Of Madmen and Geniuses, the Magic of Light

“Lighting affects everything light falls upon. How you see what you see, how you feel
about it, and how you hear what you are hearing. Replace the ‘a’ with an ‘e’ and you get lighting effects!”-Jean Rosenthal

While the world celebrated choreographer George Balanchine’s 2004 Centennial, the diminutive woman who had illuminated his work for over 20 years remained an ethereal whisper in the wings. Jean Rosenthal lit the American stage with the genius of her craft and the magic of her art. A futurist and innovator, she was my eldest cousin and mentor.

After three years at Yale University School of Drama, Jeannie was about to make history. During the mid-1930s, her apprentice years with John Houseman, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, the title ‘Lighting Designer’ did not exist until she invented it. By the early 1950s, she was the most sought after lighting designer in America and Europe. Angela Lansbury said of her, “I remember how I felt each time I moved into the atmosphere of light Jean had created for me…till the last spot irised out on my face, and I was thankful for the cover of darkness to hide my tears.”

By age forty-three Jeannie had hundreds of Broadway shows, operas and New York City Ballet productions to her credit; she’d influenced all forms of theater with her ground-breaking lighting techniques and fresh artistic style. At her most creative when lighting the dancer, Jeannie maintained a joyous lifelong association with Martha Graham. Early on, when her mentor Orson Welles asked her to come with him to Hollywood to produce Citizen Kane, Jeannie had to make the toughest decision of her life. Think Goliath versus the elfin maiden. It became the buzz around the dinner table when I was still peeing in my pants. Years later, at a family gathering at the Rosenthal home in Martha’s Vineyard, Jeannie related how difficult it had been for her to say no to Welles. Memory often eludes me; this remembrance remains clear and distinct.

“That colossus of a madman with his charisma and intensity was impossible to resist,” Jeannie told me. But more impossible was the thought of her leaving the theater. After the fourth or fifth time Orson asked her to come to Los Angeles, she prayed he’d stop asking. “When he stopped, I prayed I wouldn’t regret it.” She didn’t. As unconventional as the man who changed the way movies are made, Jeannie shared a commonality with him that became her own dictum: “I passionately hate the idea of being with it; I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.”-Orson Welles

Equally passionate and just as plucky, pint-sized Jeannie stepped to the beat of her own heart all the way to Broadway and beyond. Maria Callas called her “her magician.” Martha Graham could not imagine life without her. George Balanchine controlled everything and everyone including his collection of dancing divas, the three he married: Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClerq…and the one he didn’t, Suzanne Farrell. But when his Four Temperaments opened and flopped because of elaborate European drops, Jeannie rescued it at City Center with her “less is more” blue cyclorama and unique lighting. An instant success, Four Temperaments remains part of the New York City Ballet repertory and Balanchine never did another production without her. Despite the monumental egos of those madmen and geniuses, my feisty cousin was a giant step ahead of them.

During the golden years of the American theater, 1930s to the 1960s (my view), Jeannie considered herself the luckiest person in the world. In her words, “to have come along at the very time Martha Graham was creating and Lincoln Kirstein was backing George Balanchine to create new and fresh uses of the ballet form.” Many of her designs are used today. Her plots have been adapted to evolving technology, but her original concepts and cue placements are the same. Plaza Suite, directed by a young Mike Nichols, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Barefoot in the Park, Judy Garland At The Palace, John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret-over 300 productions carry the credit line, “Lighting by Jean Rosenthal.”

Though Jeannie saw the world through enormous blue eyes, she was the Lilliputian pulling a load five times her weight. From the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan, the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and the Dallas Civic Opera, light was her paintbrush. And for actress Mary Martin, it was always pink gelatin. Fresh and spontaneous like a child blowing bubbles, Jeannie inspired everyone around her with her delicious insight: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” That kind of thinking profoundly impacted my own life. Though certain I would follow in her footsteps, destiny had other plans for me.

