Robert Ornbo, lighting designer, 1931 - 2008

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Robert Ornbo was a brilliant and prolific lighting designer, whose work on over 300 productions ranged across drama, musicals, opera and ballet to events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Royal Tournament, the naming ceremonies of ocean-going liners and events at Buckingham Place for the Royal Family. His influence has had a profound impact on theatrical lighting over the last fifty years.

Robert was the first lighting designer to join me in my fledgling company: Theatre Projects in 1960 and he became Managing Director of Theatre Projects Lighting during its heyday when its team of lighting designers, who included Robert Bryan, John B. Read, David Hersey and Andy Bridge, worked at the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne, the English National Opera, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare, and across the West End.

I first met Robert at the Princes Theatre (now the Shaftesbury) in 1960. I was to light a dubious play named “GIRL ON THE HIGHWAY” for director Peter Cotes. Robert was the theatre’s resident Chief Electrician. Perhaps because the play was so poor, we spent a good deal of time in conversation. Theatre Projects, was then in its third year. We were attempting to break into the stage lighting business in competition to the monopoly company of the 1950’s, Strand Electric. Through surprising strokes of good fortune we had survived and were accumulating some reputation in what was then a very new profession indeed: lighting design. But init
ial success had brought some chaos in its wake and we badly needed help.”

“Would you like to come and work for me.” I asked. Robert replied: “Well, yes, I would.” Thus began a friendship and a lifelong association.

The remuneration was modest - £15 a week, but the timing was appropriate. Robert joined on a Monday and we always joked that he went home three weeks later. Well I was lighting three shows that week and I recall we swapped duties, focussing, plotting and attending rehearsals turn-and-turnabout. We did survive. Twenty productions followed that year.

Robert and I had a favorite catch-phrase: “If we can get through this week-end, we can get through anything!”

In those far distant days, an assistant lighting designer had to double as production electrician, rigger and vital source of support. Robert and I had an amazing partnership. Always elegant and eloquent, he could keep interfering producers away from interrupting our work at the production desk and at the same time spur me onto greater efforts. He quickly moved from being a most indispensable assistant to a designer in his own right.

In 1961 I devised a new system of large-scale scenic projection. Robert was a brilliant mathematician. He performed all the calculations necessary to calculate the distortion of the slides to compensate for angular projection and supervised the photography. Our first show “ONE OVER THE EIGHT” for producer Michael Codron, was a great success and—thanks to the scene designer Tony Walton—led to our designing the projection for the Broadway hit: “A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.”This in turn led to “GOLDEN BOY” with Sammy Davis Junior and other successes on Broadway and in the West End. He later wrote articles on this technique in theatre journals.
Robert’s career as a designer took off: his first show “ENGLAND, OUR ENGLAND” (Princes Theatre 1962) led to the opera “LOVE OF THREE ORANGES” (Sadlers Wells 1963); “SCENT OF FLOWERS” (Duke of Yorks 1964); “TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS” (National Theatre at the Old Vic 1965); “MACBETH” (Royal Court 1966); “MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE” (Royal Opera House Covent Garden 1968); altogether fifty-six productions in his first five solo years.

Theatre Projects Lighting grew. Our two-man design team expanded. Over the coming years Robert and I were joined by many aspiring lighting designers. Through the 1960’s and 70’s Theatre Projects became the center of lighting design in Britain, a unique training ground where young lighting designers could work with top people in the profession. It was an exciting period. Under Robert’s guidance and nurturing a team of designers lived and breathed stage lighting together. Exchanging suggestions and ideas, horror stories, offering help and sharing each others’ opportunities and travails.

Robert’s amazing work enhanced such productions as Jonathan Miller’s “THE MERCHANT OF VENICE” with Laurence Olivier (National Theatre at the Old Vic 1970);  Hal Prince’s “CABARET” (Palace Theatre London 1968) and “COMPANY” (Alvin Theatre NYC 1970 - Tony Award nomination) both with designer Boris Aronson; “PELLEAS AND MELISANDE” (Royal Opera House 1969) with designer Josef Svoboda; “BACK TO METHUSELAH” (National Theatre at the Old Vic) and “THE RING CYCLE” (Coliseum 1971-1973) with designer Ralph Koltai.
It was the latter “Ring Cycle” that caught the attention of Lord Plunket, then the Queen’s Controller. Buckingham Palace rang. “This is Buckingham Palace,” a voice announced to Robert, who recalled replying skeptically. “Oh yeah, pull the other one!” But it was true and Robert began regularly lighting shows at the Palace including the Masque for H.M. The Queen’s Silver Anniversary (1972) and the 90th Birthday Concert for the Queen Mother in 1990.

In 1973 the famous Sydney Opera House was due to open. Theatre Projects was called in to remedy a shortage of lighting facilities. Robert was despatched to solve the problems and stayed to light the opening season starting with the opera “WAR AND PEACE”, again with designer Ralph Koltai. Thus began an extraordinarily international career. Robert led the way for English stage lighting designers operating abroad. He lit productions in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, the Hague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Oslo, Oman, Malmo, and elsewhere.  One of his last productions in 1999 was a large-scale musical in Moscow, proving as he remarked: “You don’t need to speak the language provided they have the same color book.” So successful was his work on the CHOREGIE - a festival of opera and music - for many years in Orange, France that he was honored with the Freedom of that city in 1976.

