Set designs at Hillcrest High School
By James Robert Watson, PhD
I realized I had a passion for designing stage sets when I was a kid and helped design and build sets for my mother's community dance company. About the same time, my parents exposed me to live theater at the Dallas Summer Musicals. The first show I saw was The Sound of Music. I enjoyed the visuals, the story, music, and emotional impact. Then I became fascinated with model-making.
Some of the set models I made as a teenager.
When I got to high school, I joined the Art Service Club since that group was responsible for the scenery for all school plays and pep rallies, and assemblies. The faculty sponsor was Ms. Hudson who gave us leeway to work but kept an eye on us to guide us in the right direction. I became the lead set designer and worked with a crew that became my best friends: Laird McDonald, Barbara Smith, Becky Kennedy, Chris Chernoff, Abe Frishman, Allen Smoot, Ann Kilby (daughter of Jack who invented the transistor at Texas Instruments), and Joe Chapman. We would work during lunch periods and after school. We had a great time, in and out of school. The experience encouraged me to major in set design at the University of Texas (although I switched majors after my freshman year). Below are some of the shows and productions we worked on.
The King and I
This Rogers and Hammerstein classic was the annual spring musical in 1967. It was my first production to design - I spent many a late nite researching and sketching.
The only color photos I have. Real Musgrave painted the backdrop of the Bangkok cityscape.
Below: backstage shots
Me standing, the backside of Allen Smoot, and Lars Lundahl kneeling. Some more crew: me, Bobby Rohloff, Abe Frishman, and John Bookhout.
The inspiration for the King's Palace set may have come from Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland. My family and I had visited Disneyland in 1956 and I suspect I had seen this classic foto of Walt walking through the arch the morning before the park opened for the first time in 1955. I don't think I consciously referenced it when designing the King and I sets, but it was probably seared in my brain somewhere.
The Girls in 509
A comedy set in an old high-rise apartment building.
Sketches of the set, foto of actual built set below.
We stenciled the wallpaper pattern. The panels in the elevator doors were cut out and covered with tracing paper. We rigged a system to raise a dark curtain behind that so the light coming through would rise up as if the elevator was ascending to that floor. The effect worked great.
The previous year, the art and music programs spent too much money on The King and I so the administration wanted a spring musical that would be cheap to produce, hence Spring Thaw, an evening of a one-act musical, Down in the Valley, and choral and symphony performances.
The show curtain that was seen as the audience entered, during the overture, and between acts.
Backdrop for the choral numbers. False proscenium arch to frame the musical Down in the Valley.
The backdrop was a series of painted canvas stage flats.
Fotos from the show. Each scene was represented by a different type of window. Top left: the house window was on a track and glided in from the wings. Bottom right: the Cafe Hoedown skylight window flew in from above. The word Cafe is backwards to convey that is the sign and we are on the back side, or inside the cafe, of the sign.
The design and construction team. Laird McDonald, Watson, and Jeff Wincek. Jeff helped with the basic design concept and Laird helped with the implementation and construction. We are pointing to the rendering of the backdrop (seen above in fotos). To the lower right is a rendering of the show curtain.
Below: the front and back of the program cover.
Washing the flats/backdrops in the gymnasium courtyard
The Dating Game
The stage set for Allied Youth's version of the Dating Game. Good friend, Bobby Darrow, was President of Allied Youth. The large hearts were bright red and the backdrop was light blue. The black flats in the middle jutted out far enough so the contestants couldn't see their potential dates.
The Art Service Club was responsible for painting all the spirit posters for hanging around the school and for the pep assemblies. A few of the people: Betsy Brown, Barbara Smith, Laird MacDonald, Becky Kennedy, Jeff Wincek, Glenn Normile, Cathy Selman, Holly Poole.
For Heaven's Sake
Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church had an active performing arts group. The set for this show consisted of 5 structures that were rotated and rearranged to make a variety of settings. The back of each 'box' was painted black so it looked like just a framework in front of the black backdrop. On the back side were painted scenes that were exposed when the box was rotated. The final scene had the cast attach pieces to the boxes to build a church.
Above: the scale model of the stage and the set pieces.
Below: shots taken during rehearsal, the backdrop has yet to be painted black.
The set crew: laird McDonald, Barbara Smith, Rick Poole
In 2010, 44 years later, my niece built a model and designed a set for the same stage. Below is a photo of the set she designed for a contemporary version of Godspell. She had no idea that I had designed sets for that stage. Notice the similarities in the set pieces.
Also see graphic work Jim did at Hillcrest High School