Electricity Amplitude

Delayed (but not as long delayed as the final bit I have in mind for my two-month-old extended essay on The Maltese Falcon) is the middle portion of my reminiscences on my electrical life and times…

stone walls and no brick floor in Olivet

So we were living in Michigan. I had cornered a dungeonlike cell in the cellar for my model-building and reading (early teen isolation from family intrusions) that I attempted to wire for lighting. I do not remember now whether my father helped me with this experience (he probably did, or at least checked my extension cords and lamps over later), but I might have had the know-how by eighth grade to do some basic wiring. I do remember learning how to wire a lamp in seventh grade shop class at god old Washington Junior High in Rock Island (among other projects, usually of the woodworking variety), which has stood me in good stead with lamps at home and not just in the theater.

The then-Congregational Church in Olivet. I fainted one time there, as well as being confirmed there for the second of three times.

I don’t even remember if I wired up my little room in the basement all by myself (or just how much lighting I even arranged). Of course, in demented hindsight I reflect on all those model-cement fumes my poor thirteen-year-old body and mind must have accidentally and unwittingly (pun?) sustained… and I worry.

The other most memorable Michigan electrical experience was my sister’s miniature (which in those days meant about a foot square by six or eight inches deep) reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I assume she acquired in order to tape classes at Michigan State University or something. All I know is that it came into my possession, at least at times, and I enjoyed recording an unimaginably wide variety of sounds, particularly my own voice (almost at the same time that Andy Kaufman was also creating his own broadcasts…). Naturally, under my tender care it eventually (or very quickly) stopped working correctly. So I have to fix it. I learned a lot about Sixties electronica and little motors. I don’t know truthfully if I fixed it or not, but the way I remember it, I did —at least briefly (and that recollection is probably false; Margaret, I am sure, could set me straight on this, but I fear to find out for sure). Maybe that early-teens recording experience explains some later events — like my first experience in theater as a sound guy and my continuing fascination with recording either for tape or now digitally my vinyl record collection (and I do still have maybe hundreds of records to play/record/add to iTunes, particularly the Baroque, Classical and Romantic stuff; getting back to digitizing music should keep me well distracted from worthwhile writing again).

We moved from Michigan to Mt. Pleasant during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, and my electrical experiences after that centered principally on the theatre. MPHS speech and drama instructor Marilyn Vincent (known to us all as “Vince”) drafted me about Christmas time 1968 for my first experience not onstage, running the sound effects for The Miracle Worker, the high school’s winter show that year. Running lights, a position he inherited from both of his older brothers, was freshman trombonist Kevin Wiley. From such small initial experiences are drama careers and lifetime friendships forged.

I don’t believe I had to do any wiring for the sound job for that play, although I was to get plenty of experience running speaker cord and testing connections and making dead speakers work again (and doorbells and telephones and…) and likewise resurrecting aged and/or defunct amplifiers, cassette tape decks and eventually wireless microphone systems. The recording engineer/producer in me has also enjoyed usually three (sometimes more) experiences annually developing pre-show, entrʼacte and exit music for plays. In the mid-Eighties, aside from transforming my classroom into a television studio briefly —  complete with stage lights and at least four functioning, separate microphones (one or more wireless) —  for the IHSSA Large Group Speech Television News event, I also got to produce The Lovely One singing and friend Jack Jones on the piano to create a tape of popular in show tunes as a Christmas gift for her grandpa Ray. All in all, my audio experiences, while electronic, may have been the most satisfactory. I am sure that a quarter-century-plus of Andrew Comment production and broadcasts was also a result of Margaretʼs tape recorder and Vinceʼs insightful assignment of the geeky new kid in the sophomore class. From childish  beginnings lifetimes grow…

To get back on track, in high school in ‘69 I quickly got involved in stage lighting and set construction, thanks mostly, I believe, to my friendship with Kevin. I really doubt my own knowledge, skills or ability had much to do with it; chiefly, I was his assistant. But as I noted before, I learned. We didn’t rewire extensively in high school, although we did some; we mostly climbed and hung dangerously in all kinds of places (discovering some places we believed no one had known about for generations — as if), inventing new and better (and more difficult) places to locate offstage lighting (hanging a bar for lekos over the audience, as has been done for the theatre in the high-school-converted-into-public-library-and-community-building nowadays under Kevinʼs suggestions in Mt. P, would have been infinitely better, but we were just kids, you know). Since the high school’s lights were wired with house plugs, I began my unending practice at wiring plentifully heavy cords into those teeny tiny little screws.

Iowa Wesleyan College Chapel — home to many an electrical exploit

In college we got more creative, thanks in part to our involvement with Community Theater. Getting older and (we thought) more experienced, made us bolder and more imaginative in our electrical innovations. That was the era of twice creating Y-cords to combine two distinct 110 circuits to create 220 for a portable lightboard, among other exploits. We were doing up to six plays a year in those days, so we had plenty of opportunity to play with electricity.The college used two-pin connectors (not grounded in those days), so I got experience with alternatives to houseplugs (and I still think those massive connectors are easier and better to work with).

Kevin moved on to the University of Iowa after his sophomore year, but I remained as the by-then theatrical electrical “expert.” And the false sense of expertise stayed with me as I graduated and moved on to Fort Madison and their spring senior play and summer musical (I even moved the senior play to the high school commons/lunch area, which I had to wire and hang myself for stage lighting, and I also remember — vaguely — doing some things I’d rather forget for the summer production in 1976 on the middle school stage (which was also the junior highʼs gym floor, believe it or not — a gym in an auditorium rather than a stage tacked on the side of a gymnasium). Changing to Andrew in 1977 just forced me to keep improvising and learning, wiring and rewiring for sound and lighting systems. Right up through my retirement.

Of course, all that experience made me bolder (in some ways), and the sound, effects and electrics at Kirchhoff Theater were inelegant masterpieces of necessity and its offspring (although not the infamous blackout during a performance that tested our crowd control and foresight: that was the city not installing a sufficiently heavy-duty box for the main into the building in the first place; people are always underestimating the electrical needs of a theatre — nor the heating collapse during the run of the Christmas Variety Show, of which I have always wondered that Janet and I ran into the smoking building to put out whatever the fire was; that experience only elevated the wild levels of our technical improvisation, “our” to include director Janet, although it was me that took personal days to tend/supervise the barn burner we acquired to heat the place insufferably until shortly before showtime, then to cool and cool, each night). And that adult daring did overflow into real life, especially in the audacious Nineties.

And that should bring us close to the closing section I already posted. This has been significantly more vague than I imagined, but itʼs written now, and thatʼs how it stands. Besides, this way I can do entire posts on individual exploits, later…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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