Bob Barnhart gave advice to theatre students at CSU, Chico last spring
Alum Lights Up Entertainment Industry
Like many stars, Barbara Streisand knows lighting can make or break a televised performance. So when she needs a lighting designer, she calls Bob Barnhart. He’s also at the top of the Rolodex for the Rolling Stones. Even the Academy calls on him when it’s time for the Oscars.
Barnhart (attended ’83–’85) is one of the industry’s leading lighting designers, taking charge of setting thousands of lights for such shows as the Grammys, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, and the Miss America Pageant—and that was just in the last year. Barnhart has designed two live Stones concerts and the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Medals Plaza show. He’s also been lighting director for 13 Academy Awards, 11 Grammy Awards, the Golden Globes, and productions for Madonna, Prince, and Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.
For his outstanding work, Barnhart has been nominated for 13 and received 4 Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lighting Direction in a Television Special. So how’d he get so good? Hard work, dedication to his craft, and an ability to get along with others, according to Steve Ellis, CSU, Chico’s technical coordinator for Laxson Auditorium, who worked with Barnhart from 1980 to 1985, the first few years of which Barnhart was a Chico High student.
“Bob showed up almost every day after school asking ‘What can I do?’ He worked on everything he could, every aspect of theatre production,” says Ellis. “I had to tell him to go home at the end of the evening, or he would have stayed all night.”
When Barnhart spoke to about 50 CSU, Chico theatre students last spring, he asked: “If you were offered a job on a Broadway production right after you graduated, would you take it?” Most every hand in the room shot up. “Wrong answer,” said Barnhart. “Because you’re not ready for that kind of job right after college, and a failure in your first job will follow you throughout your career.” He urged students to start at the bottom and work their way up, because that’s how to really learn the business.
Barnhart learned the business by working at Laxson Auditorium and watching how everyone else did their jobs. “I had the opportunity to work as much as I could possibly want—opera, concerts, musical theatre, theatre, and dance,” he says. “Laxson Auditorium is one of the best educational experiences I’ve seen in my 26 years in the business. The ability for a student at Chico State to work at Laxson is a unique experience. It’s the epitome of higher education.”
Barnhart first learned about hard work from his mother. “I was raised with the perfect example of a strong work ethic,” he says. “My mother [Jacqueline Barnhart, professor emerita, History], who raised three boys on her own, put herself through college, and earned a PhD in history. She would come home from school after 6 pm most days, make us dinner, talk to us about our day, then put us to bed. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing my mother at the kitchen table, writing her dissertation or, later in her career, grading endless stacks of student papers.” To honor his mother, who died in 1997, Barnhart and his two brothers established the Jacqueline Barnhart Memorial Scholarship for an undergraduate history major.
That lesson was reinforced in the theatre department at CSU, Chico. “People like Steve Ellis, Jerry Corlies, Gail Holbrook, and Marty Gilbert had an infectious love for this industry,” he recalls. “You could not help but be propelled by it. Over a short period of time, I found that a solid work ethic stood out, more than anything else.”
Though the recipient of honors from his professional colleagues, Barnhart appreciates the accolades of his mentors even more. “There have been some great people who have taken me under their wing and then thrown me out of the nest,” he says. “When I have had the fortune to fly back by their nest, and they have that smile and a nod towards me, it is better than any award I have received.”
Smiling, Steve Ellis nods.
Casey Huff, Public Affairs and Publications