Gilbert Hemsley…So Bright Was The Light

The performing arts lost a figure of tremendous stature and influence when cancer took the life of Gilbert Hemsley on September 4, 1983. It was a personal loss to me and to many of our readers. He entered my life at a very critical phase of readjustment of Lighting Dimensions. I first met Gilbert for an interview at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles where Gilbert was getting set for a grueling run of the New York City Opera. After about five minutes, Gilbert had completely charmed me and convinced me that what LD really needed was more of the human side of our business. “Lekos, lekos, lekos, that’s not what our business is all about,” was a favorite theme that he repeated. And he was right. An important part of the editorial redirection of this magazine can be attributed to Gilbert. And for that I am grateful.

The result of Gilbert’s rare approach to education is that there are hundreds of bright, sensitive young lighting people who will be the top names of tomorrow. They were known, with great affection, as Gilbert’s “bunnies.” And his approach to teaching his students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was to thoroughly immerse them into the realities of the professional theatre, opera, and television.

Gilbert’s approach to education was the same as his approach to life. Stated simply, he felt very deeply that one of the most important skills he could help develop in young people was the ability to communicate well. He felt that by reducing things to their essentials, you could minimize the trivia. His approach was simplistic and disarming.

Gilbert was the master of creating the “atmosphere at the desk”. In my interview with Gilbert he explained, ‘The atmosphere at the lighting desk is where all those people concentrate. It’s a focal point. The ashtrays, the pencils, the communication, the coffee cups, the fresh fruit, flowers, always flowers, again one of my signatures. Most people don’t think about flowers. At some of my Broadway shows I now have a pet stuffed frog. When I came in to do Sugar Babies, in New York, at the beginning everything was so tense around me. I had a toy train … when everything got tense I played with my train and we all knew we were getting it on. You know when you get nervous. I once had a gardenia and every time I got tense at some production with Sarah Caldwell, I would spray it and you could hear it pshht … pshtt … pssht. Poor thing got watered to death but it was one of the things I tried to do to take a little of the curse out of it.

“I have what I call the Pistachio Nut Theory for the desk. This is one of my secrets on making directors happy. First of all most directors have just stopped smoking so they don’t know what to do with their hands. I provide white pistachio nuts. They can’t be red, they have to be white (as in cigarette white). They also have to be the giant white pistachio nuts because the nervous nibblers have to feel that once they’ve shelled them, they’ve really gotten something.

“Besides that, I put them in a box with padding on the bottom so that the director can quietly take the “pistachio nuts not out of a bag, but a padded box. This way he can take as many nuts as he needs and nobody else is the wiser. I also provide the director with a beanbag ashtray so he can shuffle off to some dark corner of the theatre and nervously munch his pistachio nuts and put the shells in the beanbag ashtray. There’s a bit of sense in this. Before the director quit smoking he carried an ashtray around the theatre. So he has something personal to clutch to his heart. Besides that you provide a padded wastepaper basket where he can dump the shells quietly before he reaches into the padded box for more …” Gilbert had lots of theories. And most of them made a lot of sense.

Gilbert enjoyed a lot of recognition but it never went to his head. In1967, Gilbert was becoming a major figure in lighting and had just completed the lighting for Sarah Caldwell’s Trojan War. The lighting was stunning. And a review in Newsweek magazine referred to Gilbert as “the Rembrandt of Lighting Artists.” When he went back to school all of his kids started calling him ”Rem.” One day while walking back from a class, Gilbert had two eight inch lekos under his arms and some student said, “Did Rembrandt have to carry his own brushes?” He always appreciated a well put jab.

He claimed that he really didn’t want to become a lighting designer while at Yale, rather he was more interested in some of the other technical aspects of theatre. In spite of that, Gilbert went on to light some of the most prestigious events of the times including the Bolshoi Opera at the Met, the U.S. Tour of the Performing Arts in the People’s Republic of China, the Nixon and Carter Inaugural Galas, and the Bernstein Mass celebrating the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. He also designed over 50 different operas for the Met, Miami, Houston, Chicago Lyric, Dallas, Boston, and Washington Wolf Trap Opera companies. He worked with the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, the Bolshoi, and other major ballet companies.

