EDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK. In “Break a Leg” part 2, Jeremy recounts, through anecdotes and images, his journey in theatre design from South Africa to London, and ultimately Los Angeles.
DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
Break a Leg, Part 2
My journey in theater design continues in London and Los Angeles
Leaving Africa for the first time was an exciting adventure. After we graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1967, my friends and I bought cruise line tickets to England and on the way we stopped at major ports on the West African coast. When the ship was passing through the Suez Canal, we went into Cairo to see the Pyramids.
The day that we arrived a bomb had been dropped that had partially hit the Egyptian Museum. We visited the museum early in the morning and immediately went upstairs to see King Tut’s Treasure. As we walked into the great hall, we could see broken concrete on the marble floor. A glass case had been smashed by a piece of falling concrete and some of the treasures had narrowly missed being destroyed. It was early in the day and the museum staff had not yet seen the damage—I remember some gold artifacts that we could have easily grabbed, starting our trip to Europe with a treasure heist. What a way to see the fabled treasure of King Tut!
As we exited the museum, we started to hear bombs being dropped across the Suez Canal on Yemen and got a message to get to our ship in Alexandria as soon as possible. Catching a taxi, we boarded the ship just as it hurriedly left for Brindisi. We had just witnessed a bombing incursion that lead up to Israel’s Six-Day War with its Arab neighbors.
When we arrived at the port in Brindisi, we took a train to Victoria station. When I was learning to read, I always thought that the trees and barns in my reading books were not drawn correctly—the barns were made of wood and the trees looked like lollypops instead of having flat tops. Now, as I looked out the train window at the English countryside, I recognized the ‘lollypop’ trees and cute wooden barns of my primary reader.
In London we stayed with Joan Wulfsohn, a friend from Cape Town. Her husband knew the owner of a hip club called The Speakeasy, a favorite late-night hangout for the music scene, and he arranged for us to get in. I remember the date: it was March 24th, 1967.
Filing down the stairs to the club, we were passed by four guys that looked really familiar, maybe friends from college. We stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked back and they stopped at the top and looked back down at us. I suddenly realized they were the Beatles!
As we walked into the club, Procul Harem were performing A Whiter Shade of Pale, Jimmy Hendrix was at the bar, Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, was having dinner and the club was filled with the fashionable Hipsters of the day—we had hit the epicenter of Swinging London!
After that first night, I never wanted to leave The Speakeasy and become a regular. I met Brian Epstein and Robert Stigwood, who managed Cream and the Bee Gees and even got my very first London job doing an album cover for the Bee Gees Greatest Hits, which I drew on my bed with colored markers. London in 1967 was the beginning and end of all that was desirable to this twenty year old. It was the English Summer of Love and I was at the heart of the pop culture!
The actual beginning of my career can be traced to a glowing end of a cigarette butt moving towards me at two in the morning on the beach of Juan-les-Pins in the South of France.
I had spent the summer of 1968 hitchhiking through France and Spain. The plan was to hook up with my South African Friends who had landed a job dancing in a casino in Juan Lapin in France, but I arrived so late that the season was already over and my friends had long gone. I had a plane ticket from Paris to London and not a penny left, so I decided to sleep on the beach and start hitchhiking to Paris in the morning.
It was illegal to sleep on the beach so when I saw a glowing cigarette butt bobbing towards me, I thought it was a gendarme. I hurriedly got out of my sleeping bag and pretended I was just taking the night air.
The cigarette butt got closer and closer and then a very English voice said. “Oh, you gave me a fright. What are you doing here?” He turned out to be a gentleman on the last day of his vacation and was taking a final walk on the beach.
After miming my way through Spain and France I was pleased to have a person that spoke English and pretty soon I launched into the story of my very short life, and my quest for a career. The hours passed with storytelling and he took me to breakfast. As we parted, he said “Oh, by the way here’s my number. Call me when you get back to London, I might be able to help you.” He handed me a piece of paper with his name, “John,” scribbled on it.
A month later and rather desperate for work, I found the little piece of paper in my passport with “John” scribbled across the corner. When I called, he remembered me and invited me to dinner. The first inkling I got that he was a man of influence was when a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce picked me up from our flat in Finchley. As I was whisked away, I could hear my friends yelling “Slut” after me.
During an amazing dinner, where the waiter to my utter amazement ,applauded my menu choice, I found out that “John” was John Van Eyssen, Columbia Picture’s Head of Production, and as he put it, “I’m a little too high on the chain to be of direct help, but I will introduce you to someone.“
Through John’s introduction, the next day I was having lunch at The Casserole, a trendy restaurant on the Kings Road with Ned Sherrin, the Producer/Director of That Was the Week that Was, a groundbreaking sketch comedy TV show staring a young David Frost. During the meal an anxious looking man came up to Ned and said that he had just been hired to be the production designer on “European Eye”, a TV Movie, and was desperate to find an assistant. My hand was immediately in the air, and with the apparent approval of Ned Sherrin and John Van Eyssen, Michael Wield, the production designer, gave me the job, that was to start the following day. There was only one problem: I had never been on a movie set! I spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Chelsea Library (no internet in those days) doing a crash course in Art Direction and Cinematography. The job worked out and no one ever knew I had never been on a movie set before.
During the filming of the picture, the American director, Lamont Johnson, discovered I was raised in the African bush. He told me he was directing a play in Los Angeles, Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw novella, The Adventures of A Black Girl in Her Search for God and would I like to read it and do some sketches? I did and he took them with him when the production ended.
After European Eye wrapped, I got a job as an Assistant Art Director on another movie, Where Eagles Dare. One day I was frustrated with the work of a scenic artist and picked up his paint brush to show him how to use it. Within two hours, I was fired and off the lot. Lesson learned: Don’t mess with the Union!
A couple of weeks later I was slumped on the floor of my apartment, depressed and completely without a plan when the mail slot started to jiggle and a huge envelope landed on the floor in front of me.
It was from the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and contained a contract, plane tickets, a salary advance, multiple indefinite work visas and even a scenic union membership. A week later I was on a plane to fame and fortune in Hollywood. At the time, I took it for granted, but looking back, I owe everything to Lamont Johnson and Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Center Theater Group. These days that sort of a golden handshake is rare if not non-existent. I was given an indefinite H1 visa which allowed me to come and go in the US as I pleased. Unimaginable today! It turned out to be the biggest gift any young designer could have: a ticket to Los Angeles, an indefinite work visa and a contract to design the sets, the masks and costumes for Christopher Isherwood’s play at the Marc Taper Forum Theater.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, it was the beginning of what was then known as the black power movement and because of my own African roots I was in full support. I was so excited to be designing a project that was part of my life and jumped in with my sleeves rolled up.
About two weeks into the project, the actors had heard that I was from Africa and didn’t want to have a “racist South African” working on the play. In their minds there was no difference between Rhodesia and South Africa, so I was told by production to “keep a low profile” on the day that we were going to meet Dumisani Marire, the African music consultant. Dumi was from the Shona tribe and a master of the mbira, a thumb piano made of iron keys fixed to a wooden body. When he played it, he could produce several melodies at the same time. He was also a master of the marimba.
Through an amazing set of coincidences, Dumi and I ended up embracing in a homesick hug as it turned out he was from the same place I grew up and had even visited our farm because he was friends with the ranch herdsman. Our tearful embrace was witnessed by the whole cast and we spoke to each other in Ndeble, our second languages. The cast stared wide-eyed, when Dumi said to them, “You are Americans not Africans; Jeremy is an African American!” After that, I was accepted and made a wonderful friend of Susan Batson, who played the ‘Black Girl’. Together, we worked out a costume that looked sort of authentic and that she could perform in, but in reality, a young black girl in the 19th century would not have been covered.
The director wanted to do something interesting for a nightmare /dream sequence. Having just left London at the height of the swinging 60s, I had been to a few events at the Round House in Camden Town, in particular a Cream concert, and had been inspired by their psychedelic liquid light shows. I was an inexperienced designer with a lot of ideas and none of the practical knowledge that encourages prudence in a more experienced designer, so waving my arms grandly, I told Lamont that we should do a live oil on water drop show over art work with a projector. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what was involved technically.
Luckily, I was given a lot of support and encouragement from everyone at the Center Theater Group. The production supervisor and technical director was John De Santos who went on to become a Disney Imagineer and producer of Disney’s Broadway musicals hits. Without losing a beat, John said he would rent a 40mm projector, a behemoth that was used in Drive-in movie theatres. I painted the art work and they filmed me with an eye dropper filled with Dr. Martins dye, dripping blood on the cross. It was an amazing effect and the beginning of my romance with giant screens.
