Tributes to Wally Russell from TCI, January 31st, 1992
Michael van Himbergen
Fred Bentham first introduced me to Wally in the early sixties. He was a young, and I thought at the time, rather aggressive Canadian visiting London on the National Art Centre Ottawa’s behalf looking at Strand’s new lighting controls. Later we all met again in Adelaide, Australia on a conference. We became close friends and in 1977 he introduced me to the possibility of helping establish a new opera house in Toronto. By then Wally had moved from Toronto to Los Angeles, but still kept his circle of friends. He had been promoted from Strand Canada to head the whole of North America.
Wally was truly a giant of stage lighting. His influence, originally in Canada, but then across the United States and elsewhere was profound. No other person with a true theatre background has scaled the heights of a major industrial corporation with such an impact on the theatre. During his time at the top of Strand Lighting in the US, he broke new ground with many significant developments, particularly with Light Palette, which became the industry standard control system, before frustration at global office politics became more than he would stomach. What a loss for Strand and our industry. His original love was dance and astronomy. From this background, he combined a deep-seated theatrical know-how with acute business and financial acumen to push the boundaries of our world forward.
Wally was a constant innovator. He was always looking to support some new development. He turned me on to the Macintosh computer, when surely both of us were too grown up to become fanatics. From his time as a theatre consultant in Ottawa, when he installed the first computer lighting control in North America, to his later years as a director of Vari*Lite, the leading automated lighting instrument manufacturer, he reveled in contributing to the birth of something new and exciting.
Wally was a doer. He hated waste and pomposity. He got on with things. The Los Angeles Opera had to be the only opera company with such a tightly-knit technical operation. His belief in teamwork inspired those around him. His dedication to the art of theatre and opera was indefatigable. He never asked of anyone more than he would give himself.
He was a man of exceptional wisdom. His instincts about people were invariably correct. His views on the frailties and stupidities of the corporate and political world, with which he was completely at odds, were profound, wise and always good humored.
He was one hell of a friend. He came to London for a weekend in the winter of 1983 to help me through a business crisis at Theatre Projects. He stayed over six months as my house-guest. Wally thought before he spoke and thought on his feet. Long into the night he would pace to and fro, wrestling with each thorny dilemma. He possessed a bulldog personality that would not brook defeat.
To my wife, Molly, and our then six-year-old daughter, Daisy, he was Uncle Wol. We had a madly enthusiastic, inexhaustible dog named “Piggles”. Uncle Wol could throw that damn dog sticks until it collapsed. Wally never collapsed. If more had to be given, he would give it.
Finally he was a warm, humorous and quiet man. A man to depend on. His great pride was his children, Brian, Jenny and Glenn.. We had dinner In Los Angeles three weeks ago. He described to me the particular and surprising thrill of being a grandfather to Brian’s kids, an experience he warmly recommended.
All of us privileged to be his friends extend our warmest love and deepest sympathies to his wife, Molly, to Brian and his family, Jenny and Glenn.
Thank you, Wally. Many, many people will remember you, we miss you already.
Wally had a knack for putting people and ideas together. He was a catalyst for creative thinking. At Strand, his focus was on making the equipment user-friendly, even if it took re-educating designers and board operators into a new way of thinking about design and control. We could control the hardware, and the computer software, but sometimes the personnel software needed to be embraced, enhanced, and constructively redirected. To that end, he talked, wrote, berated, cajoled, and browbeat college and professional technicians, theatre consultants, Strand’s fledgling research team, union shop foremen, engineers, family and friends into discussions about lighting design, sceneography, human engineering, and right- versus left-brain thinking.
Wally was a leader, friend, and gentle person, one who in my business dealings with him put people before numbers. There was never anything he asked anyone to do that he wasn’t prepared to do himself or by your side. He was compassionate and concerned about feelings. I was blessed to have known him.
Wally’s vision and entrepreneurial spirit were extraordinary. The legacy that he bequeathed to Strand Lighting is impressive. The example that he set for industry members is challenging. One can only imagine Ed Kook, Chuck Levy, and Wally Russell engaged in intense discussion and plotting future directions for the lighting industry.
One abiding memory I have of Wally was his determination always to seek the right answer, whatever the question. In his work he pushed technology and application to the limits, constantly challenging and strengthening his colleagues, contributing to landmarks in stage, luminaire, and control system design.. But, at the end, it is fitting that his ashes were scattered where I’m sure he was happiest, on the waters he sailed.
At our first meeting, Wally and I struck up a friendship which lasted for the remainder of his life. This enabled us to give each other mutual support and assistance while running our respective companies in Toronto and Melbourne, and led to much international discussion, not only on stage lighting and theatre equipment, but also methods of manufacturer service, marketing and distribution. Throughout the English-speaking theatre world, Wally will be sadly missed. Perhaps it would be fitting to name the new Toronto Opera Theatre after him, in recognition of his work in that region.