As a Broadway designer Gilbert did the revised Porgy and Bess, Sugar Babies, and a dozen other major productions. Gilbert also made numerous successful translations of stage productions into television including, The Skin of our Teeth, The Most Happy Fella, and a number of Live from Lincoln Center productions. Time magazine called him the “best lighting designer in American opera. “

Gilbert was the production supervisor and resident lighting designer for the New York City Opera for the past two years. During this time he designed more than 35 major productions for the company. He had been on a leave of absence from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he had served as a full professor of theatre lighting and production management since the beginning of the program in 1970. He had just completed authoring a textbook on lighting design entitled Creative Lighting.

Gilbert Hemsley brought a special dignity and style to our industry, We shall miss him, but his influence will be with us for a long time to come, For whomever Gilbert touched, ever so fleeting, was left a better person. On September 26th a memorial service was held in New York City. Several of Gilbert’s friends, among the hundreds present, paid tribute in a variety of ways, There were dancers from Alvin Ailey’s Dance Company, a few words from Beverly Sills and other friends, The service was taped and a few of the excerpts follow.

Fred Weller

We are here today not to mourn the death of Gilbert but to celebrate his life. Our friend Sarah Caldwell couldn’t be with us, she has a very bad cold, and she asked me to read this statement: “Donald Graham and now Gilbert Hemsley, an outrage. The powers that be have a lot to answer for when they take away the breath of life from two dear friends who so cherished it and knew so well how to live it at its fullest. Gilbert bubbled over with energy and spirit, found joy in every new challenge, and showed us how to make things happen in spite of the odds. No tense dark moment in the theatre could withstand Gilbert’s exuberant laughter. With fresh flowers on his lighting desk and cartons of orange juice and grapefruit juice for all who thirsted, Gilbert would send Fred Scott into the pit to play the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Everyone stood at attention. And so would every final cue-to-cue rehearsal under Gilbert’s direction begin.”

Life I suspect has much to learn from the theatre, All of us who have had the privilege of laughing with Gilly have walked with the angels. Well, I first met Gilbert when I was singing with Sarah up in Boston, she introduced me to him and said, “Be nice to him, your life is in his hands, ” And so I said, “Whatever you do is fine, as long as you can’t see the wrinkles,” And he said, “Girl, you’re a cinch to light.” That was the first time. The last time was the night I retired. And Gilbert had lit me many times in between and we always had this little ritual where I would say, “Be sure they can’t see the wrinkles.” The last night I went through the same ritual and I said, “Gilbert, no wrinkles.” And he said, “Girl, let’s let them see them tonight. You have earned them all.” So we let the wrinkles hang out. When I became director of the City Opera I pursued him relentlessly and shamelessly until he agreed to join us. Gilbert and I would be the first two in the office in the morning. He first, and then I came, and another ritual developed between us, I would get the coffee pot, my back door of the office to the right faces Gilbert’s office and to the left the ladies’ room, and I would take the coffee pot in to fill it. And the ritual went, “Girl where are you going?” And I would say, ‘The motor is a little sluggish I have to put some gas in the tank.” One morning it was so sluggish that I said, “I have to put a goose in the tank.” From that moment on there was a correspondence between us that was addressed “Dear Goosegirl” and signed the “Butterfly.” And I suspect ten years from now when someone comes upon a file addressed to Dear Goosegirl and signed the Butterfly, they will think there were moments of insanity in the City Opera. My room is cluttered with little geese. And most every morning there was a spray of flowers and another little goose sitting there. I never knew why he took the butterfly for a symbol, but in looking back it is a thing of beauty and all it wants to do is spread a little more – and that is Gilbert. He lit all of our lives in a way that goes way beyond a light board. We would be very lucky people if all of us could have the same epithet that he has. And that, to me, is that other people’s happiness was the most important thing in Gilbert’s life. He was a wonderful friend and I will miss him terribly.

