Parnelli Visionary Award Winner Jim Fackert

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Jim Fackert“Jim Fackert is the MacGyver of the entertainment business,” states Bob Peterson, owner of Real World Lighting, and formerly of Upstaging. “With an idea, a pile of parts and a tube of RTV, anything could happen. Many things did. Cyklops moving lights, color changers, parametric EQ for audio consoles, bump buttons, Rainbo lighting consoles, slide matrix dimmer patching, working variable intensity pin matrices, control multiplexing, high density modular dimming, solid state dimming, Littlites... just a few of his many offerings!”

Fackert’s Cyklops were used extensively by the groundbreaking tours of Grand Funk Railroad in the 1970s and subsequently used by Blue Oyster Cult, War, Wishbone Ash, Neal Diamond, Aerosmith and Kiss. Today he’s president of the two companies he founded, Leprecon and Littlite. So if it’s not surprising that he is this year’s honoree for the Parnelli Visionary Award, which acknowledges his universal influence on the live event industry, it is unusual how, paradoxically, he not nearly as well-known as the products he’s created.

For proof there’s this: When Theatrical Lighting Systems owner David Milly got a message that a reporter wanted to talk to him about Fackert, he didn’t return the call right away. Instead, he scratched his head and walked around his shop asking his associates, “Who the heck is Fackert?” When called again, Milly was told he was in fact on a very short list of people to be interviewed about one Jim Fackert. A big “Oh!” came out, and he laughed.

“He’s real low-key!” Milly exclaimed. “And to prove it, you can write that David Milly has known him for 36 years, bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment from him, and wouldn’t be in the lighting business today without him, and yet I didn’t recognize his last name when it was left on voice mail!”

“Jim is a pretty incredible individual,” says longtime friend and associate Stefan Graf, now principal/lighting designer at Illuminart. “He has a brilliant approach to things, but is also down-to-earth. He doesn’t talk over anybody’s head and doesn’t have an ego that gets in the way.”

“I think it’s long past time for this award for brother Fackert,” declares Grand Funk Railroad guitarist Mark Farner. “In fact I would have carved him one out of a stick from the woods back in the day, but I couldn’t remember how to whittle. But know this: Jim’s innovations have come from his own personal practicality. Some folks would say ‘he’s a half bubble off.’ I say if that is true then it is off in the upward direction. He’s one of a kind, so just stand back and love him.”

Fackert’s unassuming personality doesn’t negate his achievements and influence, but it does color how he sees himself: “My life has been just seeing needs and solutions that others didn’t,” he says. “The dots were there to be connected, and somehow they clicked with me.”

 

Looking to the Stars

Fackert was born in St. Louis in 1948. Growing up in the University City section of town, he’d take the trolley to the movie theater, where he was enamored by science fiction movies. When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, his father made sure they were both on the roof of their house to watch it go over. Far from being fearful, his Dad said, “This is the beginning of the space age!”

“I liked to build models, especially rockets, because I was a space nut,” he says. “I wanted to be an astronaut.”

The family moved to Elkhart, IN when he was 11. There, the self-described geek had a science teacher who encouraged him to do experiments “beyond the regular stuff.” He took an electronics correspondence course from DeVry University called “Space and Missile Electronic Systems,” and, he laughs, although that didn’t get him on the moon, it did get him into electronics.

“I wasn’t a good student, because I was always studying everything but what I was supposed to,” he confesses. He did start a band called the Timothy Fairchild Decision, where he played guitar and sang. Not satisfied with what was available, he built guitars and amps from scratch. His high S.A.T. scores got him into Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University’s School of Engineering) in Cleveland. His dubious study habits continued to haunt him, and he left Case — but at least with several new power amps and speaker cabinets.

Then he transferred to Purdue University in Fort Wayne, IN, this time studying physics, but again, hit a wall and dropped out at 21. “Formal education was not my thing.”

