There aren’t many of us working in the American theatre today who were around at the very beginning of it all. I don’t mean ancient Greece, but the beginning of the modern nonprofit theatre in America as we know it today. Very few people still working in theatre today ever actually used those giant old rheostat dimmers that now seem like something from a Frankenstein movie—and have also used Q-lab.
Bob Scales did. His reign in theatre scaled more than half a century, from primitive technology to 21st-century computerized everything. Bob was one of those legendary theatre people who was there on the ground floor of the regional theatre movement in the middle of the last century, and was still in the game until his death in May at the age of 83. Just three weeks before he died, he insisted on leaving his hospital bed to attend a show at the theatre he co-founded in the late ’90s, L.A.’s 24th Street Theatre (where I’m now the executive director). Bob was that passionate about theatre.
One unique thing about Bob Scales was that his passion reached across the usual lanes of theatre careers. He was a self-proclaimed “techie” who helped build some of America’s flagship theatres before eventually becoming a dean of theatre at a prestigious university. He was equally comfortable eating lunch on the loading dock with the crew or dining on filet mignon with the other deans at a black-tie gala. He came from solid, plain-spoken stock in rural Oklahoma, and even with all his worldliness and degrees, he never forgot who he was or the values he was raised to live by.
To understand the scale of Bob’s influence on the American theatre, you have to realize that he played a role in creating the position of the modern technical director, having served as TD of the brand new Guthrie in the ’60s. The concept of a technical department supporting the artistic department was new at the time, and Bob showed how it could work by literally helping design the theatres to accommodate the scene shop. He helped build Seattle Rep—literally. He worked for Kansas City Rep and the Stratford Festival of Canada. He was famous for his use of air casters to move set pieces quickly and efficiently.
I once needed to move a ghost light as if by magic in a show at 24th Street, and I asked Bob for one of his fancy fixes. Perhaps a super-quiet remote control of some sort? Bob came to rehearsal, looked at the ghost light and at the lighting of the scene, examined the distance of the ghost light to the audience, looked at the angles, and then said, “Just put a black string on it.” Bob also understood the budget of a 99-seat theatre.
Born Robert, he always preferred the shorter and more casual Bob. He worked hard to add three more letters to his name, though he kept his Ph.D. quietly to himself. He was highly educated but didn’t like to brag. If you knew Bob, it made perfect sense. As one of the most down-to-earth people you’d ever meet, “Dr. Scales” just didn’t match the man. Bob was as humble as a man could be. The white board on the wall of his hospital room in his final week read, “Likes to be called Bob.” Those were the only three letters he needed.
Bob Scales helped launch a thousand careers in theatre, including mine and my partner Deb Devine’s. Bob, more than anyone else, was responsible for the founding of 24th Street Theatre in the late ’90s. He wanted a professional theatre in the USC neighborhood, so he helped find us the coolest old warehouse in North University Park and got us started. He helped us get funding from the university to buy our first lighting equipment, and he rented the theatre for USC productions to help us earn revenue. He hired our co-founders, Jon White-Spunner and Stephanie Shroyer, at USC, which helped them pay the bills while they ran a small theatre without pay. None of us would be paid by the theatre for several more years. Bob was even our first injury: He fell off a ladder and broke his ankle at the very beginning. Witnesses said he was hot-dogging on that ladder by bouncing it to move it along the wall, but whenever I asked Bob about that, he only smiled.
Bob was dean of USC’s School of Theater (now USC’s School of Dramatic Arts) for a decade (1993-2003). It was highly unusual to see a dean up on a ladder. But that was Bob. His academic career included teaching at Yale, University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Hardin-Simmons University, Banff School of the Arts, and University of Missouri at Kansas City.
He also worked as a consultant, helping design many theatres around the country. Most recently he helped redesign the historic Robert Frost Auditorium in Culver City. Among other theatres he helped design is the beautiful McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert. A few years ago 24th Street Theatre had a show on tour at the McCallum, so Bob went along to do the introductions, as he had helped design the theatre and hired the original tech staff. At load-in all the tech crew mobbed Bob like he was a rock star. They took him around, proudly showing him things they’d added backstage over the past 20 years, and he showed them the special things he’d designed there. At one point he asked them to build him a work table so he could take one of our set pieces, a lighted amusement park sign, completely apart. He wanted to rewire its hundreds of lights before the next morning’s 9 a.m. performance. I gulped, I’ll admit. But he assured me it’d be ready in time. And he took his tools offstage the next morning just before the house opened, and when the cue came up in the show, every light in that amusement park sign worked flawlessly. That was Bob. He liked making things work.
He loved to build little ghost lights, which he used to help raise money for 24th Street Theatre, ETC Theatre company, USC’s Emeriti Center, USITT, and others he was involved with. After he died, we named our 24th Street ghost light Bob, because he gave it to us as a gift. It now sports Bob’s photo on its base. Now at the end of the day at the theatre, we put that ghost light centerstage. And we say, “Good night, Bob.”
Jay McAdams is executive director of 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles.