Lightshows in Seattle

  • By Robin Oppenheimer
  • Posted 5/14/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4173
The first lightshow in the Seattle area occurred on November 5, 1966, when KRAB radio (one of the first community-based FM radio stations in the country) held a benefit concert in Kirkland. It was this event that birthed both the Union Light Company and Lux Sit and Dance lightshows. Though short-lived, this history is rich in stories and characters, and connects Seattle to both East Coast and West Coast lightshow histories that had different roots, cultures, and aesthetics.

The Union Light Company (1966-1968)

The Union Light Company (ULC) was at first a fictional name for a non-existent light show that then formed spontaneously around the 8-10 people who showed up to jam together and present their own images and colors, using their own unplanned mix of film, overhead, and slide projectors. Ron McComb, Lorenzo Milan (founder of KRAB radio), and Charles Kraft came up with the name “Union Light Company.”

The Union Light Company (ULC) consisted of six artists who lived and worked together during the time of the lightshow’s short run in Seattle and New York City. The six members were Carol Burns, Ron McComb, Annie Duggan, Ron Moe, Julia Shumm, and Quentin Rhoton, and they each performed different aspects of creating, producing, and presenting the lightshow.

Ron McComb studied art at the Portland Museum Art School. He worked with Quentin Rhoton and Arnie Duggan to wrangle all the lightshow equipment, shopping in thrift stores for used slide projectors, motors, overhead projectors, color wheels, film projectors, lab stands, clamps, theatrical lights, etc. Carol Burns studied to be a documentary filmmaker at Stanford University near San Francisco, where she saw her first light shows in 1965-1966. They all created thousands of slide images, making copies of photos from magazines, newspapers, and other sources, and buying “found” slides in thrift stores.

Carol Burns likens the ULC lightshow to a jazz performance. It was not a series of random images and colors thrown around in a room. It had themes with variations, based solely on the band’s music and the uniquely spontaneous interaction the company felt with the audience and the music that night. They encouraged people to bring their own images and join in the lightshow-making process, but few people took them up on it. Paul Dorpat characterizes their show as being Dada-like in spirit. They had a sense of absurdist humor that came through in the images they chose to project with the music.

Their time in Seattle was short, lasting from their first coming-together in November 1966, to late July 1967, when they left Seattle with the band Country Joe and the Fish to be their lightshow in New York City. After an adventure-filled trip across the country in an old hearse, the ULC performed at the Café Au Go Go with Country Joe and the Fish. The band was not well-received, being too political and too laid-back for New York audiences. But the ULC attracted all types of artists, questionable entrepreneurs, and a true financial Angel named Michael Mayerberg, who had also supported off-Broadway Theater of the Absurd productions and Walt Disney.

According to Ron McComb, he was “the real thing” and he was the ULC’s “bread and butter” for about six months. He bought the group a studio space with a darkroom, copy stand, and expense account; paid them to develop their lightshow; and made them the “house” lightshow at an old Loew’s movie theater that was converted to a dance hall called The World Theater in Westchester Co. outside Manhattan. They played with performers like Tiny Tim, The Mothers of Invention, and many others.

ULC stayed in a rent-free loft in lower Manhattan and worked with a group called The Group Image that Carol Burns describes as “a tribe like only New York could produce -- they own a club, have their own Band (The Group Image), do commercial advertising for hip Madison Avenue companies, work with magazines on ‘psychedelic’ layouts (they designed the Time cover on hippies).”

ULC and The Group Image “moonlighted” at the Cheetah, at Broadway and 53rd, and at the Palm Gardens near there. Ron McComb adds, “I would not want to leave out Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm at the Palm Gardens. The Group Image were hip businessmen but had no clue about how to make the Palm Gardens happen the way it did. Without the ULC and Wavy Gravy as MC it would have been just another boring New York business venture.”

The ULC soon realized that the Mafia ran The World dancehall where they performed, and three of the members returned to Seattle in late 1968 as the commercialization of the hippie culture ended “the dream.” “We all believed that there was going to be a new world, a new consciousness. It was a transformational time” says Ron McComb, that soon degenerated into automated lightshows and discos in the early 1970’s run by organized crime."

Lux Sit and Dance (1967-1970)

Basic Members: Don Paulson, Scott Rohrer, Sharon Bealls, Rick Lotz, Russell Burton, Saulius Pempe, Richard Frahm, Tim Kyle; Contributing Members: Steve Lervold, Diane Scott, Michael LaRue, Don Pospeshil, Dan Brickbauer, Tom Joiner, Tim Hadlett, Bill, Tracy and Mary Sherhart, P. J. Doyle, Tim Nolan, David Coleman, Patra Leaming, Bryan Kollman, Penny Clay, George Comito, Mark Allen.

Lux Sit and Dance was organized by Don Paulson, a visual artist and E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) Seattle chapter member, in January 1967 in Seattle. UW student Scott Rohrer suggested the name of "Lux Sit," ("Let there be light" in Latin) as it is on the University of Washington seal. The local joke at a campus dance was to say to your date, "Lux sit and dance" (let’s sit and dance).