When Wally became president of Strand in 1975, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Contrary to orders from London, Wally assembled a secret r&d group and developed a broad range of cost-effective and innovative products which met with almost instant success. Some of these products, such as Light Palette and CD80, were so successful that they are still selling today, nearly 14 years later. By 1980 Strand was booking over $20 million in sales and had become the unquestioned industry leader. As a testament to his inspiration, at least half a dozen entry-level staff from Strand are now presidents of companies in the lighting industry today.
Since 1985, Wally was a member of the board of directors and a consultant to Vari-Lite, Inc. His insight, vision, and people-oriented management philosophy were a major force in the development and success of Vari-Lite. Wally loved the lighting industry, and his passion was bringing new people and new ideas into the industry. He will always be remembered by the many who were touched by him. I will miss him dearly.
Whenever I went to Wally with a matter to discuss I found he would look at the problem from a completely new and different viewpoint. He was a thinker: he always had an opinion based on his extensive experience, and helped a lot of us through very difficult times. I found him very receptive and constructive. I just loved his laid-back approach to life. He’ll be greatly missed.
Wally was a theatre technician of the old school. He knew every aspect of the business, yet was intrigued by new developments. He championed the cause of the Vari*Lites that we’re used to such effect in the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Tristan und Isolde. He also created the technical team that continues today and discovered and nurtured new talent in his efforts to turn the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion into a functioning opera house. He will be greatly missed.
Michael van Himbergen:
I’ve had the luxury of Wally being my mentor. The scores of day-long conversations he enmeshed me in over the last decade were pure teachings from the illuminated secret master. Wally left us each with a piece of the puzzle. Only God knows what Wally has ultimately wrought, as he gave us all different keys to the big black box of the theatre of tomorrow. I am convinced that Wally knew the time was right and his people were ripe. Now we’re going to have to use those keys.
I met Wally in 1975 when I was hired by a struggling Strand Century to be Bob Schiller’s assistant. Plus or minus six months of my start date at Strand Century the following people became part of the new Strand Century team: Dave Cunningham, designer of Multi-Q, Light Palette, CD-80, Viewpoint and ENR; Bill Liento, vice president, Hoffend & Sons; Keith Gillum, president, Camera Platforms; Frank Marsico, president, Desmar (Desisti) USA; Mike Collier, products manager, Ianiro-Rome; Phil O’Donnell, general manager, Strand Asia, Hong Kong: Don Hamilton, president, Pacific Illumination; Paul Vincent, president, Vincent Lighting Systems; Holly Sherman, production manager, Strand Lighting; Pierre Rollin, designer, Computer Solutions; Marcia Madeira, lighting designer; and more.
This became the core of a team that was to move Strand Century from a minor league dimming company to the undisputed industry leader in less than four years. One could argue that it was simply luck that brought all this talent to the same place at the same time. I think that those of us who were there saw the inspiration which has carried us forward to excellence.
One evening, I was assisting Wally in entertaining a potential client who he had flown to the factory for a tour. During the course of the dinner, the client mentioned that he was a sailor. Before you could say dessert, three somewhat lubricated guys in suits were hoisting the mainsail on his boat, the Esmeralda, as we exited the King Harbor Marina.
The evening was crystal clear and the sunset more than a spectacle. As darkness fell, and stars began to appear, Wally began a lucid and intelligent discussion regarding the planets, constellations, the galaxy, etc. I had been working for Wally for nearly nine months, but did not know that he was a gifted and knowledgeable astronomer. I would look up from the deck of the boat and see nothing but chaos. To Wally’s mind and thinking, the chaos had an order, a pattern and a purpose. I will miss him greatly.
Above from TCI January 31st 1992
Just maybe I met Wally Russell earlier than anybody. I went from Rutgers University in New Jersey to show University of Toronto students how to play ice hockey (Oh! That was a big mistake!) and there was Wally Russell. The year: 1952. Even then, his magnetism and happiness radiated and I was drawn. The next spring, I invited Wally to stay with my family and work a summer job there to earn more than he could in T.O.
I worked too. Separate jobs. I dropped and collected him en route to my job. He invited me to Hart House at U of T to see “Brigadoon” which he was one of the staging managers of, in 1954. By Jesus, I tell you I never saw a better show in NYC, London, Washington, Milan–wherever. I was enchanted. First flash of Russell Genius. Later, I helped Wally and his brother Fred move his mother from Sackville Street to better digs, and she became friends with mine. We were Euchre nuts and played thousands of hands with other Canadian friends. I visited Wally and wife Molly in Toronto and in Palos Verdes, California, again and again and was, as all who met him, rewarded by his attention. I have no sibling. But when Wally died, my custom-printed Christmas Card that year sadly said, Wally Russell, My Brother, had gone.