Beverly Sills
General Director, New York City Opera

It is indeed an honor to be here and speak on behalf of the Department of Theatre and Drama of the University of Wisconsin and in honor of Gilbert Hemsley. Others have spoken and will speak of his contributions to the theatre and to the art of lighting design. His accomplishments in the professional theatre have been so stunning. So bright was the light that we all basked in the glow of his accomplishments. I am here however as a professor, as the individual responsible for Gilbert’s academic home, and I would like to say a few words regarding our perspective – that is to say the tremendous help that Gilbert gave to the students in our department. Gilbert dropped out of the sky back in 1970. At one point in those trips he was wearing stars-and-stripes trousers. He bustled into a room on campus during the course of his initial interview and without being encumbered by formal university rules and regulations proceeded to tell the waiting audience what light was, what lighting design was, what lighting in the theatre was, and what lighting instruction in the theatre of the University of Wisconsin was and was going to be. He never stopped telling us in one way or another. From his recipe for the opening day of his lighting classes, Bloody Mary (apparently the key was fresh dill), to his legendary spaghetti parties, to the lighting instruments outside his office door.

He lit the capitol building of Madison. We are fond of saying he lit Madison and Wisconsin. Some, when they achieve greatness, forget the foundation upon which their greatness is built. The greater Gilbert grew in fame, the greater the light he cast on those students who surrounded him and wished to be drawn into that light. His heart was as generous as his girth. His spirit was larger even than both his generosity and his girth. He took students at his own expense to the major theatre centers of the world. He introduced them to the rigors of the professional theatre. His dazzling spirit and his magnanimous gestures matched his artistic contributions. Few professors can manage friendship, socializing, artistic achievement, and academic work. Gilbert not only managed them, he created new dimensions. His students loved him as a person, an artist, and in some senses even a provider of spiritual and material nourishment. We will miss you Gilbert but we will try to do all of those things. Have fun, live in the light, and enjoy.

William Elwood
Chairman, Theatre Department, University of Wisconsin

In Gilbert’s program bio he would often list himself as a professor of lighting and life. Just as his lighting was important in his life, life was the most important thing in the way he taught lighting. For those of us who knew Gilbert as students, it is impossible to separate the two. Who would expect on their first day of lighting class with pencils poised and pads ready to be given a recipe for a Bloody Mary or chicken for 70. For Gilbert Lighting 366 was really Life 101. It was an opportunity to share not only a method of seeing light but a way of looking at the world around us and experiencing life. Some of the required assignments in Life 101 included a late- night bar-hopping trip on your first experience in New York as an assistant, the art of xeroxing, or creative plane scheduling. They also included caring for others on the production staff and, well, just looking after somebody.

But the focus of Gilbert’s teaching was his joy of living. For Gilbert life was a special event. The care and planning that went into making a gala or an opening night special was the same care that Gilbert took to ensure that each moment was lived to its fullest. Whether it was outfitting the design table with flowers, beanbag ashtrays, and pistachio nuts, doing nine loads of laundry with a bottle of champagne, taking students to work at the Met, or gathering his T.A.s around the family table for a barbeque and a planning session, Gilbert found a way to take advantage of every moment. But the moments he found joy in, he always found by sharing them with others. Gilbert rarely told us one way to live.

In all of us there was a core that he was able to see and to touch. Limitations were never an allowable excuse. Horizons were only goals to push beyond. He was always searching for a way to reach you. Sometimes he pushed a little harder than we would like. Other times he didn’t give us a clue as to what he expected. And even when he threw you into the deep end and he knew full well that you were going to swim, even if you didn’t, he was already looking ahead to the next challenge. For Gilbert, learning took place in the A&P Supermarket of Life. It was up to us to reach up and take things off the shelf. The teacher only offered alternative aisles. And I think Gilbert’s A&P had a few more aisles than most.

