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Parnelli Profile: David Cunningham

PLSN Staff • Features • September 17, 2015

David Cunningham will accept the 2015 Parnelli Visionary Award at the annual gala to be held at the Rio Hotel and Casino Oct. 24, in recognition of advances including the ETC Source Four fixture and advancements in lighting consoles and dimming.

“I did a lot of things I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be able to do,” David Cunningham says. But his ability to tackle lighting problems — or perhaps his inability to accept that he wasn’t “supposed” to do something — has led to some of the most remarkable, revolutionary moments in lighting.

He taught himself to design electronics and write code for the first computer-based lighting consoles. He re-imagined dimming with the CD80, making a better product while also radically bringing the price down. When he was told by a major lighting company that there wasn’t a new light source he could possibly imagine that they didn’t already have, he came back with one that became the basis of the Source Four.

David Cunningham's inventive thinking played a key role in the creation of these now-standard products.“From the Sweet Sixteen micro computer light board through his innovations in dimmer technology through the Source Four and beyond, Dave has been responsible for a tremendous amount of industry change and innovation,” says ETC’s Fred Foster. “He is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, in addition to being one of the most interesting characters.”

“Pushing the envelope is Dave’s legacy, and that continues to this moment,” says Gregg Esakoff, who co-founded Entertec with Cunningham in 1984. “He has this incredible ability to comprehend and engage, becoming extremely well-versed in anything he decides to do. On everything he does, he’s very focused, and nothing distracts him.”

Cunningham eccentricities are well known, from his predisposition for black clothes (so he doesn’t have to waste time thinking about what matches and what doesn’t) to his affection for wigs, costumes, and parties that swagger past the dawn. But this year David will receive the live event industry’s highest honor for his rare combination of scientist/artist ingenuity that changed the industry forever. 

Science Meets Theater

Cunningham was born in San Diego in 1948 to East Coast parents, inheriting a New England sensibility that is prevalent in him to this day. His father, a doctor, and his mother, an artist with a degree in biology, settled in San Diego after World War II. They moved to Del Mar, just north of La Jolla, in 1959. His father, a Frank Lloyd Wright admirer, designed their Wright-inspired house, which Cunningham still owns.

His mother would take him to the Shakespeare performances being held at the San Diego’s Old Globe theater, where she also helped with costumes. This exposure led him to take leading roles in several of the Bard’s productions in high school, though the acting bug never truly bit.

In 1965, he attended the University of California, San Diego, the intention being to major in physics and chemistry, studying among the many Nobel laureates on the staff. “I was very science-oriented, and actually disliked the humanities at the time,” he states. “But I think what happened is, I noticed all the interesting people were in the philosophy department, and I wanted to hang out with them.”

The faculty included notable members of the “New Left,” including Herbert Marcuse and political activist Angela Davis. Fitting for the times, Cunningham fell in with the avant-garde theater movement. What started out as street theater grew, and he managed to scam funding and, in what must have been a case of the inmates running the asylum, the young students “basically built a theater and ran it.

“The performances we did were visual, similar to a Cirque du Soleil performance,” Cunningham explains. “After all, everyone was taking acid at the time and wanted something cool to look at!” During this period, he started putting his hands on lights, or more accurately, making what he could out of what he had. He built homemade dimmers and configured standard R40 lights in paint cans. They raided the physics department for their computers and experimented with a computer-controlled lighting system. For his shenanigans, he was put on the faculty while still a student (which he reports was not wholly successful, as his exploits tended to annoy the administration).

After five years of running that theater, he closed it in 1973, but had learned a lot about research and development. He briefly worked with George Van Buren, founder of Van Buren Industries, a developer of early computer lighting control systems including the Sweet Sixteen, System 128 and Compuset 2000 that operated from 1971 to 1976. There, Cunningham says, along with the opportunity to broaden his experience in lighting product development, he learned “how not to run a business.”

After a European backpacking jaunt, one Wally Russell reached out to the young man. “Wally had a theater background and was working for Strand, who brought him from Canada to L.A. to sell British products that were expensive and not well suited for the U.S. market,” Cunningham tells.

