A Chat with Don Earl

by Nook Schoenfeld
in PLSN Interview
Don Earl Proprietor of Earl Girls
Don Earl Proprietor of Earl Girls

Don Earl has been involved in show business for close to 50 years now. He was born in Buffalo, NY, but raised in Old Greenwich, CT, where he was introduced to show business at a young age.

DonEarl in the early days

“I first got involved with the local community theater and my elementary school shows. Actually, my first job was lighting the fourth grade play, which was a big learning experience . I also performed in it. Before we started the show, I turned the houselights down using the large rheostat dimmers backstage. Then as I walked on stage to do my part I noticed that someone had turned all the house lights back on. I learned that I always had to contact the house guy (read custodian) in advance if I wanted access to the house lights.”

The seed was sown and Don had the theater bug. He proceeded to work in every show that he could. When it was time to head off to college, Don had some thoughts. “I imagined that the closest thing to what I wanted to do was electrical engineering, so I started investigating that.” As fate would have it, Don ran into a friend of his who he hadn’t seen in a number of years. He explains, “My friend told me he was doing theater tech work in NYC, and I realized that I could be doing this as a vocation, not just an avocation. I started wondering if there were colleges that specialized in technical theater.”

Don attended Carnegie-Mellon University and believed that he wanted to be a stage manager. However, he discovered that he had his roles confused. He truly desired to be a technical director — or what is now considered to be a production manager. “After college, I did get a job as a stage manager, but I also received a very well rounded education in all aspects of theater at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s funny, as I watch TV shows these days, I can look at the credits and see all these people that I went to school with, both on camera and off, all doing well.”

During the summer, he worked in a summer stock theater up in Syracuse, NY. “I started out as a carp. By the time I left, I was stage manager and general manager. I also worked at the Guthrie Theater during a very exciting period there in the late 1960s.

“When I graduated Carnegie-Mellon in ‘68, I took a job as stage manager and resident LD at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philly, which was a regional repertory theater at the time. Today it’s a Live Nation concert hall.

“While working at the theater, the house electrician — Joe Corbo — and I took on some side jobs. When the theater started going south, we decided we would take a stab at our own company. That was the start of Aladdin Lighting, back in 1970. The name of course came from the genie in a bottle, but mostly we just wanted to be the first name in the phone book.”

Aladdin Mercedes

    The Start of a Company
At the time, there were a two larger lighting companies in town, “McManus Enterprises and MacAvoy Stage Lighting. Marc Brickman owned MacAvoy, but he was never around, as he was always going over to Asbury Park to hang out with some new guy, Bruce Springsteen, who he then lit for many years. Aladdin ended up buying MacAvoy somewhere after ‘72. Meanwhile, McManus had a head start on us. His experience kept him flourishing”

“We, on the other hand, knew nothing about business. I recall saying to my partner, ‘Why didn’t I go work for Bill McManus and learn the business side before we went into business for ourselves?’” There was no internet back then. “Just sourcing where to buy a bunch of 6x9 lenses for light fixtures took a lot of time. My accounting experience was all self-taught while at summer stock.”

Launching a company with little gear and fewer clients made for a rough start. “Every extra dollar we made went into new gear. But we got pretty lucky when we landed the Pennsylvania Ballet. At the time, they had been renting their gear from a New York house (Bash, before Don Stern and Bob Cannon) and we ended up landing the rental. This financed us to purchase a lot of cables, fixtures and booms.

“The 70’s was a slow start for the company, but the economy was good in the beginning. I remember contacting Altman Lighting and they sent me their catalog with all the pricing for everything they sold. I bought two 50-pound bases and noticed they had given me the dealer price. I guess we became an Altman dealer that day.” Aladdin bought a lot of gear before the 70’s recession hit.

Nick Sholem and Don Earl

    Touring
Don’s company was frequently called on to bring in lighting trees for bands that came through Philly. They hooked up with a few local sound companies who often needed lights to accompany the P.A. “The first real tour we did was for a band called Renaissance from the U.K. I got a lead from the audio company about this band and Nick Sholem, their lighting designer. It turned out I was headed over to England on a personal trip, so I called Nick and asked if we could meet.”

“We did, and this was the start of several tours together, although we both still had a lot to learn. We were ready to go out with a Genie/par package when Nick mentioned to us that ‘Over here they’ve started using hoists and truss to hang the lights.’ So, we designed a truss and had a company build it, and we bought some hand pull chain hoists. It didn’t take long for us to realize we needed motors. We didn’t know what to buy, so we ended up with Hitachi hoists. People told us we couldn’t hang them upside down, but they worked that way for us. They came with 15-foot chains, which had to be replaced. Lots of lessons were learned here.”

1976 was the Bicentennial year, a big time in Philadelphia. “There was a lot of work to be had, and we needed a lot of rental cable. I placed this huge order with Four Star, a company in the Bronx, who supplied most of the Broadway shows with theatrical gear at the time. I rented a U-Haul and drove up to pick up my cable on the designated day. We get there and are met by Frank DaVerna, who says, “What, you really want all this stuff today?’ He told us to come back tomorrow. When we arrived, he had 15 stagehands standing knee deep in cable putting connectors on. They were making huge multi-cables and jumpers for us and they were making all the stage pin cables out of 14/2. They had one guy in a corner pulling out the middle pin on every male connector so they would mate with the existing 2 pin connectors. There would be no ground connection. I was being taught by the New York big guys!”

