A colorful life
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A colorful life

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Marc Rubinstein and some of his art.

The year was 1965. Marc Rubinstein was a 15-year-old kid in Long Beach on Long Island with a guitar and love for rock and roll and a talent for electrical wiring.

He had a band, but getting good lighting on stage was hit and miss in those days.

“When you went into a concert, they had a couple of strip lights on stage. A lot of the time they didn’t even turn the house lights down because they said rowdy kids didn’t deserve darkness,” he recalled this week.

So Rubinstein did it himself. He pulled out the guts from an all-in-one record player, put in “a bunch of dimmers and switches,” and managed the lighting for his own act.

Then he started getting requests from other bands to run their lighting. He was embarking on what turned into a career in the world of light. In 1970, he provided a light show to accompany a Shabbat service at the annual convention of Reform rabbis. Later on, his career would include teaching, and he earned a doctorate in theater lighting. This weekend, he will provide the light show that accompanies the Beatles tribute bands appearing at the BeatleFest in Secaucus on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Rubinstein was 16 when he experienced his first psychedelic-style light show, where colored shapes pulsed across the screen in time to the music. That proved to be a turning point in his career. He had to know how that effect was done, and how to do it himself. (It turned out that it was achieved with colored liquids placed between glass slides.)

Straightforward stage lighting faded for him; the entrancing glow of bright colored shapes and the mystery of how to produce them took over.

By 1967, he was producing such shows using the name “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and when legendary rock concert producer (and Holocaust survivor) Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East in a decrepit former Yiddish theater in the East Village, Rubinstein was hired to be one of the regular providers of light shows.

Today, computer graphics let video artists create anything they can imagine. But computers were not an option for artists who created the light shows of the ’60s. Instead, light artists like Rubinstein set up backstage with an arsenal of slide projectors and overhead projectors and color wheels and flexible mirrors and glass clock cases, into which colored liquids were placed. “We were able to boil black alcohol,” Rubinstein recalled. “When you did that on an overhead, you saw black and bubbles shooting around.”

Surplus classroom overhead projectors were fitted with high-wattage airplane landing lights – bright enough to project onto the huge screen behind the band, and hot enough to boil the liquids.

As many as 10 co-workers would be backstage, each manning a different projector.

Rubinstein followed the lead of Joshua White, whose light show also was a regular at the Fillmore.

“Joshua would never tell me how to do an effect,” Rubinstein said. “He said, ‘Remember your mistakes. They may be the most creative things you come up with.’ Once I’d do something, he’s say that maybe you could do it cheaper by using this kind of oil.

“It wasn’t like we were ever in competition, but he made me more creative by making me have to do all my own work,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, because this way I have a ton of stuff that I can say was totally my own creation.”

The first time he played the Fillmore East, his show was dubbed “Josh junior” because people at the Fillmore couldn’t tell the difference. “Joshua and his personnel were walking around real proud because they were my mentor. I had won everybody over with my professionalism. I was 17 at the time.”

It was a young person’s world. The lighting mentors were in their mid to late 20s; promoter Graham was all of 26.

“For us, it was a big deal. It was very cool,” Rubinstein said.

And as for the truly older generation – how did his parents feel about his choice of careers?

“They were like parents are always: ‘When are you going to get a real job?'”

“Your parents tell you a lot of things. They don’t necessarily understand your world, but you they love and try to understand. They never understood me, but they knew if it was important to me, it was important to back me up,” he said.

Between acts, the projection screen behind the musicians would partially rise, to enable instruments to be moved on and off stage. One night, at a Santana show early in Rubinstein’s Fillmore days, the screen rose and he looked out to the audience – and saw the first two rows filled with his parents and their friends.

“It was a great moment,” he said. “When I saw that, I knew they were firmly behind me and proud of what I was doing.”

Rubinstein left the Fillmore in 1973 to go to college. Over the years, he supported himself by doing theatrical lighting and teaching, but he kept up the occasional light shows until that faded away in the 1990s. A few years ago, though, a friend started a Doors tribute band, and asked him to provide a light show – perhaps a video.

Rubinstein made videos of his effects, and then mixed the videos live during the show, just as he would have overlapped different projectors in the old days.

That night, those who remembered the old light shows were amazed, “and kids who had never seen a light show in their life were just floored. I realized that nobody does that any more, and I started doing more of it.”

It all starts with filming liquids in his studio, but with computer mixing, he can single-handedly create effects “that would have taken 30 or 40 people to do.”

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