“I’m Not Scared.” Eleven Questions and a Story with Bob Peterson
Floyd (Complete Crewing, Chicago Labor and Production Services): Tell me about your first job in the business. How did you get it and what was it?
Bob: I got started in the business playing hockey in Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows, IL. On my Rolling Meadows team was Don Carone. Don Carone is the younger brother of Robert Carone, who owns Upstaging. This was in the infant years of Upstaging with just maybe 12 to 24 lights in the family garage in Mount Prospect. I think that I was 15 years old.
Donny, after a game, said, “Hey, we’re doing Styx at Fremd or Niles North High School or something, do you want to come help?” I’m like, “What do you mean you’re doing Styx?” He said. “Yeah, we’ve got lights over at the Styx show, and you can come over and help me pack it up.” I did, and really, from that first day on I was just hooked.
For me, what really kind of turned it was KISS came through Chicago, pretty heavy, ’75 and ’76 and Donny and I would go and help out on all those shows, including several at the Aragon Ballroom .
KISS then became massive with the KISS live album, maybe, hopefully I got that correct. They mounted the Destroyer Tour, in the summer of ’76. It was the year that I graduated high school. I was tapped to be the third guy on the lighting crew as opposed to going off to college and becoming an electrical engineer.
I told my dad that I would just do it for that summer, and then I’d go to college later. He didn’t quite believe me, and he was right. Because what happened was while we were out on that tour, Bob Seger was the opening act.
That is exactly when “Live Bullet,” album got released, and also Seger was writing “Night Moves.” I got asked by Bob Seger personally to run his lights as the opening act during that tour. I agreed to do it. No knowledge of how to run the board. Technically yes, but execution and followspot calling were new.
Floyd: You went from the third guy on the crew to becoming an LD because nobody else on the crew wanted to run the lights for the third act?
Bob: Yeah. Exactly.
At that point, Rick Munroe, who was KISS’ LD and an absolute idol to me, helped me out and showed me how to do it. When that tour was over, Seger started to get headline dates and he tapped me on the shoulder for design, and I never looked back.
Bob: It’s something that I see still to this day is, I’ll go out, and I’ll design a tour, or go light it for television and there’s arguments amongst the crew, “Who’s going to go run the opening acts’ lights?”
I actually saw this happen with Taylor Swift on a [laughs] Rascal Flatts tour where nobody wanted to do it. I’m like, “Guys, what are you doing?” They’re fighting about, “Do I get $50?” Or, “When am I getting paid?” This, that, and the other thing.
I’m like, “Get in there, and jump in with both feet.” It was a phenomenon back in my day, and same today, where those opportunities exist, but people sometimes are reluctant to take them.
Floyd: Did you have any mentors along the way that helped you move up and shape your career?
Bob: I want to name three people, Robert Carone, Rick Munroe, and Allen Branton. Robert Carone, every time I wanted to learn, or push, or take on another challenge, he provided it to me.
Rick Munroe, in terms of lighting design, took time not only to teach me how to run the board, and call the followspots, but also to draw basic light plots, and those kind of things. For three or four years during that period, he was my mentor.
The transition to television happened in the, I think, mid‑late ’80s and Allen Branton became critical to my career.
I had had a fallout and divorce from my brother (we’d become partners in a lighting company) and Allen tapped me to provide some technical service, as gaffer, or head technician kind of thing, on a couple shows for him.
What was taking place at that time was a confluence of events. Automated lighting and Vari‑Lite specifically were becoming viable and functional to concerts. Cameras were switching to digital from tube and we all got our MTV.
Because the cameras had gotten better, they were now able to see for the first time beams, and beam graphics in the air, and lighting shows became something that you could actually show on television.
Bob Dickinson, Greg Brunton, and Allen Branton were the three critical guys at that transition. Bobby was doing it out in Hollywood at Solid Gold, and Branton, through his tour stuff, was David Bowie’s and The Stones’ guy, and because of that was getting opportunities to do it on one‑off events.
I fell into that as kind of a lead technical coordination person, right when that was going, so I was a part of the change in the industry, and of that particular style of lighting becoming important in the television world. HBO actually did a study that showed people would stop on the channel when concert lighting was on it.
