Did You Know The Fillmore East’s Joshua Light Show Really Started Here?

Published September 2012

Returning to theWestVillagewith his reactivated Joshua Light Show for the first time in almost 50 years for a 4-day engagement at theNYUSkirballCenterfor the Performing Arts, Josh White candidly reflects on his local roots in this exclusive outerview with the WestView News.

“Okay, for obvious reasons, I was always a little shy about mentioning that I started my career on Christopher Street (joke here), but I actually did though, at the time, I was living on the Upper East Side.

I and my crew of friends were—in a sense—the house ‘band’ at Bobb Goldsteinn’s (now Bobb Goldsteinn’s) Lightworks in the spring of 1966, on the second floor of a combination townhouse and loft down by the river at 181.

Bobb lived on the first two floors there, courtesy of royalties from writing the international anthem ofGreenwich Village, The Village Stompers’ ‘Washington Square.”

The first floor was garage-like and, on the second floor, in a room with perfect sightlines and good proportions for multi-wall projections that could hold up to a hundred people standing, Bobb was giving these Lightworks performances all by himself, perhaps three nights a week.

Goldsteinn had started hosting these presentations about three months earlier, following a pre-Christmas party he had thrown in November of ’65 as an indoor holiday display of lights and images for his friends.

On the day of the party, Bobb was pre-recording some of his music for the evening when he decided to say something into the mic. Bobb wished all happy holidays, adding that he hopes they’ll like the evening’s kinetic display, which he named—on the spot—“Bobb Goldsteinn’s Lightworks.”

I went to one of those evenings, I think, in early February, and I was brought there by my friend Bob Weiner who was an entertainment journalist of sorts who also hired himself out to do stuff, like being the casting director for both William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” and, much later, “To Live and Die in L.A.”

That night, I experienced my first Lightwork’s performance and I was transfixed. For the next two hours, I watched the play of the syncopated Christmas tree lights—hung in decorative patterns above three white, disappearing window shades on which appeared still and moving images, accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack of movie, show tunes and pop music that complemented the visuals very well. And it featured something I had never seen live before: a programmed mirrored ball.

Afterwards, I heard myself saying to Bobb that I wanted to become involved, and he said okay.

So, about a week or two later, I’m managing a crew of five, running the film projector and changing the slide trays and the music sources while Bobb plays the lights from a customized control panel, which was straight out of “The Wizard of Oz.” But Bobb didn’t do it from behind a curtain or backstage. He did it in the middle of the room, surrounded by the audience that was also watching him because, as he ‘played’ the ranks of light switches and room dimmers controlling all the tiny strands, spots and motorized screens, Bobb would start dancing, and then the audience would start dancing, and a new kind of disco was born.

I was donating my time (as were my friends) because I sensed that something was going on here that seemed to interest a lot of interesting people who loved the idea of dancing to flashing lights and projections, something they probably had never done anywhere else before.

Eventually, the Lightworks became such a ‘must-see’ attraction in what was, essentially, a private living space, that we made the cover story in Life Magazine (‘life goes to a new kind of party!’) and Thomas Meehan (who had “Annie” in his tomorrow) wrote about us in the Saturday Evening Post, sadly, long before the Internet.

Mike Nichols was a return guest, as was Stephen Sondheim and Marlo Thomas. Even Heddy Lamarr, who was no dumb bell, graced the Lightworks with her presence, and big art collector Ethel Scull managed to mention the Lightworks in her lengthy 2-part profile in the New Yorker.

Even Andy Warhol came and saw and started doing his version of Bobb’s work over at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place.

Andy also stole Bobb’s name for his entertainment, ‘The Lightworks,’ but since Bobb legally owned the name, one cease-and-desist letter from Bobb’s lawyers, and Andy changed his show’s title, first to ‘The Balloon Farm’ and then to the bigger, and also less-descriptive ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable.’

So this was my first gig out of school, and I’m the media manager of this thing that’s really hot. I mean ‘Rock Obermeyer’ was, because that was the name I instructed Bobb to list me as in the program. That is, until our first rave review hit the papers and I became Josh White again.

After a few weeks running the back of the house, all of us realized that we, like Bobb, were working naked, out in the open, so guests with drink in hand, could wander into our small back of the room space and interrupt our work. So we decided to put up a wall with projection ports to separate us from the maddening throngs.

A couple weeks after that, I realized that the almost floor-to-ceiling Masonite divide we had erected also had space on it for a small rear-projection screen, and I asked Bobb if it would be okay to put one in, and Bobb said yes.

The next thing I know, I’m bringing petri dishes, eye-dropper bottles filled with the different colors of Dr. Martin’s dyes, and an overhead projector that enlarged the kinetics of the splashing and the merging of the liquid dyes being pressed together between petri dishes.

So this two-by-three foot screen in the back of the room that became the Lightworks’ intermission entertainment, one day had a name: the Joshua Light Show.

Two years later, we were hired to be the house band at another, much bigger music venue, and for real money: Bill Graham’s Legendary Fillmore East, which is one of the reasons we are still here.

But doing the Lightworks was our open door, our catalyst and our first platform, and what we will be doing at the Skirball on September 13 thru 16 with different music aggregations each night, all grew out of that.

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