Electronic Theater Controls: Lighting Theaters, Churches and Theme Parks Around the World

At any theater in the country — be it Broadway, Vegas, or Hollywood — there's a 99 percent chance the lighting hardware being used was made at Electronic Theater Controls in Middleton, Wis.

And theaters aren't the only places using ETC products. This local company's lighting control systems can be found in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Capitol, at every Disney theme park in the world, on the outside and inside of upscale hotels in Las Vegas, in an opera house in Copenhagen, a theater in Germany, and a concert hall in California — to name just a few of ETC's varied projects.

The size of ETC projects run the gamut, from the company's biggest single installation — the LDS (Mormon) conference center in Salt Lake City, Utah — to numerous high school auditoriums across the nation.

The company's newer markets include China, India and the Middle East. A lighting system is currently being installed in the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and China is building theaters, many lit by ETC, at a fast clip.

Electronic Theater Controls was started in 1975 by brothers Fred and Bill Foster, when the two began work on a new lighting control console in the basement of their Madison apartment. The company grew slowly at first, getting one big break when it controlled the parade float lighting for Disney in 1979. The company moved to Middleton in 1988, then acquired a Rochester, New York company called Lighting Methods in 1990, which greatly increased the size of the company.

ETC's signature product, the Source Four spotlight, was introduced in 1992, and is still considered the industry's top spotlight."The Source Four really put us on the map" says Tom Littrell, fixtures product manager. "Up until that point, the typical spotlight was not very bright and had crude optics." The Source Four (developed by inventors in California) also uses less electricity than the typical spotlight. "We were green before we even knew what green meant," Littrell quips.

ETC now has 700 employees, with 575 in Middleton, and is widely considered to be the lighting industry's global leader.

While ETC is technically a light manufacturing company, many of its employees have backgrounds in creative fields. Littrell comes from rock and roll. His degree is in technical theater, but he got "highjacked" into the touring business and worked with rock bands for many years. "I was the guy at the Gemini show who moved the levers on the lights," he explains, adding that that particular tour in 1980 was the first venue ever to use moving lights. Littrell also toured with Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Who, Whitney Houston and Hall & Oates.

Unlike the old Genesis days, Littrell says light shows are now preprogrammed "from cues one to 400." Still, an operator is needed to hit the button, reminds Littrell, who equates the lighting system in a concert to "the third guitar player in Eric Clapton's band." Yes, it's that essential.

Fourteen-year ETC veteran Dennis Varian, who works in research and development, started off working for rock bands just like Littrell, though he did lighting for a different set of musicians: U2, Motley Crue. "Almost every hair band there was," Varian laughs. Varian earned his degree in technical theater at the California Institute of the Arts, and came from a family involved in lighting the television industry. He worked alongside both his grandfather and his father from age six.

Varian's job is to focus on the user experience of ETC's products, and to design project concepts. "I spend a lot of time on the look and feel of the products," he explains. "Our customers are creative people so they care a lot about design elements."

ETC's "Head Surgeon" David North, works on the troubleshooting and design of the company's more complicated job sites. He has a degree in electrical engineering and worked in the theatrical industry during college. He is now part of the special projects group at ETC, putting together the tools "so artists can do their work."

Some of his favorite projects include the Disney Theme Parks and the Copenhagen Opera. He also enjoyed work he did on a cruise ship. "We worked a couple of 24-hours days," he says, "But because we had to cruise with the ship in order to solve problems, I got to go to the Mayan ruins."

Because the scope of ETC's projects vary widely, so does the cost to the customer. A simple system for a high school or church could run as low as $20,000, but some projects range up to several million dollars.

Despite the international span of ETC's lighting systems, the company puts great stock in its local roots and local projects, such as the Monona Terrace. The company's lobby — a time square based on the paintings of Edward Hopper — is a testament to this manufacturing company's essentially artistic mission.