The two met for lunch, and eventually, Cunningham was engaged to develop a lighting console for a “secret” project. The project was A Chorus Line, and the board became the Multi-Q. Released in 1976, it became the first mass-produced console with computer-based memory system. “I worked on it for five months pretty much alone, and to be quite honest, it probably never should have worked.”

But it did, and it was a massive success. Overnight, every Broadway show went to the Multi-Q. In related news, Strand’s position in the market changed drastically because of this development, and Cunningham found himself a vice president of a corporation. “I was this innocent little kid, and suddenly I had 25 people working for me.”
From the beginning, seeing that there were always more ideas than money, Cunningham would wisely adopt royalty agreements, a habit that would pay handsomely for his entire career.

The Mini-Q light console followed, as did the Light Palette series. Next, Cunningham would tackle dimmers. 

Enter Entertec

Cunningham and Dave Liu

“I hated the concept of patch panels, and having to re-patch during a show,” Cunningham says. So he created a product that allowed dimmer-per-fixture lighting.

“The CD80 dimmer was a watershed [product] that changed everything,” Foster says. “Prior to that, dimmer costs were up to $1,000 a channel. What Cunningham did with the CD80 was get the price down to $300 a channel, and got rid of the patch panel to boot. It was brilliant!” Strand is still selling a variation of the CD80 today. “That changed everything in the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” says Marshall Bissett, who was running TMB at the time. “Cunningham gets credit for the big shift.”

Around this time, for reasons no one seems to be able to explain, Strand fired Russell. “They didn’t like his progressive management style,” Cunningham shrugs. “He was a good person, but unfortunately in the end, Wally got the short end of the stick.” Disillusioned, Cunningham left and started Entertec in 1984.

Gregg Esakoff worked for Strand alongside David. With Cunningham as a mechanical designer, they worked together on some successful Fresnel fixtures as well as the consoles. It was not a surprise to him that Cunningham left Strand. “He was only interested in an intellectual challenge and having fun, and was never driven by an economic return. So when things stopped being fun at Strand, he didn’t want to play.”

Gregg Esakoff at Entertec, circa 1982Cunningham told Esakoff shortly afterwards that he was working on something big, but he couldn’t tell him about it unless he quit Strand, and — oh, by the way, Esakoff could double his salary if he left. He did, and the two formed Entertec.

“David is personally easy to get along with,” Esakoff says of why he quickly jumped on board. “He’s highly conceptual, always the physics scientist, and I was the physical manufacturing/ergonomic guy. I would translate his concepts into physical things, and when that couldn’t be done, we’d brainstorm until we figured it out.” A lot of those brainstorming sessions were wherever they were, including the snow slopes the two liked to frequent. Problems were solved right on the chairlift on occasion.

The two assembled quite a team at Entertec, which included Mike Kiktavi, David Liu, Bill Goddard, Jon Kaser, Corey Foster, Kin Lam and Stanley Wong. “Everyone in the product design group had their specialty, and each team — mechanical, electronic, software — had their team manager, so it was like working on a performance,” Cunningham explains. “The actors do their part, scenic does their part, etc., and it all comes together.” They developed several products for Colortran in the 80s, including the Prestige series of lighting consoles and the D192 dimmer.

Next came the ENR Plastic Dimmer. This was a brilliant dimmer designed for noise reduction that had one small flaw: It could catch fire after a year of operation. Foster says that if the Entertec-developed ENR had not had the unfortunate problem, it would have been so wildly successful that there probably wouldn’t be another company making dimmers today. “At the time, ETC was primarily a dimmer company, and we were terrified of it being successful,” Foster says.

“There were a lot of home runs, but not the ENR!” Cunningham laughs. Up to this point Entertec had a relationship with Colortran, but after this setback, that relationship tapered off.

But what came next would catch fire in an entirely different way. 

Going Toward the Light

At this point, Cunningham had done a lot with products surrounding lighting — but not the physical light fixture itself. Russell would serve as Cunningham’s muse and encouraged him to tackle what no one thought was possible: a truly new light.