During this period, he would meet Stanley Andrews, owner of Whitmore Lake, MI-based Portable Audio, who built and serviced sound systems for many Detroit-based bands, including Ted Nugent, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and the MC 5. Andrews was impressed enough with Fackert to hire him. “I worked 80 hours a week for $50 a week building and fixing gear and setting up sound systems for concerts and festivals. My electronics background was a big plus, and my woodworking skills came in handy, building speaker cabinets and racks.”

Fackert wasn’t the only new hire. “I was a struggling musician in Detroit and wanted to stay in business and heard about this audio company hiring,” Stefan Graf says. They would become roommates and fast friends.

In 1971, Fackert formed Custom Audio Electronics (CAE), and one of his first clients was Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The sound system he built for them featured a mixing console that was revolutionary: It was one of the first to offer stereo submasters and three-band equalization on every channel.

 

On the Grand Funk Railroad

Mark Farner, GFR, lit by a Cyklops fixtureFackert has great memories of those early years, doing rock festivals at the Detroit Fairgrounds. “Because all the Detroit bands play everything at 11, making durable, loud systems was a challenge, but we were ahead of the game at the time. Stanley was brilliant, and I learned a lot from him.”

And there was a band that needed them. Grand Funk Railroad understood that when you play a big arena, you needed a big sound. Manager Terry Knight was demanding that audio engineers crank up the sound, and that led to blown speakers and amplifiers. “He had already blown systems coast to coast, so when we gave him the volume he wanted without blowing speakers, we were hired to tour with the band,” Fackert says.

Farner has some good stories during those days, too: “We were on a leased Convair [plane] and me and Stefan [Graf] were up in the cockpit talking with the pilots. Stefan asked if they ever did the ‘weightless thing,’ and, of course, when they said ‘Yes,’ we asked them to wait until we got to the back of the fuselage and then do the ‘arch,’ where, on the down side, we would experience weightlessness.” Fackert, meanwhile, was in an easy chair, footrest up, with a piece of plywood in his lap that had numerous transistors, op-amps, parts and a cordless solder gun. “When we went past him on the way to the rear of the plane, I thought, ‘Oh sh*t, Fackert’s gonna be pissed!’” Sure enough, everything that was on his lap was suddenly floating in mid-air in front of him. “He was grabbing sh*t out of the air, a piece at a time, as he was suspended there, two feet above his seat…” but afterwards, “the smile on Fackert’s face said it all!”

 

Inventing an Industry

Back in those days, there weren’t any touring lighting systems. So when legendary lighting designer Bill McManus showed up with The Doors driving a station wagon filled with lighting gear, Fackert took notice. “He had a resistive dimmer board that was a revelation to me.” McManus spoke with the attentive Fackert about what he wished he could do with touring lighting. “He noticed that I was an electronics geek, so we kept in touch.” First thing Fackert did for McManus was to rebuild some dimmers and add bump buttons to his Scrimmer board — and “that was my first foray into lighting.”

Graf had become intrigued with lighting as well. So when GFR was ready to go out on tour again, the two built a lighting system for the band. Consisting of some Scrimmers and a couple of trees of PAR lamps, the two were looking for more control, so Fackert built a lighting console from scratch.

“I told GFR they should have some lights,” Graf recalls. “I had been living with Jim and mentioned a lighting system, and he started looking at lighting technologies, and between us, we created something pretty unique.” They created a large lighting system for the band, featuring 44 1000W PAR lamps. Graf gives credit to Parnelli honoree Chip Monck, whose structural lighting system, used when GFR played Shea Stadium, inspired them. Instead of merely clamping lights to a pipe, they bolted them into sturdy frames so they wouldn’t have to set up individual lights every night. They also came up with a multi-conductor cabling system with junction boxes. “It all went up and tore down fast! It was compact and powerful and designed for the road. That was the first time anybody had seen that.”

“The Scrimmer dimmers had some physical problems, so I rebuilt them to be road-friendly,” Fackert explains. “T Scrimmers were standard for small theater productions. But rock ‘n’ roll was different, and they just didn’t hold up. When something broke, I would rebuild that part so it wouldn’t break again. It was in pure self-defense, since my job was to fix everything on the tour. When things stopped breaking, I got an afternoon break.

