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Howard Ungerleider

by Michael S. Eddy • in
  • 1000 Words With...
  • April 2018
• Created: April 12, 2018

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Howard Ungerleider photo by Todd Kaplan

Lighting and special effects designer, Parnelli Visionary Award honoree and all-around nice guy. Howard Ungerleider is known by many designations. For 42 years, he’s designed some amazing lighting and effects for Rush along with many other concert touring acts, including Blue Öyster Cult, Van Halen, Supertramp, Def Leppard, and Alicia Keys, among others. He also owns Production Design International, a lighting and special effects company, that has led to his working with corporate clients including Hewlett Packard, General Motors, and Microsoft. Ungerleider recently spoke to PLSN on his interesting entrée into this business—after being warned away from it, his thoughts on the end of Rush, and his advice to those starting out.

PLSN: How did you get your start in this business?

Howard Ungerleider: I grew up in the New York/New Jersey area and my dad owned a clothing store, in Hoboken, where he suited up Frank Sinatra. Dad lobbied for me to take over his business, but it was not my thing; I was a musician. I played bass guitar and had a band. After I got caught up in a prank in college and got booted out, I went to New York to get myself a record deal, which was so naïve. At college I had met Sean LaRoche, an agent, so I went to New York and stalked him for weeks. I eventually waited until his secretary went to lunch and wandered into his office. He said I was an idiot for coming in, getting a recording contract for my band was a pipe dream, and that I should learn about the business. So he gave me some names of people in the business, as they might give me a job to get some knowledge.

One of the contacts was Jeff Franklin, owner of American Talent International; who was in the process of moving offices. He told me that I was lucky and hired me for $75 a week; I’d get coffee, work in the mailroom, and “earn my way” into his business. Over time, I was promoted to a junior agent, eventually becoming an agent and traveling with bands.

Franklin had zero tolerance for a lot of things, but he taught me well. When we’d just signed Rush, he gave me a choice. I could go to Canada and work with the band, teach them about touring, or I could be fired. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane up to Toronto, and the rest is history. The band had music, but not a show. I knew lighting and was interested in technical things, and that’s how I started designing.

Talk about how your company, Production Design International (PDI), came about.

I always wanted to own a special effects company, so I started one. When I first started out, it was all lighting and then moved into special effects when Blue Öyster Cult introduced me to Dr. David Infante, the laser physicist. I got very blown away by how lasers work and carried it through until I had my own laser company.

PDI was a separate entity for me from touring. When Rush would come off the road, everybody would have to scurry for work, but I wanted something where I could always have work. My partner, Brian Beggs, and I basically run the company. When I’m gone on tour, he holds the fort down. When I come back off tour, he goes and does his thing. It’s a good working relationship.

We diversified into corporate shows; we’re still working with Hewlett-Packard. In 1994, through PDI, I had the opportunity to revolutionize what the auto show looked like here in Canada by redesigning the General Motors booth, which at the time was about 180,000 square feet. We were the first company to control the booth environment with light. All the other car companies, the next year, followed suit and mimicked it. I did General Motors for 14 years here in Canada. Today we do special projects; installations; even work for the government of Canada. In fact, we created a sound and light show for Parliament Hill that won an award. PDI lets me do lots of different projects.

When Rush announced their retirement, everyone asked me, “So, what are you going to do now?” I tell them, “I’m just going back to my desk job!”

After 42 years touring with Rush, how do you feel now that they’ve decided to stop touring?

To be honest, it’s a little bittersweet, because it ended so abruptly. We knew it was coming to an end; we just didn’t know that it was going to be that quick. There are no regrets; they’ve worked very hard and they’re all great guys. Though I do miss touring; I love touring. Once, you’re out there, it gets in your blood; that feeling never goes away.

What do you enjoy the most about your career?

The amazing opportunities that present themselves to you. I did lighting for the International AIDS Conference in Toronto where Bill Clinton and Bill Gates were speakers; that was really great. One of those amazing projects where you get to meet people of that nature. Also, like I said, I love touring. The travel; being able to hop on a plane and go anywhere and then create a show for people and see their reactions. I love that; it’s a passion of mine.

What do you least like about your job?

The stress of last-minute calls for high-pressure situations. You handle it, but I don’t enjoy being under pressure or stress. Although I’m under pressure a lot, it’s last minute pressure, when someone calls you and goes, “I need it tomorrow.” Although I do pull it off; it takes its toll. It’s not as enjoyable as prepping a tour where you have a lot of time to do whatever you need to do and do it right.

I don’t like the end of a tour, either. It’s your baby, and then it’s gone. There’s always that emotion that happens at the end when everything goes away. Fitting back into reality — that transition is a bit difficult. Who else gets to live 12 or 15 lifetimes? Fly to thousands of countries; visit hundreds and hundreds of cities?

What was the best piece of advice that you got when you first started out as a designer?

Don’t get into this business! Do something else. Obviously, I didn’t follow that advice; I wanted to show them that they were wrong. That’s part of the tenacity that you have when you’re always wanting to prove that, “Yes, this can be done. Do not tell me it’s not a good business to be in!” Because it was the best business to be in.

What advice would you pass along to a person just starting out in concert touring?

Learn, learn, learn. Just soak up as much as you can. Always have the opinion that you don’t know everything, because as long as you live, you don’t know everything. Do your best, be loyal, be respectful, and seize the moment. I always say, “You’re the architect of your future,” so make it the best you can.

For more info on PDI, go to www.pdifx.com.

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