Where Were You When You First Saw A Source Four?

by Gary Fails | Feb 27, 2014

If you are new to the lighting industry you are used to a world of many lighting manufacturers producing hundreds of competing models, including many moving lights and LEDs.  If you have been around for a while you can recall a much smaller lighting world with only a few manufacturers. And if you were around the lighting world in the early 1990s you may recall the exact moment you first saw a Source Four.

There are moments indelibly etched into our personal and group consciousness.  I remember the moment I learned that President Kennedy had been shot, and I remember sitting around a television with a group of Americans in London at the PLASA show watching the World Trade Center fall.

Those are unhappy circumstances, but I was thinking recently about the first time I ever saw a Source Four and what it meant to me, and how that moment has stuck with me over the years.

First a few facts and some history.  The Source Four is by far the most popular lighting fixture in the history of entertainment technology.  Here is its Wikipedia entry, and there is plenty of historical info on the ETC site.  It has sold millions of units in its more than 20 year life.  It has clearly dominated the market for a long, long time.  

Before the Source Four, the market was shared by Altman, Strand, Colortran, and others, with Altman 360Qs used on every Broadway show, and Strand and the others doing most of the permanent installations.  

ETC launched the Source Four at LDI in 1992.  I wasn’t there and had never been to LDI, and I didn’t even read the trade magazines.  In those days you had to pay to subscribe to the magazines!  (Not like today where if you’re breathing you get a trade magazine.)  I was a stagehand working on Broadway at night and ran City Theatrical in the daytime doing custom metalwork for Broadway shows and shops.  

So I was unaware of the stir caused by the Source Four at LDI where it won awards and caused a sensation.  It was a technical innovation that was an order of magnitude better than what we had been using up until that time.  It was cooler, brighter, didn’t burn gobos, had a rotating barrel, interchangeable lenses, an iris slot, and took an “A” size gobo.  Each of the big New York lighting shops ordered 5,000 units as soon as they saw it.  

Anyway, all that was unknown to me since I had not seen it.  In those days, Production Arts Lighting had a great Christmas Party that most of the New York lighting world attended.  The PA folks were friends and colleagues of City Theatrical and we worked with them every day doing custom metalwork, so I always attended their party.  

At that party, along with all of the typical holiday revelry, they had a Source Four set up on a stand for everyone to view.  It was in the fabrication shop.  There was a crowd of people around it.  I walked up and spent some time looking it over.  I loosened the locking knob and moved it like I was focusing it.  Then I noticed something that stopped me dead in my tracks, and I said out loud, “Holy shit, it has a different frame size. Everyone is going to need new accessories.”  Fixtures until that time universally had a 7 1/2” frame size.  The Source Four’s was 6 1/4” and there were no accessories for it.  God bless Dave Cunningham, the Source Four’s designer. 

That day, I went back to my shop and made a top hat for the Source Four, the first one ever made, I believe.  The next day I took it back to Production Arts and let them know that I had accessories for the new fixture.   

The Source Four has dominated the era of modern lighting.  It has been fun to watch and to play a very small part in.  We have designed dozens of unique accessories for the various varieties of Source Fours and the hardworking men and women of City Theatrical have built hundreds of thousands of them over the years in our shop.

Did the Source Four, or some other lighting fixture impact your lighting career in some way?  Let me know about it.  Moments like these are what make our industry fun, interesting, and personal.