Bob: The Allen Branton situation was a result of my daughter, Kimberly’s birth, and her challenges. She was severely impaired – let’s call it Cerebral Palsy to keep it simple, and Allen Branton had just lost his daughter to leukemia.
Through the industry, people had shared the story of what was happening to our family in Chicago. Allen Branton, I think, really reached out to me as kind of a, “Hey, maybe I can help out and give you some extra work at this time.” That’s what created that opportunity.
Bob: In terms of reaching out to people, I have a great example. Bill Klages was absolutely the pinnacle of television lighting design for years and years. He’s retired since then.
I got a project with MTV to do Spring Break down at Daytona. There were some things involved out on the beach, which were challenging in terms of managing the 13,000 footcandles of the sun, and the dark side, and how to do that without having any heavy equipment.
I just cold called Bill Klages and asked him for help. He spent an hour‑and‑a‑half on the phone with me, teaching me some viable techniques on how to deal with those problems. Within this industry, I think, at least at that time, there was a very wide open sharing of experiences in terms of things that happened from any level.
Floyd: What type of work are you best known for?
Bob: I think that putting performance lighting on television, I found a pretty good niche in terms of I came from concert touring and concert design, so I understand that top to bottom. I understand the equipment top to bottom. Being able to put that on television without compromise, is something that I became successful at and am known for.
I’m also very efficient in the work. Most of that is budget driven. There wasn’t a lot of a lot of money or time in a lot of the MTV things that I was called to do. There’s a simplicity to my work that drives it at the core.
Floyd: What are the biggest marquee projects people have seen that you’ve worked on?
Bob: Garth Books has been a long‑time client. His shows, very early in his career, and later on, have been without question, the biggest production events that I’ve been involved in.
The thing that I’m unquestionably the most the most proud of, and historically I think had the most impact was the Grant Park Election Night Rally, when President Obama got elected, it was broadcast and on the front page of every newspaper in the entire world. To be there and be part of that I’ll take with me to my grave.
Floyd: What do you consider your greatest strengths, or specialty, the things that clients keep coming back for?
Bob: I touched on it a little bit. I actually have a little thing that I say in the television truck quite a bit, “I’m not scared.” This again, developed from Kimberly, in that we went through some very, very dramatic medical crises early in her life. I learned what’s important or not.
When there’s hysteria in the truck, because there’s a wardrobe malfunction, or somebody’s brought out the wrong envelope, I’m able to maintain a calm head, and stay focused, and keep moving the ball down the road. That happened quite a bit early on during than a lot of shows that we did.
If I’m there, you know that I’m going to keep working no matter what happens. I also think that that efficiency thing is important. Here is the lesson that Allen Branton taught me.
I remember many times fighting with him to get more resources, money, or time in order to create the world’s greatest lighting effect or spectacular architectural detail, whatever. He took me aside after the fifth time and just simply said, “An idea that’s not ready for show time is not a very good idea, now is it?” That really lives in my head all the time.
Every time I work on a show, I’m constantly prioritizing what it is we can get done versus what it is we should get done. I think I’m good at that.
Floyd: What do you like most about working in this industry, and what would you change if you could?
Bob: The clock is very exciting. There’s always a clock. Most times, there’s a clock for the live events, from my years of concert stuff where you just go and get it done.
As I think about it, I guess I’m a specialist more in the live events, or live to tape events, that happen while you do it. The clock never stops and there’s this ever increasing adrenaline thing that happens, until you get there.
There is live return to the video wall up in the corner of the truck, which actually shows the broadcast coming back, what’s actually getting delivered out to the US or the world, and watching that and knowing how many people are appreciating or criticizing your work at that very moment is an exhilarating thing.
Floyd: What would you change about this business if you could?
Bob: The clock.
Bob: It’s the same sword. It’s like the exhilaration. You’re only as good as your last show. That constantly eats at your personality, and I think that’s entertainment on any level, be it an artist or a creative person, you’re constantly judged by what you did last. Not having a good answer to the, “What are you doing next?” question. I hate that part.
Floyd: How would you describe your management or leadership style? How do you see it help you get the results you desire onstage or screen?
Bob: I think that I pride myself in my technical background, my understanding of the backbone that goes into making these things work. I appreciate and communicate with every person in the crew from the teamster driving the forklift to the gaffer, or head of department.
