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About Limelights, Limes, Sunspots and Followspots

See also - The Lighting of Theatre in 1881

Backstage Articles Index

Followspot Operators at the Odeon Theatre, Southend in 1955 - Kindly Donated by Jan Davies

Above - Followspot Operators at the Odeon Theatre, Southend in 1955 - Kindly Donated by Jan Davies

At the highest point of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, at roof level and to the rear of the balcony, is the Theatre's Followspot Box, or Lime Box. Here you can see one of three Followspots used in the production of 'The Producers' in 2005 - Photo M.L.The term 'in the Limelight' which is still used today means to be the focus of attention, but how many people know where the word comes from originally?

Right - At the highest point of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, at roof level and to the rear of the balcony, is the Theatre's Followspot Box, or Lime Box. Here you can see one of three Followspots used in the production of 'The Producers' in 2005 - Photo M.L.

Well, a Limelight was the very early predecessor of what is now known as a Followspot, which if you still don't know what I'm talking about, is a light that follows a person about on stage. In most people's minds this is the hard edged bright round circle of light which can be seen on Television, and many stage productions, when an actor, presenter, musician etc. needs to stand out from the crowd. Actually this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Followspots.

'In Theatre productions nowadays, especially in Musicals, Followspots are used almost continuously throughout the performance but you probably wouldn't notice them unless you knew what to look for as they are usually in soft focus and/or using Frost, which softens the edge of the beam. This allows the lighting designer to concentrate on lighting a scene so that it looks exactly how he or she wants the overall mood of the scene to be. The Followspots will then fill in and subtly highlight individual performers so that they will stand out from the rest of the performers and scenery.

A nice article on followspots printed in a programme for the Odeon Theatre, Southend in 1955 follows:-

Odeon Spotlights - From a programme for 'Guys and Dolls' at the Odeon Theatre, Southend in 1955 - Kindly donated by Jan Davies..It is, of course, accepted that any stage production would be useless without spotlights. These essential illuminants known as " Limes" to the profession, play a very important role in support of any stage play.

On the week of a " Live Show " our film projection machines are given a well earned rest and the staff that man them adapt themselves remarkably to the task of projecting a light approximately one hundred and forty feet and giving the necessary colour shade required.

It will be obvious that the many changes, direction, etc., could not be memorised and normally a rehearsal takes place at which a "Cue" sheet is made up telling the operator such things as the SCENE, TIME, PERSON and COLOUR required and from which side of the stage the entrance will be made; when to black-out, enlarge and decrease the area of light - in fact a wealth of information - without which the show could not run smoothly, is listed on this sheet.

A Video discussing the element Calcium, with information on Calcium Carbide, and Calcium Oxide which was used in Limelights - From the The Periodic Table of Videos - University of Nottingham.
A Video discussing the element Calcium, with information on Calcium Carbide, and Calcium Oxide which was used in Limelights - From the The Periodic Table of Videos - University of Nottingham.

Normally our three spot lights carry ten different colour shades each, and these can be changed in a fraction of a second. The microphone and individual recording music is also operated from this position. Various degrees of amplification are noted and are adjusted throughout the show, when and where necessary. Mr. George Gorham, Chief Operator, leads this able team who, as the curtain rises, blend together with clock-like precision and rhythm to add their very valuable support on these occasions.' - From a programme for 'Guys and Dolls' at the Odeon Theatre, Southend in 1955 - Kindly donated by Jan Davies..

Limelight itself is the name given to the original Followspots used in Theatres and Music Halls of the early to late 1800s. The word comes from the light produced when an Oxyhydrogen flame was concentrated onto a cylinder of Calcium Oxide, otherwise known as Lime. The light which resulted from this action was then focused onto the stage using a series of lenses, which is exactly how modern Followspots work, except that they use electricity and HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) or Xenon lamps to produce the light.

Right - A Video discussing the element Calcium, with information on Calcium Carbide, and Calcium Oxide which was used in Limelights - From the The Periodic Table of Videos - University of Nottingham.

Another predecessor to the modern Followspot was the Arc Followspot, or Sunspot, which used two carbon rods whose tips would be manipulated so that they were within millimeters from each other and so produced an intense arc light. The rods would have to be continuously manipulated so that they were always at the same distance from each other, otherwise they would either touch and sometimes fuse together, or they would be too far apart and the arc would fail and the light would go out.

One of the Carbon Arc Followspots, which I operated on the show 'Hair' at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1974, and was still in use at the Theatre until June 2004 when this photograph was taken on the last day it was used - Courtesy Rachel Howlett.

Above - One of the Carbon Arc Followspots, which I operated on the show 'Hair' at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1974, and was still in use at the Theatre until June 2004 when this photograph was taken on the last day it was used - Courtesy Rachel Howlett.

The manipulation of the rods was originally done by hand by the operator whilst he or she also operated the Followspot, which was quite a challenge. Later the process of fine tuning the Carbon Rods was automated, leaving the operator to get on with the real job of Followspotting. I worked Sunspots myself when I first started in Theatre back in 1974 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, on a production of the musical 'Hair.' Amazingly they were still in use at the Theatre up until June 2004 and are still looked after today by the Theatre's staff even though they are no longer used.

Ethel and Gertie, the Carbon Arc Followspots, which I operated on the show 'Hair' at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1974, and were still in use at the Theatre until June 2004 when this photograph was taken on the last day they were used - Courtesy Rachel Howlett.

