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The Switchboard Illusionist

Herbert Stilling working his lighting magic at the Empire Theatre, Belfast in 1947

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The Switchboard Illusionist The white frock of the blonde violinist bellowed gracefully as she took the centre of the stage. "That's what I like to see," said the electrician. He was looking down from his narrow perch ten or twelve feet above. "You can put any light you like on a white dress,"he continued. "But if it was pink... you daren't put an amber on pink. Makes it dirty" Bit of an artist, huh? "You can't just use any colour," he said. "You've got to watch your colours all the time - according to the dresses and scenery."

Below us in the wings several of the artists stood by waiting their cue, as many a famous artist has stood on that same Empire stage down the years. In the reflected light from the stage the faces looked like the daubings of an impressionist painter, or as if they'd just been dipped in a bucket of gaudy distemper by some Picasso in experimental mood! But look at those same dials when Herbie gets at them with his lights. You wouldn't know the old faces now at all. Any one of them would be liable to win a Beauty Prize! The switchboard makes all the difference.

Herbie plays his tricks with three colours - amber, blue and red - along with white. And to play his tricks he uses his big ebonite switchboard, with its rows of switches, plugs, wheels, lights... in fact, with what might be described as a miniature power station control panel. There are, for instance, six rows of wheels to control the dimmers. Look down there at the footlights. He turned a wheel. The blue lights slowly faded. He turned another wheel. The amber lights slowly brightened. Each of those wheels controls a battery of lights in some particular section of the stage. He can concentrate any colour on any spot, and at any strength. He can light up a group at the front of the set and keep the rest of the stage in shadow. He can fade out the front lighting and concentrate your attention on some other corner. He can both attract your eye and distract it. And, most of the time you don't realise he's doing it, though you're conscious of the difference in the atmosphere.

The show's going on. He's keeping those wheels and switches occupied. But not looking what he's doing, for he's standing with his back to the board, and his eyes are fixed on the stage. "Never look at the board," said he. "Like playing an organ. You know where everything is." The job's non-stop, a change of some sort being made every few minutes. Plotted and planned? "Ach, no," said he. "Our show's much the same, week after week," said he. "You know where you are without planning it out."

Herbert Stilling at the controls of the Lighting Switchboard (The Grand Master) at the Belfast Empire - Courtesy Bill Stilling.The comic was just finishing a sketch. Herbie flicked the switch and the stage was blacked out. "You get so used to the comics." said he, "that you know just when the tag line comes." He switched up again. A crimson curtain formed the background for a singer The light on it was only faint. Herbie suddenly flooded it with red. The drab crimson grew startlingly vivid - like velvet for a princess. "Red always gives warmth," said he. "Red on any other colour enriches It."

Left - Herbert Stilling at the controls of the Lighting Switchboard (The Grand Master) at the Belfast Empire - Courtesy Bill Stilling.

Any particular "principles" about lighting? "One thing," he said. "A three colour mixture isn't a good colour. Pink and green, for example, isn't a good mixture. Green is made up of blue and amber, you see, and that gives you the three colours."

More in the job than meets the eye, it would seem. I wondered if he could elucidate the mystery of that special lighting which changes white faces into black. You'll maybe remember seeing it done previously at the Empire. He smiled. "Simple enough," he said "The artists make-up very red. You light them with a deep pink, then light up with a green and blue and the combination of lights produces black."

Simple, right enough! The mechanics of mystifcation always are. I'm afraid. We're easily "took in." Above the centre of the stage, towards the front, there is a fixed light which shines down to diffuse a circle of light on the boards. A blonde stands there at the moment. "The light on the hair." said he. "makes blondes look really nice."

That light's about the only "special." The rest are standard. There's the floats - "footlight" to you outsiders. But why "floats." "In the old days, they say," said he, "before the days even of gas, the footlights were wicks floating in oil. So they're still called floats." Then there are the headlights above the stage parallel to the foots, the limes from the perches and the gallery, the portable floods at the sides of the stage... and that's about all.

A photograph of Herbert Stilling from the Belfast Empire's Diamond Jubilee Programme of February 1955.The rest comes from Herbie's hands working at the switchboard. I noticed two bulbs faintly glowing at one side of the board "Secondary lighting,' he explained. "Exit signs, passages, stairs, and so on - the Corporation by-laws say they must always be lit. If anything goes wrong with that lighting one or other of those bulbs will go out so you know at once and get things made right."

All the tine he kept his eyes on the stage, and all the time his hands, though behind his back, were sensitive to the switches. Then the curtain swished down to mark the half-way stage of the show.

We went down the ladder and back to earth once more. "What do you think of that sketch, Herbie?" asks the comic, Herbie laughed. "I've never seen it yet!" said he. (Hard knock for the comic!)

Right - A photograph of Herbert Stilling from the Belfast Empire's Diamond Jubilee Programme of February 1955.

Reverting to principles of lighting, as he halted to adjust a portable lamp, he said: "Always got to watch, Red, blue and green make up white. If you don't get the exact mixture, it's dirty white."

In the far corner of the stage was the board with the switches which control the lights used otherwise than for the actual snow. The house lights, gallery, circle, stalls, boxes, ceiling. The back-stage lights, fly floor (near the ceiling, where the pulleys, ropes etc., are which control the drop cloths),under stage band room, store room.

And there's the microphone control panel "Singers shouldn't be allowed the mike," remarked our friend., "it spoils them. Makes them lazy! Singers used to the mike feel lost without it. They don't think they're singing at all. They always want to hear their voices coming back to them."

We're up on the perch again and the second half begins. The show goes on and for the umpteenth time Herbie pulls the switches. "Yes," said he. "Over twenty years on the job, in the Empire all The time" Know it all by now? "No," said he. "It's like any job you take a real interest in. You're learning something new every day."

He blacked out, moved a wheel or two, and once more a new light broke on the new scene. "This is only amusement, at night," said he. "The daytime's when the real work's done. There's 600 lamps in the theatre. Leads giving out and all that sort of thing. Always something to be done."

At this, a big flat teetered towards us. "Hold that!" shouted a voice from below. Herbie put out his hand and steadied the wavering wing. "Know your cue, Herbie?" calls another voice. Herbie nodded but kept his eyes on the stage.

And I think that's where we'll leave him - the man of illusions, the man who could make one of the Ugly Sisters look lovely and who can transform the most ordinary dame into a scintillating and ravishing beauty! The power at the switchboard - the Elizabeth Arden of the Empire!

The above article was first published in a local Belfast newspaper around 1947 - Courtesy Bill Stilling, Herbert Stilling's nephew.