He also recollects, “I watched as Altman Lighting grew from a small shop on a hill in Yonkers into what they are today. I was once asked by an LD to supply some 6x16 and 6x22 ellipsoidals for a tour. I went up to Altman and they didn’t have a product that fit this spec yet. We walked out and were headed to another company across town when Ronnie Altman came running out the door. He brought us back inside and showed us he could indeed make them right there on the spot. Anything to keep a client from going elsewhere.” Ronnie was great. His favorite line to us was ‘What do you think this is, a goddamn supermarket?’”

Earl has seen his share of history over his career and has the stories to tell. “Back then you often looked for something that was only imagined. It didn’t actually exist.” Thus was the case when the only light consoles in existence were barely two scene presets. Don went out a built a three scene console and pin matrix for Nick Sholem and others. He also fabricated dry ice fog machines, which Aladdin developed.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, Don kept busy with numerous location videos and had several other tours that utilized his services. “Carol Reed was a great young LD who was always working. She would rent our gear for David Bromberg tours. Ian Peacock would come across the pond with Gentle Giant, and we looked after him as well, and we toured with South Side Johnny and numerous others.”

Don (second from left) with the band Renaissance

    A Change is Gonna Come
By the late 70’s, there was big announcement in his area. Atlantic City was going to legalize gambling, which meant casinos with showrooms would be coming in, and they would need gear and a local lighting vendor. Don had visions of grandeur, thinking that he was at the right place at the right time, so he opened Atlantic City Stage Lighting. He pictured himself as another Jim Brennan, who had gone from Philly to Las Vegas years earlier to start Cinema Services.

“I hadn’t thought about two things. First was the fact that it would take two years to build a casino, and two more before the next one was operating. Second, was not realizing that I wasn’t in with all the big boys from Vegas or the salesman and reps at companies such as Strand and Kliegl Bros. There was a network of players, electrical contractors and manufacturers that had been doing this for years. Still, I labored on supplying expendables and rentals in that area and building up our name. Nevertheless we did provide equipment and services for hundreds of shows, including several with Pavarotti and production shows in the Bahamas, but it wasn’t the big break that I had initially hoped for, although I was having a ball.”

For years, he brought in gear for shows that would come into town. This included staging and lighting for concerts and events such as boxing. Unfortunately, the casinos figured out that they could buy their own boxing rig and he found himself supplying the smoke machines and that was it. A change had to come and he closed Atlantic City Stage Lighting.
Don kept himself busy as a TD and rigger doing shows for years. Television work was a big percentage of his work, working with many of the hip designers from IFA at the time. “Guys were coming up to me and asking if I had 12 pars and a dimmer, pretty consistently.” He started up a new company to supply gear for his friends in this market. By now, he was the father of two daughters and needed to build a company to be able to support them. Thus the new company became Earl Girls.

“I was very fortunate to be friends with Carl Vitelli Jr. He was a seasoned video LD who was an original stagehand on The Ed Sullivan Show. I gaffed a lot of his jobs in the 90’s, including Miss Americas and International Emmys. At one point, I thought I was destined to be doing game shows forever, as we did Trump Card, You Bet Your Life and Ruckus all in one year. During this time, I collected tons of 2K, 5K and 10K Fresnels. We still have a bunch of these sitting on shelves collecting dust. The LED revolution quickly obsoleted so much equipment.” Don actually had an auction recently to try and sell some of this old gear. Even the par cans were no longer wanted. “We recognized that we had to have the newest fixtures to stay competitive.”

Don and Nick Sholem and the Renaissance truck in the lake, circa 1976.

In 2008, the great recession had a big effect on revenue in the gambling town. New casinos were springing up in Pennsylvania, and Atlantic City was not keeping up with the times. Earl Girls had gear and had some good connections for providing it. By 2012, Atlantic City had built a new state of the art casino called the Revel. Don supplied a huge amount of labor to the hotel’s beautiful theater and served there as a head rigger and lighting supplier while they tried to get off the ground. Unfortunately, the hotel eventually went bankrupt and was shuttered two years later and still remains unoccupied. However, during the two years Revel was open Earl Girls did over 100 high profile concerts and events there providing rigging, lighting and/or labor to most of them. EGI was able to grow significantly during this time with newer equipment and technologies.

The fact is that four casinos closed down in Atlantic City in 2014 and as Bruce Springsteen sings, ‘And baby they ain’t coming back.’ rings true. So, as we close down 2017 I ask Don where the future of Earl Girls lies these days. “We are in the process of rebranding ourselves, as many people don’t realize the depth of our equipment, services and experience. While we still provide lighting for many shows in the Atlantic City area, we find ourselves covering more ground than we ever did before. We have been doing high profile events at the World Trade Center as well as one-offs and small tours from Connecticut to West Virginia these days. We can supply lights, power, crowd control, rigging, video, led walls, audio and staging for any sized corporate or concert production, festival or tour, and look forward to new and larger experiences and opportunities nationally.” 

Earl Girls shop and crew

PLSN Profile: Don Earl

  • Companies Founded: Aladdin Lighting (1970), Atlantic City Stage Lighting (Late 1970s), Earl Girls (1991).
  • Current Services: Lighting, video production, staging, special effects, rigging, power, crowd control, audio and more.
  • Geographic Range: Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Metro NYC Area; also West Virginia to Connecticut and beyond.
  • Earl Girls Contact Info: Earl Girls Inc., 1648 White Horse Pike, Egg Harbor City, NJ 08215; 609.965.6900; www.earlgirlsinc.com

 

 

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