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January 17, 2013

Bill Klages

Libby Slate

Were you to print out the list of credits on the website of lighting designer Bill Klages, you’d find yourself with a document six-and-a-half pages long.

Award shows such as the Primetime Emmys, Tonys, Grammys and Golden Globes? Check.

Specials for such entertainment luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Mikhail Baryshnikov? Check.

Grand-scale special events such as the 1984 Summer Olympics Closing Ceremonies, Liberty Weekend and inaugural galas for presidents John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush? Check.

Specials that have spotlighted figure skaters, circus performers, even competitive cheerleaders? Check.

In all, the list carries more than 300 credits amassed over a fifty-eight-year career that began in the days of live black-and-white television dramas and has continued into the twenty-first century, recently with work on the broadcast lighting facilities of Joel Osteen’s 16,000-seat Lakewood Church sanctuary in Houston and, currently, lighting for the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. Those credits have garnered seven Primetime Emmy Awards, for shows like Dance in America: Baryshnikov by Tharp (1985) and The Kennedy Center Honors (1984) and twenty-three nominations. Now Klages becomes the first lighting designer to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, and only the third designer overall, joining costume designer Bob Mackie and production designer Charles Lisanby.

“I’m stunned,” Klages says, sitting at the dining table of his Santa Monica home, where, appropriately, sunlight streams in. “It’s an honor. No question about it.” An impressive art collection fills the home. There’s a grand piano in the office, which belonged to his late wife, Julie (whose father was stereo recording pioneer Enoch Light). But despite the paintings and the music — Klages himself played string bass in a trio in high school — this master of light, shadow and color insists that what he does isn’t artistic at all.

“I hate to use the words art and creativity, because no designer thinks what they do is creative,” he says. “They devise something. Lighting design is an accumulation of methods. It’s what you think looks good. All of that is inside you, intuitively. Then, of course, there’s this bag of [technological] tricks. And sometimes, you have this revelation on your part, something nobody else has ever done before.”

Perhaps Klages doesn’t see his work as creative because he intended a career in electronics; he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Master of Science degree from Columbia University, and is a licensed professional engineer. Born in Long Beach, New York, to a salesman father and schoolteacher mother, his first job was in research electronics in Nutley, New Jersey.

“It was so dull, I couldn’t stand it,” he recalls. “The people were dull. After [a project’s] development, you spent weeks trying to make it work.”

As it happened, NBC was looking for people with advanced engineering degrees for a training program in television. Klages was accepted in November 1948, working as a video maintenance engineer on such series as Your Show of Shows and The Kate Smith Hour. He was then promoted to video engineer, working on Your Hit Parade. His career was interrupted by a summons for a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, after which he returned to NBC.

“I didn’t want to go back as a video engineer,” he says. “I was always interested in the lighting part, what made shows look good.”

He got his chance via his friend Larry Elikann, a cameraman on NBC’s live anthology drama series Playwrights ’56 (who himself would become a celebrated director). He had been pressing Klages to put his vast technical knowledge to better use and recommended him to producer Fred Coe.

Learning on the job, “I wasn’t frightened at all of that very first show,” Klages says. “Lead me to it. It was great.” Though there were some inevitable missteps — such as the time three bushes wired with light bulbs simulating Southern fireflies abruptly darkened one after the other — but Klages’ intuition, paired with a no-nonsense “get it done” attitude, proved a formidable combination.

“You set goals for yourself,” he says. “Mine were always simplicity and speed. If it didn’t [work in] ten minutes, forget it. The judgment for me is, Does it look good? Lighting is important for the visibility of the environment, but in my terms, it’s creating something that’s visually interesting.”

Klages stayed at NBC until 1970, when he became one of a group of freelance lighting designers working in New York and then Los Angeles at Imero Fiorentino Associates, founded by the lighting pioneer, prior to forming his own enterprise, The Klages Group, in 1983. Since 1995 he has headed the company New Klages, consulting on television facilities design as well as lighting.

