Jules Fisher & the 2014 Wally Award

Monday, June 2, 2014

I had the honor of presenting the 2014 Wally Award for Lifetime Achievement to the brilliant Jules Fisher. Herewith my speech extolling his achievements.:

Friends & colleagues,

I’m honored to be invited to be part of the Broadway Lighting Masterclass for a special event: to present a Wally Award named after the late Wally Russell, to your leader, our inspiration, and guru to us all: Jules Fisher,

First I need to remind you about Wally. He was a unique human being, a lighting designer, philosopher, technical director, astronomer, theatre consultant, business man, and entrepreneur.

Wally headed Rank Strand during the 1970’s, a period of dramatic revitalization. Later, maddened by the bureaucracy of the owners, The Rank Organisation, he joined me at Theatre Projects, became technical director of the Los Angeles Opera, and a board member of Varilite. He was the first lighting designer to use an all-Varilite rig for the famous David Hockney designed Tristan & Isolde; he advised ETC on the Source 4 specification . . . and altogether helped change our world. 

When Wally died prematurely in 1992,  a group of his friends decided to create a trust to memorialize his name: The Wally Russell Foundation. In the twenty two years since, it has given annual grants to Lighting Interns at the Los Angeles Opera, and more recently to the Canadian Opera. An award has been presented to a special “Newcomer of the Year”, and an annual “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award — The Wally” has been given to an illustrious list of luminaries in our industry. This year, I’m grateful to the USITT for taking on responsibility for the administration of the award.

Today it is my extraordinary pleasure to present the Wally Award to one of my oldest friends here in America, and one of this country’s greatest ever lighting designers: Jules Fisher.

I think it was Ed Kook, the legendary head of Century Lighting, who introduced me to Jules in the early sixties. Kook championed design and designers, he had supported Wally Russell, and he certainly eased my way as a strange Englishman onto the Broadway scene. But Kookie recognized Jules’ extraordinary gifts soon after he first arrived in New York from Carnegie Mellon.

I remember meeting a small, rather shy man, rather quiet, until you got him going on his two favorite subjects, magic, and light.

And what a magician of light he proved to be. After 50 years, with over 300 legendary productions on Broadway, a record of constant innovation, and breakthrough work in rock & roll, ballet, opera and film. Thank God for his extraordinary film work. Most stage lighting is instantly forgotten, but Jules’ work, with his brilliant partner Peggy Eisenhauer, on such epics as “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls” is forever captured.

Jules has been nominated for 20 Tony Awards and won a record-breaking nine. This I know to my personal cost . . . I’ve had only two nominations, both times up against my friend . . . and of course I lost!

In 1970, Jules came to my office in London and I showed him the designs for the National Theatre, then starting construction. At lunch I told him that I was about to light a new Broadway musical “The Rothschilds,” and had he any ideas for a bright assistant for me. He suggested a girl named Molly Friedel, who had been his student at NYU. We spoke by telephone and I hired her. Today, of course, sexual harassment, is rightly taboo and indeed against the law. In those perhaps more romantic times, I eventually married Molly and we now have a beautiful daughter, Daisy. So thank you Jules for the introduction.

A few weeks after Molly arrived in London, Jules rang and asked if I was tied up that weekend. I said no. He suggested I fly to Paris and give him a helping hand with lighting “Oh Calcutta.” He’d lit the show in New York and I another version in London. I thought that would be a cool excursion for my new girl friend, so agreed. We walked into the theatre in Paris and found Jules at the production desk in a chaotic theatre with a dress rehearsal about to start and lots of naked French folk.

“Thank God, Richard, you’re just in time. I’ve focussed, you know the show. Thank you so much! I must rush . . . plane to catch! Goodbye!”

And he left. I flashed through the channels, and quickly began to light though the first tech. Luckily the costumes . . . mostly birthday suits . . . were familiar, and Molly and I had a great weekend with our new French friends. Thank you Jules again.

Our careers have had other parallels. Jules too has a fine international theatre consulting practice, led by Josh Dachs. He has been a successful producer as well. And he’s gone so much further: He’s been the production supervisor for major Rock & Roll spectaculars and other major events. Fisher, Marantz, Stone is one of the world’s top architectural lighting practices.

But it is Jules the artist to whom I’d like to pay greatest homage. He is both an extraordinary artist of light and a remarkable poet on the subject.

Whenever I hear Jules talk on light I’m transfixed. Not since Robert Edmond Jones has light been described so exquisitely. 

His dedication to sharing his creativity is legendary. The creation of the Broadway Lighting Masterclasses has been so important in underpinning our favorite art form—lighting design.

So, thank you Jules, yet again for leading our wondrous profession so eloquently and lighting the stage with such clarity, lucidity and always beauty.

I must close with a quote from Robert Edmond Jones: 

“The secret lies in our perception of light in the theatre as something alive. 

Does this mean that we are to carry images of poetry and vision and high passion in our minds while we are shouting out orders to electricians on ladders? 

Yes, that is what it means.”

Thank you Jules for keeping the spirit . . . and the light alive.

Richard Pilbrow
Friday, May 30, 2014