Above - Ethel and Gertie, the Carbon Arc Followspots, which I operated on the show 'Hair' at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1974, and were still in use at the Theatre until June 2004 when this photograph was taken on the last day they were used - Courtesy Rachel Howlett.

One of the old Strand Carbon Arc Followspots still in situ in the Limes room of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool in 2012 - Courtesy Jason Barnes.

Above - One of the old Strand Carbon Arc Followspots still in situ in the Limes room of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool in 2012 - Courtesy Jason Barnes.

Strand Arc Spotlights

Strand Arc Spotlights - Strand Electric catalogue 1936 - Courtesy Roger Fox.The Stelmar High Intensity Spot And Flood Projector - From The Strand Electric catalogue 1936

A new projector which eclipses all others by the amazing brilliance of the projected spot.

The light source is projected by means of the now well-known STELMAR PROJECTION LIGHTING SYSTEM.

The beam is controlled with remarkable ease to give any desired shape of spot, flood or effect.

Right - Image and above Text from the Strand Electric catalogue 1936 - Courtesy Roger Fox.

The quality of the light is of such a nature that it brings out colour values better than other types of lamp. Whatever the shape of the desired spot, be it square, round or strip, there are no ragged edges, the spot being well defined, it is quite simple to produce any degree of sharpness at will.

The whole projector can be tilted and swiveled through any angle of tilt with finger pressure, perfect counter weighting gives wonderful balance.

A special gun sight is a feature of every Stelmar spot, enabling the operator to pre-set his spot for any desired position before opening the dowser.

The unusually large Followspot Box at the Cambridge Theatre during the run of 'Return To The Forbidden Planet', this was also used as a projection booth when the Theatre was in Cinema use. Photo taken in 1989 - M. L. The job of Followspotting is one which you can either do, or you can definitely not do, there is really no in-between. The job requires high levels of concentration, good eyesight, a good memory, a good sense of musical timing, and preferably something of an artistic flair.

Right - The unusually large Followspot Box at the Cambridge Theatre during the run of 'Return To The Forbidden Planet', this was also used as a projection booth when the Theatre was in Cinema use. Photo taken in 1989 - M. L.

In a modern Musical Theatre production there are commonly three, four of sometimes six Followposts in operation at any one time and the operators must know who the characters in the production are, who they are supposed to be lighting and when, which colour they should be using, the size of the beam on stage, such as head & shoulders or full body, and they must also be aware of the intensity of the light that is designed for any particular scene. All this information is printed in Cue Sheets which are individual for each Followspot. Although this sounds a bit daunting it doesn't take long, when you are doing eight shows a week, before you find that you have actually memorised the entire Cue Sheet and can concentrate on the art of Followspotting itself.

I say art because although you are following the design as laid out by the lighting designer during the production of a new show, in order to make what you do look good it is necessary to have a feel for how your work is impacting on the general look and feel of the production. Subtle changes in timing and light levels can make the difference between simply lighting an actor, and making them look good, and the production itself look and feel slick.

The Projection Room, previously the Lime Box / Followspot Box , at the Clapham Grand in the late 1950s - Courtesy Tony Rogers.

Above - The Projection Room, previously the Lime Box / Followspot Box , at the Clapham Grand in the late 1950s - Courtesy Tony Rogers.

Generally Followspot operators are the unsung heroes of any production. If they are doing a good job the audience will most probably be totally unaware that they exist at all. However, mistakes will obviously be very visual and quite jarring to an otherwise oblivious audience.

Repetition is the hardest part of being a Followspot operator as in a long running show you will commonly see the entire production eight times a week and over 400 times a year. Also Followspots, by their very nature, are hot, and the rooms they are housed in, are often even hotter, and sometimes the show or actors you are lighting can be less than enthralling. In fact even the most engaging and wonderful show can soon lose its appeal under these conditions.

The once famous Music Hall song writer and performer Albert Chevalier sums up the situation nicely in his 1903 song about working the Limes, which is reproduced below.

The Music Hall Song 'Limelight' by Albert Chevalier - 1903

Limelight by Albert Chevalier - Courtesy - John GriceI Work the limes,
And there are times
When sittin' on my ladder of a night,
I try an' try
To find the reason why
A Star wants hextry light.

I've worked the limes
In pantomimes
An' done a gradual change from mauve to white.
The same old game -
Miss Tottie What's-'er-name,
The Star, wants hall the light!

I've throwed a lime
Right on a crime
Wot should have been committed out of sight
The scene was billed:
'Hin darkness 'e was killed' -
Hexcuse for hextry light.

I work them limes
As Poet rhymes -
No heffort - it's a gift - like happetite.
But still it jars
To think that certain Stars
Wants hartificial light

Albert Chevalier (1903)

The original Lime Box at back of the Balcony of the London Hippodrome - From a photograph taken in 2009. M.L.

Above - The original Lime Box at back of the Balcony of the London Hippodrome - From a photograph taken in 2009. ML

The second Followspot Box in the lower part of the disused balcony of the London Hippodrome when the Theatre was being used as the Talk of the Town - The Stage 2008.

Above - The second Followspot Box in the lower part of the disused balcony of the London Hippodrome from when the Theatre was being used as the Talk of the Town, still with its final spots in place - The Stage 2008.

For more information on Limelight you may be interested in visiting these Websites Here and Here.

See also Backstage at the Theatre, The Lighting of Theatre in 1881, So you think you want to work as a Stage Hand, Behind The Scenes - Carols of Cockayne.