Esakoff remembers him telling Cunningham, “You need to look at the ellipsoidal. The tungsten light hasn’t changed in 30 years. There might be something there.”

“Wally [Russell] was a big part of the development of the Source Four,” Kiktavi says. “It was he who looked at the Altman 360Q, which was really king of the hill, and told David he needed to start from the ground up,” meaning the lamp.

Foster says each and every step of building the Source Four was a major achievement, but the biggest was the coup with GE. “In the 1980s, all the lighting manufacturers were concentrating on energy efficiency and not spending money on new light sources, and Cunningham knew he had to start with a new lamp.” Cunningham’s visit to GE is legendary, as they happily shared their 100 year history of filament design and seemingly politely dared him to come up with a design that they haven’t already done.

“So when David came back and showed them what he came up with, they said, ‘Damn! We don’t have that one!’” Foster laughs. What he came up with was the HPL 575. The bulb featured four different filaments that made it significantly more efficient.

Next up was the need for a special lens that was spherical on one side and aspherical on the other, picking up another eight percent efficiency in energy. Several lens makers told him it couldn’t be done. Then one day he saw a new BMW with a very small headlight and noticed that that was in fact spherical on one side and aspherical on the other. And he reasoned that if it’s on a car, it must be cheap. But a new problem was had: Those made at the small size he needed would break due to the heat caused by the lamp.

Nobody goes to the dentist looking for new ideas, but that was another step in this journey. While in the chair looking up, presumably waiting to be told when to spit, he looked at the reflectors and noticed they had a dichroic coating, and ventured that that could play a part in this lens solution. Key to the development was getting Bausch & Lomb to retool their chambers and create a $15 dichroic
reflector. Now all the parts were coming together.

Enter ETC

Cunningham and ETC’s Dick Titus confer on the HPX lamp prototype.

Foster knew of Cunningham and his work before they actually met. “We probably first met at some industry trade show, but [ETC] must have been a flyspeck to him and he probably walked right past our modest booth,” he laughs. That would change, as someone working at ETC who had also worked with Cunningham thought the two should meet. “Nobody knew what [Cunningham] was doing, and there were rumors floating around that he was working with GE on something,” Foster says, of that clandestine period. When the two finally met, Foster had to sign a non-disclosure to learn about this new light David was working on. The two got along instantly. “Fred is not corporate, you can tell by his Birkenstocks!” Cunningham laughs. “He was a theater person and knew how to rig a show, which I respected.” Also, like Cunningham, Foster is a team builder.

“I was in awe of him when we met, and then he showed us an early Source Four prototype,” Foster says. “He showed us a light that used 40 percent less energy and was 40 percent brighter. It was amazing.” ETC was a relatively small company at the time, just about $7 million in sales, most of that being consoles. But after they released the Source Four, everyone knew them, as the success of the product astounded everyone, including those who worked on it.

“If anyone told me that the Source Four was going to be as big as it was, I would have said they were nuts,” states Kiktavi. “It was funny, because we felt 15,000 Source Fours a year would make it a really successful product.” The Source Four eventually sold ten times that amount per year. No one could have guessed that in addition to the live event industry embracing it, hotels, restaurants and theaters wanted it as well. “Markets were created that didn’t exist before, and that was kind of cool,” Cunningham admits.

About the same time, they were developing the Sensor Dimmer line. Esakoff says they worked fairly quickly and had that done in six or eight months, with both debuting in the ETC booth at the 1992 LDI show.

Cunningham, at homeIn 1996, Cunningham retired, and basically threw a party that lasted years. “I wanted to do something artistic again,” he says, and turned his house into a series of imaginative themes where, in one room, there was a detachable dancing pole; in another, a Renaissance drawing room; and, of course, what every homeowner dreams of, a dungeon. Here choreographed costumed affairs were held that made one think of his West Hollywood home as a West Coast replication of Warhol’s Factory.

Foster says he wasn’t going to lose the terrific team Cunningham and Esakoff assembled, and ETC absorbed Entertec.