Again, double-edged sword. This has become a problem for me in that I enjoy all those interactions and it makes my critical people like Monica, or Kevin, or Tyler a little bit nuts because I’m meddling in the micro details. It’s become a little bit of a challenge for me in that I need to get more hands‑off in terms of letting things unfold the way they need to unfold, and not meddling in it so much on the large projects.
Floyd: How do you establish trust with musical artists and television directors so they give you the time and resources you need, which may be time, or people, or programming opportunities, to get the results you can see are possible, or envision are possible?
Bob: The television directors and producers is an investment deal where, again, you try to have relationships with everybody on the crew at every level, and treat everybody with as much respect as possible. There are three women, for example, that were PAs and runners when I first started working with them, and now they run networks.
You spend time, and you assist, and you talk, and you elicit help from everybody at every level, and try to build those relationships along the way. On the technical side, I think that just builds from the bottom.
The artists are a little bit different. I, maybe to a fault, try to leave them to their own concerns. Especially early, I don’t schmooze or involve them. But once I’m engaged with them I think it’s a real critical honesty about the realities of what is happening and is possible, and what we can get done. “Maybe that’s not the best side of you, let’s try this.” Brutal honesty is something that I’ve always tried to engage in talking with artists. Sometimes it puts you back on the bench for a while but pretty soon they’re asking for the honest guy back.
Floyd: Of all the people you’ve worked with, who’s impressed you most as a performer, and who as a human being?
Bob: As a performer, I think that Prince was one of the most talented people from top to bottom. His guitar playing, his dancing, his songwriting, his singing, just all of it was amazing to me.
Garth Brooks is also someone who you can’t just hear on the radio. He is a true entertainer, with an Elvis like magnetism, and his personality completely fills the room with this honest embrace. These are guys that stand apart from so many other artists.
Floyd: And as a human being?
Bob: Gotta go back there, but Garth Brooks. Again, he’s always got time for everyone. His quiet work for charitable organizations and things is exemplary. He and Trisha both go to extraordinary lengths to help people.
Floyd: What advice would you give to someone starting out who wants your job? I know we talked a little bit about taking opportunities as they present themselves. What else?
Bob: I would tell them that it’s an unrewarding business and they should go into finance.
Bob: Just do it. Just do it. Take every opportunity, get involved, volunteer on occasion when there is a project or something going on that you want to be a part of but you didn’t necessarily get tapped. Call and see if you can go help and participate in some fashion.
Every time there is an opening to push yourself further, be it running a light board, or getting to know some new fixtures, or whatever, do it. Just engage, don’t ever expect things to come to you. If a door opens, kick it down and jump in there.
Floyd: Tell me something about you that most people don’t know.
Bob: I love to cook, I’m a fanatic. If I didn’t do what I do, I would do that. In fact I do do that when I’m not out on projects. I absolutely love to find and go to markets and prepare foods for people. That’s something that I absolutely love.
Floyd: With all of your years in show business, can you think of an entertaining story to close with?
I went to South America with The Police, and this was actually in Caracas, Venezuela. The lighting system was an array of Fresnels and Lekos of very old origin hanging on a pipe or two right above the front of the stage with zip‑cord down to an array of light switches.
Not banked in any way, no mastering whatever, just light switches. A ring of 16 brand new Super Troupers all the way around the arena got me excited. I ended going up there to figure out how many followspots I could use, because I thought if I brought a bunch of them around back we could really get something magical.
Of the 16 only four actually worked. They had burned the guides out where the carbons went in and they had destroyed 12 followspots.
I decided that the way the show was going to happen is we would put some switches over to stage right just offstage of Sting and call the followspots in Spanish, so I learned how to call, “Followspots,” in Spanish, ” A listo…”
I had it all down, except when we got to the end of Don’t Stand. At the blackout in the song, fumbling with too many switches and I missed it. In panic, I start saying, “Blackout, blackout.” Well, blackout in Spanish is very close to “blanco,” which is white.
Followspots flipped open white, and would not go out. Sting is over there just pointing at me, “Turn the damn lights off. Turn the damn lights off,” and I couldn’t get it done. The actual proper language is “ir a negro,” just so you know if you ever go down and do that.
That ended a promising lighting direction career with The Police, though we did keep the account. [laughs]