Along the way, he developed techniques emulated by other designers, such as mimicking single-camera effects on the multi-camera The Perry Como Show, during which Como would sing several numbers perched on a stool. “We’d do them in dissolves,” Klages noted in his 2001 interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. “He’d be cross-lit, and the next thing you knew, we’d go to another shot, and he’d be front-lit, with a different lighting scheme. We would do the cue during the action. In order to get the results, we’d have to have a certain [light] sensitivity.”

When a West Coast designer phoned to ask how to achieve the effect, Klages discovered that his counterpart was using twice the illumination, proportionately reducing the amount of sensitivity. “He wanted to know what magic I used. My ‘magic’ was the simpler solution.”

True to form, the designer remained unfazed by the star power of those he was lighting, among them Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. “It was never about the fact that they were stars,” he says. “I was too busy. I very seldom had a discussion with the performers — there just wasn’t time. I was always very, very concerned about how they looked, and they were going to look good.”

Indeed, feeling confident about her appearance freed her to give her best performance, says Marlo Thomas, who has not only hired Klages for specials she’s starred in, and sometimes also produced — Free to Be … A Family, Love, Sex … and Marriage — but has even scheduled shoots around his availability.

Having also worked with Klages on telethons and other fundraising campaigns for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded by her late father Danny Thomas, the actress recalls the time when Klages was already booked for the one day she could fly to Los Angeles from her New York base to shoot. “We got somebody else. I was very upset when I saw how my father looked, and the kids. We’re talking about dying children — they couldn’t look dreary. I called Bill in tears. He said, ‘I’ll be right there.’ He ran over, adjusted the lighting, and ran back. He had all the sensitivity for the kids.”

Other longtime collaborators also applaud Klages’s talents and work methods, but emphatically dispute his view that he’s not an artist.

“He has a feel for it,” says producer-director Walter C. Miller, who met Klages in the NBC training program and worked with him on numerous Grammy and Tony Awards ceremonies and other shows. “It’s not just throwing up some lights. He reads a script, a play, and [devises] a theme. You’ve got to be fast for award shows, and look at the types of music, get a feeling for what you’re doing, to complement the music. He wants to tell a story.”

Producer-director Steve Binder, whose many mutual projects include The Big Show, Beauty and the Beast: A Concert on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus specials, agrees: “Bill is part of the creative process. I leaned on him very heavily. He taught me so much. The lighting designer is listening to the music, getting his own feeling for the mood and colors. With the ice shows, there could be thirty camera set-ups. We’d sit and talk with the art director and set dresser — it would be a real collaboration. And with the circus, we had high wire acts doing death-defying live tricks. The lighting designer had to ensure that the lights weren’t blinding them, or they could take a fatal plunge.”

Says production designer/art director Rene Lagler, who collaborated with Klages on the 1984 Olympics Closing Ceremonies: “Bill has a very sensible way of approaching lighting. And he almost intimidates you, because he knows so much! A lot of his work was done before ‘intelligent’ lighting [automated, movable lights]. Now, you can make changes on the fly, but then you had to know what you were doing before you got on camera.”

Klages protégé Greg Brunton, who got his New York television break with a Sesame Street lighting job thanks to Klages, and has since won three Primetime Emmys, notes that the designer’s lighting plans rarely had to be changed for camera, and even then, perhaps by one light. “Bill’s self-taught. He has this sense of contrast — the performers pop out of the background, which is incredibly sculptured, with a sense of light and dark. He has a sense of portraiture, women always look fabulous, with simple, simple lighting. It reminds me of [famed photographer] George Hurrell’s portraiture.”

Hosannas notwithstanding, after designing for decades, Klages believes that his current project, the George W. Bush Presidential Library, will be his last. Reflecting on his long, multi-faceted career, he says, “It’s been an awful lot of fun. Why shouldn’t it be?”

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