I still don’t know a Fresnel lens from a klieg lamp. The technical aspects of some of Jeannie’s focus charts for Hello Dolly are tantamount to quantum mechanics. A technician as well as a designer, Jeannie created magic with her subtle use of gels along with light and the absence of light. Using deep color washes of back and side light, she surrounded performers with lighting that rendered them jewel-like. Some of her complicated hook-up charts, cue sheets and lighting plots are preserved at the Wisconsin Historical Society in the archives of the University of Wisconsin and the research archives of Lincoln Center, New York.

Did inherent respect for their history give the Europeans the cutting edge on sound and light shows? The French are quick to remind us they invented the form in the early 1950s. Jeannie was appalled by the lack of inspiration in American architectural lighting. While Europeans venerated their historic sites, Americans, blasé about their history, tended to ignore or replace them with parking lots. In 1964 she was asked to create a sound and light for the Boscobel Restoration in Garrison, New York. At the time, the Wallace family of Reader’s Digest owned the Hudson mansion, now a museum. She wanted Boscobel to be the archetype for the other aristocratic Hudson River houses and surrounding land, rich in American history and the distinct quality of light captured on canvas by the artists of the Hudson River School.

Jeannie assembled the best technicians and artists in the business, including director John Houseman and actors Gary Merrill and Helen Hayes. Together they created the mood and tempo of time and place; breathed life into the hardy Dutch farmers, the coarse mouthed sailors of the Half Moon, the war over the land, booming West Point canon from across the river and the gracious Boscobel mansion itself. She used state-of-the-art computer technology for that time, described in detail in her book, The Magic of Light, which she wrote with Lael Wertenbaker. Published in 1972 by Little, Brown and Company three years after her death, the now out of print book became the design student’s bible.

While Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were transforming twentieth century drama for the stage, Jean Rosenthal was revolutionizing lighting design. Today’s theatrical and architectural lighting have evolved from her original plots, control boards and cues. And though she had little time for anything in her life but the theater, there were free tickets for me at the box office, free makeup kits for my school plays, frequent lunches at my favorite eateries–Schrafft’s restaurant and the Automat. I was the only kid in William Howard Taft High School who got to see Maria Tallchief and George Balanchine in Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird from center orchestra, seventh row on the aisle. It remains the most exciting performance of my life.

In 1969, as my ailing cousin lay in her hospital bed too weak to hold a pen, she dictated her book into her recorder. At the time, I was working overseas and could not be with her. I’d written to her about my encounter with the touring Igor Stravinsky at the home of our ambassador to Japan in Tokyo. When I shook Stravinsky’s hand I blurted, “I’m Jean Rosenthal’s cousin.” Red-faced, I wanted to crawl behind the nearest silk screen. But the maestro threw his arms around me in the mother of all bear hugs. I couldn’t move. “Ah my leetle Jeenie,” he bellowed, squeezing the breath out of me. “I luff her. She is my vondaful Firebird.” I like to think my letter gave her a good laugh.

After Jeannie’s premature death to cancer, the following icon requested this quote be printed in the margin of her forthcoming book: “I adored Jean, I adored her work, her presence. I never saw enough of her since she was usually huddled with the technical designing people. But the little I did see of her was a constant joy, refreshment and inspiration.”-Leonard Bernstein

Would lighting design have progressed if Jeannie had gone with Welles to Hollywood? Sure. But designers of her generation focused on the art, whereas she was a technician, artist and visionary whose influence lives on. At a recent performance of The Lion King, while captivated by the magic of designers Donald Holder and Julie Taymor, I was nonetheless aware of a familiar ethereal whisper in the wings. Genius never dies.

My website is under reconstruction until 2010. Meanwhile, you can find me at http://newagejournal.com/2007/spirituality/the-eternal-search-for-who-am-i

You can also read two chapters of my novel, The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, Journey of the Heart at http://www.samurai-archives.com/guestart.html

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