Wally Russell

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From former Wally Russell Foundation website:

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 teenage 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.”



Tributes to Wally Russell from TCI, January 31st, 1992

Richard Pilbrow
Holly Sherman
Bob Schiller
William Groener
Phillip Rose
Denis Irving
John Lenkey
Dave Cunningham
Rusty Brutsché
Richard Brett
Tim Lynch
Michael van Himbergen
Thomas Folsom

Richard Pilbrow:

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.


Holly Sherman:

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.


Bob Schiller:

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.


William Groener:

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.


Phillip Rose:

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.


Denis Irving:

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.


Dave Cunningham:

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.


Rusty Brutsché:

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.


Richard Brett:

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.


Tim Lynch:

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.


Thomas Folsom:

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


John Lenkey:

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.