The 21st Century

In 2001, as Cunningham, “bored with partying,” jumped back into live event development. He came up with a seven-color LED concept but couldn’t get anyone on board because, at the time, “no one thought LEDs were going anywhere.” But in 2007, as LEDs became more prominent, he believed there was a need for a light that lit actors on stage showing realistic skin tones, and worked with his team to develop an incandescent light source with twice the efficiency of quartz halogen.

“It reminds me of tubes compared to transistors, but only incandescent lighting still offers the full spectrum of light,” he says. LEDs, for all their other benefits, still don’t look as good. “That’s why there are still [traditional] light bulbs on the makeup mirrors in theater dressings rooms. It’s a unique light source, although incredibly inefficient.” But as LEDs improved and became more popular, he “realized it wasn’t going to be a fair fight,” and the incandescent project was abandoned.

Donning a wig and a heavy metal “f#@ yeah” gesture.

Today, though, one of the rooms in his house has indeed seen the return of a lab, and he is working on a new LED project. “It won’t be a Source Four, but it will be interesting,” he promises. “This is one last project which has been the focus of the last two years and should come out soon. Then what will probably occur is what happened in 1996, and I’ll go and find something more artistic, more people-oriented to do.”

Cunningham is a bit stumped when asked to describe his creative process. “You have an idea in your head about what the key features of a new product will be,” he begins to explain. “Like a Source Four — you want it to put out more light and use less energy and you don’t want heat in the beam. You want a shutter assembly that rotates … that’s the product you have in your head. It’s based on what will benefit the user, and you conceptualize it. It’s based on the function that will be for the user. Then it’s a matter of how you get there, and pulling the team together, making sure everyone is working in their area toward the goal.”

“I am delighted that we are honoring David with a Parnelli Visionary Award for his contribution to our industry,” says Bissett, who is now Parnelli Awards Chairman. “It’s hard to imagine lighting a show without using at least one of his inventions. He looks at standard practice and says, ‘There must be a better way.’ He created landmark products, and along the way he has answered the age-old question of how many people does it take to change a light bulb: Only one, if his name is David Cunningham.” 


Anatomy of a Successful Team

In addition to his successful products, Parnelli Visionary honoree David Cunningham is admired for developing a highly effective process to work through the challenges that innovation inevitably brings.

“His design team would mirror the Japanese approach to car making, which was if you could make every little part even just a few percent better, then the whole product will be measurably better,” ETC’s Fred Foster says.

His Entertec team would meet every Monday and identify the tasks that needed to be done on the project, and each engineer had a task list to follow. Items were meticulously tracked, down to how many minutes was spent on any one task. Problems were listed, and how those problems were resolved were noted in a document. Trade offs of one solution over another were carefully debated until it was clear which direction to take.

“Dave is an unbelievably good project manager, totally exceptional at keeping it all together,” says Mike Kiktavi, who worked at Entertec before going to ETC. Entertec was based in Cunningham’s Hollywood Hills home, and “we’d be there slaving away, already early in the morning, when he came dragging himself from being up all night, but then jump right in,” Kiktavi laughs. “There were a lot of brainstorming meetings, as Dave believes that if you have a problem, get everybody together and talk through it.” Standing an easel and writing with Sharpies on a big pad, these sessions would often go late into the night.

“It really became like a theatre ensemble — everyone working together without a lot of explanation or politics,” Cunningham says. We would just meet once a week and keep everyone focused. We’d go down a punch list of what we were trying to accomplish, and pretty much people would go off and do what needed to be done.”

Gregg Esakoff, co-founder of Entertec who now also works with ETC, says Cunningham always maintained his sense of humor through all the ups and downs of developments, a sense of humor that was a little darker and dryer than most. When the group would hit a wall, come upon a problem that was right there next to impossible, Cunningham would quip, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

David Cunningham will be presented with the 2015 Parnelli Visionary Award at the gala ceremony set for Oct. 24 at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. To reserve your spot or table, go to parnelliawards.com/reservations.

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