saw Thomas P. Carr, the stage manager, and told him the show was in great shape. Thomas told Ken he must tell Carol. Ken walked backstage just as the curtain was coming down. He went over to Carol to tell her so. Thomas said to Carol, “Ken’s here. He saw the show tonight and thought it was wonderful.” 
She had decided that it had been a bad show. There had not been a lot of reaction. She also had a cold. She proceeded to yell at Ken in the middle of the stage like he had never been yelled at in the theater in his life. The stagehands were standing there with their jaws down. She was on such a tirade. When people are that angry, you just let them go. There is nothing else you can do. She said he didn’t know how to light a star, he didn’t know how to light people, he didn’t know how to… 
The show looked great. It was a bad evening for her. Ken just happened to get the brunt of it all. She said, “We just need good old lighting designers.” This was Ken’s sixth Broadway show. It wasn’t like he was new at this. He just let her go. Thomas tried to pull her off of Ken basically. She wouldn’t have any of it. Charles Lowe saw what was going on. 
He intercepted. Carol said, “I was just telling Ken he doesn’t know how to light comedy.” Charles looked at Ken and said, “You know, Ken, George Burns said you can never have too much light for comedy. Now, Carol, let’s just go off and visit your guests”, and he led her off. Ken did get an apology the next day. Where do those things come from? They happen. It had nothing to do with Ken or the lighting. 
It had to do with the fact that she had a cold and a crappy audience that night. Ken knew that.
Ken has never seen that many other Dollys except for the first class productions mentioned here. He has never seen an amateur or stock production of it. 
Hello, Dolly has brought a lot of people to the theater over the past almost fifty years. 
It’s nice entertainment. It works and it does everything it was meant to do. It makes you love the theater. It’s tuneful. It’s colorful. It just has all of the qualities that a sixties musical, which was a good period, has. Ken worked on all of the productions of Mame worldwide, another sixties musical of a period with a glamorous star and costumes and great production numbers. You don’t necessarily see that anymore which is why Ken loves doing the Encores at City Center
You get to see these types of musicals you don’t get to see anymore.
Ken has done a lot with Jerry Herman. He also lit Jerry Herman’s Show with Lee Roy Reams and Florence Lacy on Broadway. Jerry is brilliant. He knows what the public likes and he writes tuneful great songs. He is the eternal optimist and is such fun to have in the theater. Ken also did a concert version of Mack and Mabel. He loves the theater. He loves musicals. He loves the whole event. He’s like a kid in a candy shop. Boy, should everybody be like that. His love of theater is so obvious and it comes through in all of his musicals. 
Even the ones that weren’t so successful are full of optimism and hope and joy in his music. With a Jerry Herman musical, what more could you want?
The first time that Ken heard one of the songs from Dolly, it was Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the title song on the radio.
The Hello, Dolly number comes at the right time and place in the show. The curtain on Act Two opens and builds with anticipation with Elegance. Everything continues to build with The Waiter’s Gallop. Then there is a page of dialogue with waiter’s running around and shouting, “She’s coming!” they’re running and jumping, “She’s coming!” more running and jumping, and finally, “She’s here!” With that kind of anticipation, how could it not work?
A lot is not written about the Horace Vandergelder of this production, Jay Garner. Jay was great. He totally made it work.
Ken knew this was going to be a great Dolly his first time in the rehearsal hall.

Ken also did the Ethel Merman/Mary Martin concert on Broadway. They recreated the Hello, Dolly number. It was May 15th, 1977. It was one of the great evenings in the musical theater. Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, two of the greatest musical comedy stars of the twentieth century doing a benefit. Cyril Ritchard was the emcee. The overture was divided between their hits. They then alternated number after number. Nobody was top billed. When you flipped the program, it reflected that.
They opened Act Two with the Harmonia Gardens set from the original Oliver Smith design with two staircases. They were both standing at the top of each staircase. The Waiter’s Gallop was performed by the leading male stars appearing on Broadway at that time, Reid Shelton, Yul Brynner, Mayor Beame among them. There wasa a chorus line of male dancers, but the crossover of all of the waiters announcing Dolly’s arrival were all celebrities. 
The curtain went up to reveal both Dollys and they both came down the stairs wearing the Dolly gown. Lucia Victor came in to stage it with the original orchestrations. They got to the bottom of the staircase. They sang to each other and when they sang, “It’s so nice to be back home where …”, they looked at each other and then looked out as they sang, “I belong!” There was no passarelle. They did, however, perform the whole number. It was truly one of the great moments of Ken’s life in the theater.
Ken would absolutely love to do Dolly again if the opportunity presented itself. He doesn’t know who out there could do it now. She should be at least forty years of age.
Hello, Dolly for Ken Billington was his learning about the theater. He was in high school when he first saw it. He fell in love with it and thought, “Isn’t this lovely? This is what musical theater is supposed to be.” It’s supposed to be all that color and all that joy and all that happiness and when you leave the building, you are uplifted. He thinks that is something we should all aspire to and look back to. Why did it work? How did it work? More shows should look at that.   
Thank you Ken Billington for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

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  1. Great pictures and great post!

  2. Oh, the pictures! It really takes me way back in time. Thanks for all the work on your post, it has really helped me a lot in my craft. The lighting designers of the past has molded what we have now and we will be doing the same thing for the future generations.