Gilbert had many titles. He was a teacher, manager, designer, counselor, mentor, he was mother, and he was a friend. Those titles have now gone their way, but what we have is a light. We have a family of people who were touched by his vision. We have a way of dealing with things when times get rough, we have a voice that whispers just do it dear, make it happen. Each of us will have special memories of our time with Gilbert. Little things will bring back his smile or his boisterous laugh. For me there is always going to be the blues in Lake Mendota of which he said there were 64. And the sunsets that he loved, and his image of Jeannie Rosenthal or Stan McCandless standing up there giving God levels. I can only hope that the next sunset I see, that the extra touch of red is Gilbert’s doing. There is a poster in Gilbert’s New York apartment which was given to him by some students from Penn State when he guest lectured there. For me I think it sums up the impact that Gilbert had on all of our lives. It is a picture of a person hang gliding, backed by a beautiful sunset. On the poster the students have printed the words, “To Gilbert, for teaching us how to fly.” Thank you, Gilbert, for teaching us how to fly.

Mark Stanley
Lighting Supervisor, New York City Opera

I am wondering when you were adopted. I am very clear about myself I was adopted in 1976. I knew Gilbert before 1976, of course. Some of my earliest professional memories in New York City, with Ellis Rabb and the APA, were of Gilbert. I hesitate to say some of Gilbert’s and my earliest professional memories, because it seemed he was always at the hub of some kind of professionalism. And if you agree with me that to be a professional is a code of behavior as much as credentials, well then, I assume he was born professional. But I was adopted in 1976. I am fond of saying, and this is true, that I was the last person hired for the Sherwin M. Goldman Houston Grand Opera Production of Porgy and Bess that had begun that year. And at the other end of that remarkable occasion, there was Gilbert. Once again, his arms, his heart, his imagination opened to me to catch whatever it was of mine that he thought was significant that should be put on the stage.

I don’t remember honestly much about lighting the shows. I remember the laughter – a lot of it, gales of it. I remember white wine and fresh shrimp. I remember that yapping pack of puppies that were never employed by management but always by Gilbert. They had a great deal to do, and they had a great deal to do with the final results. Oh, I remember the results. In the dozen or so professional experiences that followed, I remember an Aida so breathtakingly ugly that no one could have done anything with it. But he managed to make it glow.

Subsequently in years that followed, after I was adopted, the phone would ring sometimes on the road, sometimes in San Diego, or here in New York, often someone else’s telephone late at night. They would hand me the receiver and at the other end this warm, witty remarkable voice would say quietly and with a rue sense of humor, “it’s your mother”. I was thinking these last few days what an unlikely characterization that was to choose. That many of us who have children I am sure would not necessarily single out that occasion as the salient point of our careers and those of us without children are probably horrified at the idea of telling anyone in this day and age what to do. But he nourished us. It’s remarkable to think of let’s say three extraordinary women like Beverly Sills, Alicia Alonzo, and Sarah Caldwell needing another mother, but they got it in Gilbert and so many of the rest of us did, too.

There are equally people who had absolutely no achievement of that professional standard that were nourished and loved and sustained. There is a lot of talk and thought of light today. The professional light that he put on the stage, and the light in our lives. I feel somehow that if there is now, many years after those first experiences, a light within me that now tells me the things I love and am proud of and the way I want to work, that it was clearly ignited as much by Gilbert as anyone else. And in addition to the memory or the memorial or whatever it is that we feel in our hearts, we owe it to ourselves to look at each other – we the enlightened orphans. I know that I speak for you when I say not only am I proud to be one, I am relieved.

Jack O’Brien
Artistic Director, Old Globe Theater, San Diego, CA

(Reprinted from Lighting Dimensions magazine January 1981 and March 1981 issues. Lighting Dimensions articles are courtesy of Live Design magazine and its parent company Prism Business Media.)