Jean Rosenthal

Jean Rosenthal

JeanRosenthal2Jean Rosenthal : one of the three major theatrical lighting experts in New York at the time, lighted the New York City Ballet among other projects.

[Source: “Profiles: Please Darling, Bring Three to Seven” by Winthrop Sargeant, New Yorker, February 4, 1956, pp. 33-59. Excerpt: pp. 50-51]

“Gophers usually either die while they’re still young or else calm down eventually, but they’re very valuable while they last, and they’re getting harder and harder to find,” Miss Rosenthal observes, somewhat wistfully. “The thing about gophers is that they’re interested in something bigger than themselves. They have a love of the whole. The longer you’re in the theatre, the more you hate the heroics of individuals and the more you respect people who have a love of the whole.” The phrase “love of the whole” occurs repeatedly in Miss Rosenthal’s conversation and seems to represent to her a spirit of unstinting cooperation that she not only practices herself but regards as embodying a moral principle of some profundity, by which good may be distinguished from evil in nearly every area of human behavior. She apparently looks upon it as a mystic slogan, symbolic of an entire way of life.

Miss Rosenthal first learned about “love of the whole” at the age of nine, when she was sent to Manumit School, in Pawling, New York, an institution run by William Mann (Dad) Fincke, who was an educator of advanced views. Her father and mother, both Rumanians who migrated to New York, where she was born in 1912, are an ear, nose, and throat specialist and a psychiatrist, respectively, and their ideas about the training of the young were also somewhat unorthodox. “My childhood was remarkably undisciplined and full of progressive education,” Miss Rosenthal says. “I’ll bet there isn’t a graduate of Manumit who can keep a checkbook.” Fincke, however, does seem to have had an uncanny knack for teaching his students how to get along with one another, and “love of the whole” (the slogan may have been his invention) evidently had a great [p.50] deal to do with it. Moreover, the surroundings in which this cooperative principle was taught were wholesomely rural, and Manumit students learned how to get along with animals, too. Miss Rosenthal has since become an almost exaggeratedly urban type of person and loathes what she calls “the discomfort of the country,” but she is grateful for her memories of Pawling. “I will never forget the smell of the pine trees in the early morning, and especially those cows,” she says. At Manumit, she learned nearly everything there is to know about cows, from how to milk them to how to help them calve. “We also learned how to enter a chicken coop without scaring the chickens,” she recalls. “Very valuable thing to know when you work in the theatre.” There were occasional theatrical performances at the school, in which Miss Rosenthal spiritedly joined. They were given in the gymnasium, and for one of them, which had a forest setting, the students went out and chopped down whole trees to use as scenery. “When Jean left Manumit, her ideas about history and geography may have been pretty vague,” a friend commented recently, “but she had learned a respect for human beings that she has never lost.”

Miss Rosenthal’s next educational adventure took her to the Friends Seminary in Manhattan, a more formal establishment, in which she felt somewhat out of place and from which she graduated at the age of sixteen. She attributes the fact that she graduated at all “largely to the benevolence of my teachers.” … [p.51]

Jean Rosenthal is considered a pioneer of theatrical lighting design.

She was born on March 16, 1912 in New York City to Romanian immigrants. In the early part of the 20th century, the lighting designer was not a formalized position, the set designer or an ambitious electrician handled the lighting of a production. Through the course of her career, Jean Rosenthal made the lighting designer a crucial member of the production team.

he was one of the most in-demand professionals in the business in her day. In 1929, she was first introduced to Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She became her technical assistant and this was the beginning of a life-long collaboration with Graham. She studied at Yale University under Stanley McCandless.

In 1933, she left Yale and went back to New York. She joined the Federal Theatre Project in 1935. She worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman. She would later follow Welles to the Mercury Theatre, where she was credited as a member of the board as well as production and lighting manager, although not as lighting designer.

Some of her major contributions were the elimination of shadows by using floods of upstage lighting and controlling angles and mass of illumination to create contrasts without shadows. She designed over 200 Broadway shows for Martha Graham, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera. She also brought to Broadway such famous musicals as West Side Story (1957), Sound of Music (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Hello Dolly! (1964), and Cabaret (1966).

She died of cancer at the age of 57 on May 1, 1969. Her book, The Magic of Light was published posthumously in 1972. Lael Wertenb