“I took everything apart and learned how it was made,” Fackert continues. “It became clear that I could build gear from scratch that was more capable and reliable and appropriate for rock ‘n’ roll.” This transformation from repairing to building came at a cost to those who shared an apartment with him. “When a tour was approaching, gear filled the kitchen, and my roommates got grouchy when they didn’t have a place to eat breakfast.”

Graf says Fackert tackled the issue of getting the lights in the air using Genie pneumatic towers. “Now I had never seen that used in that way before, but once we were on the road, we saw that Showco had independently developed some similar technology.” Although it might seem surprising how the lighting industry’s pioneers worked in a vacuum, unaware of what others were doing, Graf notes that “we didn’t even have fax machines back then, so it took a while for ideas to get around.”

But it was Fackert’s ability to build dimmers and compact portable lighting systems that was getting notice. Upstaging, supporting tours for Hall & Oates, turned to Fackert, first for repair work, then for additional equipment.

 

“Too Science Fiction for Me”

By the late 1970s, Graf had formed Fantasee Lighting, and he told Fackert that if he built a standardized professional lighting board, he would market it. The Leprecon LP 1000 was born. “We sold a lot of LP 1000s, and they still are working — I see them pop up on eBay still!” declares Fackert.

Milly was working for Jimmy Buffett on his Cheeseburger in Paradise tour, and it was then that he first got his hands on Fackert’s work, the LP 1000. “It was 24 channels with a matrix pin patch — it was revolutionary,” he says. “Before that, you had to patch on the hot output side of the dimmer, then the control side. During that period, we literally had hundreds of his dimmers, too.”

When getting ready for yet another GFR tour, Fackert casually speculated, “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could control a followspot remotely?” Many touring acts were still just using house followspots and side light trees, but that wasn’t an ideal solution for GFR.

Fackert added motorized remote control to a moving mirror head and the Cyklops was born“One night Jim and I were talking about how Mark Farner would run all over the stage, and I was expressing my frustration with trying to keep him lit,” Graf says. “Jim tells me he had been reading about servo motors and knew he could get some at a military surplus store... Then he says, ‘What if we ran a followspot remotely with a joy stick? I was like, ‘What?!? That’s too science fiction for me!’” While he might have thought Fackert’s idea was crazy, he also thought it might be crazy enough to work: he gave him a few hundred bucks initially, and then, “I kept feeding him whatever I had to buy parts,” he laughs.

They built two Cyklops units in the basement of the house they were living in. “It was an old country house with a small basement with low ceiling. He was like a mad scientist down there, every night, until 2, 3, 4 in the morning, solving problems. When he finished, it looked like a one-eyed monster.”

Fackert adds, “Some friends in a local lighting company had a couple of these odd little Christie followspots that looked like water coolers. They had a vertical optical axis and a head with a mirror that spun and tilted, and when I saw one of these, I thought Hey, we could motorize these functions and control this thing remotely.” He built electronics and added DC motors and drives, and the Cyklops was born. They would arguably be the first touring moving lights created long before microchips were commonplace.

Fackert is modest about the Cyklops breakthrough: “It was easy!” he laughs. “It just so happened no one had thought about doing it.” Or doing it that well, He says Graf still has the Cyklops from the 1980s GFR tours, and they still work. One is currently in the lighting museum at Upstaging.

Farner remembers the Cyklops as well. “It made me appear three dimensional, and I was proud of my brother’s [Fackert] invention. Plus, it gave me an idea for a foot pedal for my guitar.” He would ask Fackert to make a pedal to control his Echoplex guitar effect that would allow him to control feedback levels and to move the playback head up and down the slide from a foot controller. “This is so I could reproduce the guitar eating itself during the “Loco-Motion” solo. He made me one, and it was amazing!”

While Fackert and Graf had the smarts and the drive to create exciting new products, these didn’t always lead to financial success. “The Rainbo CX7 color changer was spun off from Cyklops, and was developed for the market at a time when neither of us had any formal education in marketing or business management,” Graf laughs. “The color changer we developed was good, but we didn’t have the resources or experience to really market it. Then [Wybron’s] Keny Whitright came up with the scroller” and captured the market. Soon after, the LP 1200 and LP 2400 compact dimmers came out and were a great success, and the pair carried on.