The show was a success and I was hired to do three productions for the new Theater for Now series, including Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of his novella, AMeeting by the River and Audrey Beardsley’s The Neophyte. Not a critically acclaimed play, but I was rather proud of my solution. I had very little money to do sets and costumes. I painted the costumes as Beardsley Costume masks that doubled as scenic pieces when not in use.
The Center Theater Group, its Artistic Director, Gordon Davidson (who sadly passed away recently) and Lamont Johnson started my professional career by giving me the most amazing opportunities. Through Al Nickel and Lilly Fonda at the Western Costume Company (See future post on Costumes) I was able to assist Cecil Beaton for a Civic Light Opera Production of My Fair lady and was also the assistant costume designer to Miles White on the Civic light Opera production of 1491.
After a year of what was evolving into a promising career in theatre, I still had it in my mind that I wanted to be a painter so instead of staying in LA—what any sane person would do—I took my year’s savings and moved to Italy, first to Positano, then Rome, and started working on a series of paintings for a show in London.
Three years later I was back in Los Angeles with a show that my friend, Kenny Solms, had arranged in a gallery on La Cienega Blvd. Jim Trittipo, a well-known and respected set designer came to the show, bought three paintings and hired me as his assistant for a Broadway production of On the Town, a great introduction to the Broadway theatre scene. Jim Trittipo, in turn, introduced me to Rene Lagler who hired me to be his assistant on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for a TV variety show that started my TV design career and put theater on hold!
I have had some wonderful moments during other theatrical productions. I had the honor of designing a few shows with Joe Layton, the famed Broadway director/choreographer, whose presentational style had a big influence on my creative process. Joe had a way of taking people by the hand and leading them through the production beat by beat. The first show we worked on together was a musical by Bob Magoon (Thirteen Daughters on Broadway) called Aloha. It opened in Honolulu and was an environmental show where scenery was ‘in the round’—a full three sixty degrees.
I learned a big lesson on this show: the audience wouldn’t turn around to look at the Volcano set behind them, but would stare resolutely ahead even as they were hearing the voices of the scene in progress. In order to combat this, Joe had to figuratively take the audience by the hand and lead them to each scene. He directed the cast to make exits by walking through the audience and passing by the satellite stages. The most memorable note I got from Joe as I kept adding greens to the stage: “Jeremy you’re killing me with the plants!”
A few years later I met Jacques Heim, the brilliant director/ choreographer/creator of the Diavolo Dance Company. He asked me to design some set pieces for him and of course I jumped at the opportunity. I eagerly awaited his concept and I couldn’t wait to hear the music for the piece; just what I like: being told what to draw. His answer stunned me. “I have no music and I don’t know what I want to do… You design me an interesting structure, and I will use it as inspiration and create the dance around it.” I did three pieces for Catapult and was honored with a Lester Horton award for Dance Design. Lesson learned: Maybe I don’t have to be told what to draw anymore!
The Latin Quarter was a show that Kenny Ortega, the brilliant choreographer/director, conceived around the world of Latin music and dance at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. The set needed to change from Brazil to Spain to Mexico. I had just finished a corporate car show using projectors on small screens that were seamlessly integrated by a Dove operating system. For Kenny’s show, I designed a generic Latin set and used the Dove software to change the scenery using multiple slide projectors. The use of this technology was a little ahead of its time and we were proud of it, but the downside was that the slides were not quite as powerful or vibrant as we had hoped. If only we only had the powerful texture mapping systems that we have today!
In the last ten years, I’ve had the extreme pleasure to design many sets for Princess Cruises’ on-board theaters—a pure delight for me as the Princess staff is so professional, clear and most of all very creative. These shows were wonderfully inventive, colorful, and fast-paced musicals.
There is very little room on board the cruise liner theater, especially as three different productions had to be pre-loaded onto the stage. I loved the challenge of creating scenery that folded up into small pieces, drawing on my experience from touring shows, and with the help of the experienced production team at Princess we were able to load the stage with full scenic production.
The last one I did with EDC designer Alex Calle was Magic to Do. Princess Cruises had made a deal with Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for Broadway hits like Wicked and Pippin. Fusing music and lyrics with classic stage magic illusions, the show raised the bar for onboard entertainment with a full Broadway production team.
Looking back at my career, it has been an amazing ride and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to design for so many different entertainment platform—Theatre, Film, Television, Live Shows, Attractions, Theme Parks and Touring Music Concerts—but it was my early training in theatre design that gave me the foundation, discipline and confidence to always say “yes” to any opportunity that presented itself.