When Charles Lisanby was a young boy, he visited his state fair in Louisville, Kentucky. On the midway, he encountered what looked like an ordinary wooden box, set on a tripod, with a lens on its front. Underneath the box was something he thought at first was a mirror.
“I saw myself in it,” he recalls. “But I was in black and white, not color. It was a fairly good image.”
There was a sign by the display, which read, simply, “Television.” Also present on that day: Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of this new technology. Lisanby had read about television in Popular Science magazine. Seeing it for himself, he thought, “‘How strange, and how wonderful.’ I knew this was the beginning of something very important.”
Lisanby’s impression was, of course, correct. What he couldn’t know then, as he gazed at his image captured by that rudimentary camera lens, was how important television would become to his own career — and how significant his contributions would be to the medium. From his roots growing up on a farm in western Kentucky, son of an artist mother and district attorney father, Lisanby would go on to become a three-time Primetime Emmy Award-winning art director and production designer. Along the way, he worked on the first CBS series color telecast and introduced the use of neon on television.
He won two of his Primetime Emmys (of ten nominations) for the 1980 ABC special Baryshnikov on Broadway and the 1988 CBS special Barry Manilow: Big Fun on Swing Street; his first Emmy, encompassing his love for historic architecture, was for the 1974 CBS miniseries Benjamin Franklin.
For his many achievements in television — among them Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, Once Upon a Mattress and Mitzi … A Tribute to the American Housewife, along with specials starring Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Alan King, Bill Cosby and Bob Hope — Lisanby is the first production designer to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
“I had long wondered why there was no designer in the Hall of Fame — but I didn’t think the first would be me!” Lisanby says, sitting in the living room of the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his partner of forty-five years, costume designer and supervisor Richard Bostard. “[Hall of Fame Selection Committee chair] Mark Itkin called to tell me. I was delighted.”
The high-ceilinged room is itself reflective of Lisanby’s work: one focal point, a circular, Georgian-styled window, is from the Benjamin Franklin set, as is the large coffee table. Also on view: nineteenth-century French and English bronzes and a portrait by Andy Warhol, Lisanby’s best friend for ten years, created for the production designer’s twenty-first birthday.
Lisanby had drawn and painted from boyhood. He won a scholarship to study commercial art in Nashville and eventually moved to New York, where he found a job as an illustrator at an advertising agency. While there, Lisanby was asked to design murals for non-agency projects. While working on one at the Friars Club, he was approached by CBS producer-director Ralph Levy, who would go on to direct the I Love Lucy pilot. On this day, Levy had another pioneering project in mind.
“This was 1948 or ’49,” Lisanby recalls. “He said, ‘Would you be interested in seeing our three studios? Mr. Paley wants to know, could [one] photograph ballet for television?’”
CBS chairman William S. Paley wanted to present an afternoon performance of composer Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, at a time when the television broadcast day began at 6:00 p.m. with a fifteen-minute newscast. “CBS had two studios over the main waiting room in Grand Central Station, with a tiny newsroom in between,” Lisanby recalls. “I did a sketch of a bar and swinging doors. I was shown how to make paint, by mixing powder pigments with hot glue and water to get a paste — you didn’t just open a can of paint then! There were three cameras; one stayed focused on a sign that said, ‘Please stand by,’ if anything went wrong.”
Other than a slight delay at the start, the televised ballet went off as planned. Lisanby began to get other show offers. He was hired as an assistant to celebrated English designer Oliver Messel, who was working on a 1951 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. Messel later recommended him to another iconic Englishman, Cecil Beaton, whom Lisanby assisted on the Tony Award-winning stage production of My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, among other productions. “What I learned from both of them — perhaps a certain sense of style — has been my greatest asset,” he notes.
In 1952, Lisanby joined ABC’s new design department, two years later returning to CBS to design the thrice-weekly musical series The Jane Froman Show. His other early CBS credits include The $64,000 Question and the Sunday morning arts program Camera Three. While at CBS, Lisanby worked on color tests for the network and later designed the first CBS series color telecast, an episode of the 1957 music show The Big Record. He began work on The Garry Moore Show in 1958, regularly attending the meetings of the show’s writers, which included Woody Allen and Neil Simon. He wanted to learn as much as possible about the sketches they were devising.
Knowing such details is a key element of his design philosophy. “You have to find out what the show is about — who’s starring, what is the script or sketches,” Lisanby explains. “You really have to service the show, figure out what it needs to say, what it has to say. People have to look at something, and if what they’re looking at bores them, they’re not going to watch.”
In 1970, Lisanby moved to California to work on The Red Skelton Show at NBC. He asked the network’s special effects department if they could find a way to dim neon, which was then too bright for television use. “A couple of days later, they figured out how to do it, with a special dimmer,” he remembers. “I used neon for the first time for the 1971 Emmy Awards. It caused quite a stir.”
Some of Lisanby’s other imaginings have also created quite the stir. For the 1981 CBS special Diana, for instance, he envisioned Diana Ross atop the Forum arena in Inglewood, California, standing amidst her name spelled out in lights and photographed via helicopter, with a cut to a stunt double descending a pole inside, and then a shot of the real singer amidst 20,000 fans.
As for his Emmy Award-winning productions, “My favorite was Baryshnikov on Broadway. It was so much fun!” he says. “Nobody told me what to do — I did anything I wanted to. It was all an imaginary theater: it started with the stage door and a guard, then a stage and an orchestra pit with empty chairs. Then we put other sets on the stage.”
Lisanby’s provocative design for that special provided a stunning backdrop for song-and-dance numbers performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet star, and his guest stars, including Liza Minnelli. “He’s a brilliant designer,” says Dwight Jackson, a governor of the Television Academy’s art directors/set directors peer group. “My whole career is based on what I learned from him: the level of sophistication, repetition of design, how something balances something else, how to make things harmonize and work. Charles is a master at that.”
The director of the Diana special, Steve Binder, also helmed Lisanby’s last television project, the 1998 CBS special, Reflections on Ice: Michelle Kwan Skates to the Music of Disney’s Mulan.
“Charles has a rich imagination,” Binder enthuses. “He can visualize what I can’t quite articulate and define. Mulan is based on a Chinese legend. When he designed the sets — the neighborhoods, the battle scenes — he brought them to life. You really felt you were in China. And he’ll never say you can’t do something because it’s too expensive — he’ll figure out a way to bring it around.”
Lisanby, who is now happily retired, takes a moment to reflect on his long and enduring career.
“The fun was being there at the beginning. You felt as if you were helping to invent a medium,” he says. “And no one had done it before. The main thing I’m happy about is that I’ve had a long and very interesting life, and almost always, I did exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve gotten to work with people I respect, lots of famous people. I did work that was fun and interesting to me. If it isn’t fun, why do it?
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Charles Lisanby's induction in 2010.