As Don Paulson writes in his unpublished personal history:

“Lux Sit probably did more to acquaint the public at large than any other lightshow group, especially the so-called Establishment …. Lux Sit never considered themselves hippies although they agreed with the good that eventually came from the movement. Lux Sit members were already in the professions. Don Paulson was an artist with paintings in the collections of the Seattle and Anchorage Art Museums, City of Seattle, and other corporate and private collections. Scott Rohrer and Rick Lotz restored old wooden boats and sailed sailboats in races for wealthy clients. Russell Burton was an interior designer and assisted in decorating the Governor's Mansion. Kathy Baird was a hair stylist at the House of Edward. Sharon Bealls was a professional model for Jay Jacobs. Saulius Pempe was a professional photographer and Richard Frahm was an engineer for Lockheed Aircraft. Due to our combined contacts with the Establishment we fell right into their needs for a piece of the counter culture.”

Don Paulson and Andy Warhol’s Factory (1966)

Don Paulson was born in Seattle. He became a Pop Art painter and moved to New York City in 1966. He was befriended by Ivan Karp (who discovered Andy Warhol and was the Director of the Leo Castelli Gallery). Karp encouraged Paulson to continue painting, and introduced him to Warhol at a Thanksgiving dinner. Paulson writes:

"The Factory was outrageous, far from the mellow hippie lightshow concerts beginning to happen on the west coast. This hard edge, eastern approach to art was the reason San Francisco hated the Velvets and Andy Warhol. Some felt however that the hard edge east coast best reflected the social/political climate of the day and that the San Francisco hip scene was on some kind of fantasy trip and more geared to Folk than Rock …”

“I hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory and attended Warhol’s and the Velvet Underground’s first public gig together at the Cinematheque (February 8, 1966), New York’s underground movie theater a la Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Brakhage, etc., and Warhol’s new career as filmmaker. This event was a prelude to the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” at the Dome … The multi-media experience was just beginning to be identified along with the ‘Environments’ of Claus Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’ etc.”

“It was an event that caught everyone’s attention so everyone was there -- 300 or more people crowded into the small basement theater, Gerard Melanga, Yoko Ono, Eddie Sedgwick, Billy Name, Eric Emerson, Henry Geldzahler, Mario Montez, Ondine, Taylor Mead, Nico, etc …. Andy was surrounded by people. He was quiet but with a pleased, fascinated look. ‘Isn’t this great’ he said. Warhol wrote, ‘we all knew something revolutionary was happening. We just felt it. Things couldn’t look this strange without some barrier being broken.’ ”

Birth of Lux Sit and Dance Lightshow (1966-1968)

Paulson returned to Seattle in March 1966 where he met people interested in light effects. He writes “Artist Steve Lerrold introduced me to Living Room Light Shows that he and his friends were doing with projectors, liquids, prisms and fog machines …. Members of the Union Light Co. and others such as Tim Harvey, Chuck Trimble and Jeff Collum were also experimenting with light and theater …. The counterculture were beginning to network in the coffeehouses and on campus. The Rock scene was gearing up and KRAB Radio was the ‘voice of the hip people.’ ”

On January 14, 1967, Friends of the Free University (University of Washington students and teachers) put together a lightshow dance at the Eagles Auditorium. They invited both the Union Light Co. and Lux Sit and Dance to perform. Paulson describes the dance:

“About a dozen people were in the balcony doing light effects on the band and side walls, but I thought the lights were a little dull, it needed some spark. I’m not sure what I did exactly, but I projected a lot of white light with my hand over the lens and releasing it back and forth to the beat of the music. The other lights were too laid back, the show needed some energy -- more New York. I felt my white light did this but members of the Union Light Co. were very upset that I would dare project white light! I believe from that point on they had an issue with me and did not approve of my contribution (and hence did not want me to be a part of the show or their group.) I stopped the white light but decided then that I would just have to start my own lightshow company.”

Seattle Multimedia Film Artists

Bob Brown and Frank Olvey are Seattle filmmakers who won national awards for their experimental films in the late 1960s and early 1970s and were active members of E.A.T. They experimented with color processes and influenced the work of other artists, including Doris Chase, Karl Krogstad, and Stan VanDerBeek. Their films were shown internationally, and were included in multimedia presentations by the Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, and local theater companies.

Tom Robbins on Lightshows as Art

Tom Robbins, a well-known Seattle author, then an arts critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other local publications, wrote an article about lightshows in 1967. They had been banned by the City and Robbins was called in to testify as to their legitimacy as an artform.

His words capture the mix of light and sound that marked an era in the performing arts:

“Metaphorically, a lightshow is where the Illustrious Buddha arm-wrestles with Thomas Edison while Albert Einstein keeps score. Specifically, a lightshow is a sort of orchestration in which projections of light are interwoven with pulsations of sound. One or more rock ‘n’ roll bands are essential, for it is with – or against – the audible rhythms of electrified music that the visual rhythms of electrified light ideally work and play.”

Sources: Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press,1995); undated newsclippings from The Helix, and from unknown New York City publications, in Carol Burns's archive, Seattle, Washington; Don Paulson, "Sit, Lux, and Dance Lightshow," unpublished manuscript; Tom Robbins article about lightshows, Seattle magazine, 1967, newsclipping in Don Paulson’s archive; Robin Oppenheimer interviews with Carol Burns, Paul Dorpat, Ron McComb, and Don Paulson, Seattle, Washington, 2003; E.A.T. Reunion Website (www.eatreunion.org).

Related Topics:   Music & Musicians | Visual Arts

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