Biography – Wally Russell (1934-1992)
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Wally succumbed to the siren song of the theatre at a very early age. During the nights and weekends of his teen-age years he could usually be found directing and executing the lighting and technical aspects of local theatrical and entertainment productions.
A love of astronomy and physics led to degrees in Mathematics and Science from the University of Toronto and an early career in teaching at East York Collegiate in order to allow himself to devote his evenings to the performing arts. He then moved on to establish a theatre technology department in which he taught at the Edward Johnson Building Theatre of the University of Toronto.
Association with the fledgling National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Companies gave Wally the opportunity to hone his skills as a lighting designer and technical director. He eventually assumed the role of General Manager of the National Ballet and under his leadership the Company greatly increased both the length of their season and their international touring activities, including participation at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
Always willing to explore new directions, it was during this period that he became active as a theatre consultant. For his role in the design and construction of Canada’s National Arts Centre in Ottawa he received Canada’s prestigious Centennial Medal.
In 1972 he was offered the position of President of Strand Century, Canada and his subsequent appointment as President of Strand Lighting USA / Vice-President Rank Industries precipitated a move to Los Angeles in the summer of 1975. During his six years in this position Wally effected a total revitalization of the company. His dedication and commitment to the theatre and his unique vision were pivotal in the development of new equipment for the entertainment industry. He assembled a core of creative technical expertise and under his leadership Strand became an incubator for cutting edge technology and innovation.
Following his departure from Strand, Wally found his services much in demand as a consultant and he assumed diverse roles with numerous key industry companies. The assistance he provided to London’s Theatre Projects Group led to his appointment as President of Theatre Projects Consultants, North / South America. It was in this capacity that he directed a massive renovation project at Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, which in turn led to an ongoing interest in Latin America. His encouragement and advice to the founders of Vari-Lite contributed greatly to the overwhelming success of this industry leader.
Peter Hemmings, the Founding General Director of the Los Angeles Opera tapped his expertise and Wally assumed the role of technical director until his death. For most people this would have been a full time position but Wally simply added it into his schedule.
A truly unassuming individual, Wally was accessible to all. Totally unconcerned with appearance, he was frequently found with shirttails out and hair disheveled as he paced the floor expounding extemporaneous thoughts on the subject of your choice. He was a voracious reader and would quote from the likes of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Bertrand Russell to Asimov, Sagan and McLuhan.
An avid sailor, he was loath to use the engine on his boat and his friends often speculated that the frequently empty fuel tank was not simply an oversight.
Family was important to Wally, he always had time to talk about children – yours or his – and he was a truly doting grandfather. He enjoyed classical English drama and would often relax with his wife Molly while watching an English mystery on PBS. (To see a few Russell family photos, check here)
Exceedingly generous in spirit, he also made frequent contributions to numerous causes and organizations, including Amnesty International, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Public Television.
Wally’s unexpected passing in October of 1992, after a brief illness, was a tremendous loss to both his personal and professional families, and to an industry to which he dedicated much of his life. We might remember him with one of his best-loved passages:
“…to thine own self be true,
And it must follow,
as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”