By the end of the 1980s, Graf and Fackert would part ways professionally, as Graf moved into architectural lighting with his new company Illuminart. Fackert continued creating products under the Leprecon name, though that would not be the only company.

 

A (Little) “Lite” Went On

Again, seeing something obvious that seemed to escape everyone else, Fackert brought Littlite into the world. “When we first started building audio boards, we needed a work light on it and nobody made any that worked,” he says. Prior to that, lighting and audio techs would run to the hardware store and put a portable light and tape a gel to it so they could see. “There was always this strange smell around the console area — not that kind of smell, but one generated by hot duct tape. It amuses me that no one else did it...”

He says he didn’t think much of it at the time as he included the feature in all Leprecon’s lighting consoles. “Then I got a call from a guy in Oregon who said he just saw a concert touring lighting console with it, and where could he get one to put on his console?” It spawned a separate company.

Another “no brainer” came with the proliferation of moving lights in the 1980s. Working with Bob Peterson at Upstaging, they kicked around the idea of memory consoles with Graf. “We were all learning like mad to figure out microprocessors and computers when the PC was in its infancy, and we were still running the business software on an HP mainframe. But moving lights were becoming more common, and I noticed that there would be a moving light and an analog console operator. I thought the console should be smart and simple enough for one guy to do both on one board.” They developed lighting consoles that integrated both (which he would do again as LEDs became prominent).

Fackert built the businesses over the last couple of decades, but now enjoys having a solid management team at Leprecon and another running Littlite, which allows him to focus on new products for both.

Reflecting back, he says, “Who could ask for more than for this career? In the early days, as a kid, I remember all the adults talking about how rock ‘n’ roll was going to be a flash in the pan — but what a way spend your 20s! Touring the world with bands! And what a way to spend your 30s! Designing products for the industry and helping musicians and production people.

“I have always really enjoyed music,” Fackert adds. “Seeing people also enjoy shows, and knowing I had a little piece in those productions, has been really great.”

As to receiving the Parnelli Visionary Award, “I was totally surprised. I have always been a behind-the-scenes guy, and I’ve had no expectations, nor even thought much, about an award.” He added that the honor is that “those I’ve worked with through the years, and bounced ideas off of, remember me, and that we all did something together that is memorable.”

Away from the workbench, Fackert’s interests include gardening and wildlife, and he unleashes his inner geek in other ways — like building fireworks and rockets. Dedicated to the environment, he’s also an advocate for alternative energy, and recently installed a 40- kilowatt solar energy system in his building. “Around 25 years ago, when we built this new building in Hamburg, we installed a ground water pump that heated and cooled the building. At the time, people thought I was crazy, but for three decades, I’ve been saving money and energy.”

His energy awareness has manifested itself in other ways as well. “I remember one time being in the shop with him out in a barn we shared, and some bumblebees got in,” Graf recalls. “He’d calmly capture them in his hands, carry them outside, and let them out. I kept telling him he’d get stung, but he said, ‘No, as long as you don’t put that kind of energy out, they won’t bother you.”

And his ability to think a little differently has helped many over the years. “Jim is very innovative — I still have a lot of his little dimmers and consoles today,” says Milly. “They are really rental-friendly.”

 

Full Circle

Today, Fackert has returned to his engineering roots again with both companies. Don Stauffer was a theater tech and pizza delivery guy until he finally got Fackert to give him a job 30 years ago, after bugging him about it. Stauffer is now in a key engineering and design management position at Leprecon.

Fackert’s wife of 23 years, Rhonda, started out as a receptionist and, in “short order,” is now sales manager for Littlite. “She makes things happen,” says Fackert, He also has two kids: Aaron, from a previous marriage, is a landscaper and a fisherman; and James Jr. is a glass blower.

“Just so no one gets the wrong impression, Jim has one of the biggest hearts known to man, and if he’s your friend, no worries, because he’s always for you,” Farner concludes. “I love him like the brother he is. God bless you, Jim!”

 

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