Robert’s many shows in the West End included: “40 YEARS ON”, “THE RULING CLASS,” “VOYAGE AROUND MY FATHER,” “GREASE,” “HABEAS CORPUS,” “I AND ALBERT,” “JEEVES,” “DAD’S ARMY,” “WILD OATS,” “THE TWO RONNIES,” “PACK OF LIES,” ”I’M NOT RAPPAPORT,” with “TRAVESTIES,” and “LONDON ASSURANCE” both also on Broadway.   He also worked widely in the regional theatre including productions for the Chichester Festival Theatre, the 69 Theatre Company, Birmingham Repertory Company. Bristol Old Vic. Northcott Theatre, Exeter; the Palace Theatre, Watford; the Theatre Royal, Windsor; the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith; the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guilford; and the Birmingham Hippodrome.

For the ballet Robert lit "CREATION DU MONDE" followed by "ANASTASIA" at the Royal Opera House, several pieces for London Contemporary Dance and "GISELLE" for the Northern Ballet Company; for Kent Opera the "MAGIC FLUTE" and for the Glyndebourne Festival “COSI FAN TUTTE”; the double bill "L''ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES" and "L''HEURE ESPAGNOLE".

In 1976 H.M. The Queen had decided to honor the bi-centennial birthday of America with a Military Tattoo at Wolf Trap near Washington DC. Robert designed the lighting for Colonel Leslie Dow, recently appointed as Director of the Edinburgh Tattoo. This led Robert to a lifetime engagement with Tattoos, revolutionizing the lighting for the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Berlin Tattoo and the Royal Tournament for over 20 years.

The world of large scale military spectacles opened up another field for Robert’s talents: the big event. Robert travelled the world: The Royal Horse Show in Oman (1990,1991), the Wedding of HRH Abdullah Bin Hussein (1993) and the HRH Crown Prince Abdullah 50th Birthday Celebrations (with two Jumbo-jet loads of equipment - 1997) both in Jordan, National Day celebrations in Oman, VE as well as VJ Day Celebrations in Hyde Park (1995), and the Royal Dynasty Celebrations in Saudi Arabia in 1999. From the desert to the ocean. Robert became a brilliant specialist in lighting, and eventually producing, the naming ceremonies of the newest of massive cruise liners. The Oriana (1995), Canberra (1997), Dawn Princess (1997), Grand Princess (1998), Sea Princess (1998), OceAdmiral Ornbo in NYan Princess (2000). Indeed the 1998 Celebration for the Grand Princess took place on the Hudson River in New York City. Robert was in charge—radio in hand—organizing the movement of tugs, floating stages and seemingly the Admiral of all he surveyed. I was very proud!

Equally at home in the West End & Broadway, fringe and regional theatre, middle eastern night club, palace, opera house, or vast arena, Robert’s influence has guided generations of designers. Robert was a marvelous communicator and teacher. He lectured extensively in the UK and abroad where his enthusiasm and skills enthralled and inspired many young designers.

Robert was a member of the United Scenic Artists in New York, Equity, and the Society of British Theatre Designers. He was Chairman of the Drama Panel of the Eastern Arts Association and since 2002 Joint President of the Association of Lighting Designers in the UK, of which he was a founder member and ex-Chairman. He also served as Chairman of the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmonds - England’s third oldest working theatre.

Robert was born September 13th 1931 in Hessle, England to Karl Gerhardt (a shipbroker) and Gwendoline Cicely Fenner. He was educated at Hymers College, Hull (1942-1949). National Service in the Far East gave Robert opportunities to indulge in his theatrical inclinations.  As well as performing at the Little Theatre in Singapore he was seconded to Radio Malaya, where he wrote and performed in plays, alongside his contemporaries Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse.  

He returned to England in 1951 and entered his father''s ship-broking business, but the lure of the theatre called and he joined a group of touring actors playing one-night stands. Returning to London he landed a job as a linkman at The Talk of the Town, before moving to the Princes Theatre becoming 2nd Dayman, Ist Dayman and then Chief Electrician.

Robert was married to Rose Harris, whom he met while she was a production assistant at Theatre Projects. They have two sons, George and Sam.

Robert was diagnosed with Pulmonary fibrosis (fibrosing alveolitis) in 2001. Despite a long and increasingly debilitating illness Robert always sought to live life to the full. He was a great host. He and Rose were intrepid travelers visiting Japan to enjoy both the zen culture and the wonderful sushi; the Caribbean for the cricket (a game Robert particularly loved), and many favorite haunts in France. Keenly interested in countries emerging from the communist era, Robert and Rose visited Prague, Budapest, Sophia, Riga, Vilnius, Bratislava and Tallin to visit their classic opera houses and concert halls. In August his son George married and Robert supervised preparations for the event, even through he was finally unable to personally attend. Almost to the last Robert was in touch with friends via e-mail and exercised his always agile mind by enthusiastically completing the Times Crossword every morning.

His many friends and colleagues around the world will remember Robert as a true friend, who was always eloquent, humorous, and witty; a great host and bon-viveur, who enjoyed producing spectacles of his own for family and friends. He was a loving husband and father. His pride in his two sons as they both embarked on successful careers and marriages gave him particular joy.

Richard Pilbrow