Stephen Wells

Operating the Lights at the Ames Bandshell

When I was a kid growing up in Ames in the 1940s and 1950s, it was a summertime tradition for us and many other families to pack up a blanket and go to the Ames Bandshell at 6th Street and Duff on Thursday evenings to listen to band concerts featuring the Ames Municipal Band.

Bandshell Park is the city's first park. The green space goes back more than a century from the city's founding, and the Bandshell structure itself had its premiere concert in 1935. Renovated extensively in the decade 1995-2005, it was renamed "Durham Bandshell" and remains the venue for Thursday evening concerts and for many other community entertainment events.


Bandshell rededication concert

Back in the 1940s-50s, as now, the free Bandshell concerts began after supper (8:00 PM) and lasted well into the evening as darkness set in. Then-conductor Richard Day, Ames High School's music teacher, chose programs of light classical and pops selections. It was geared for adult tastes, and as kids we found the music boring but, besides swatting mosquitoes on those long summer evenings, we eagerly anticipated what we knew would be coming as it grew darker: colorful lighting effects from some 500 colored light bulbs hidden behind each of the four tiers of scallops forming the shell-like structure.

The lighting displays offered blue, red and green colors (or combinations) seemingly in sync with the mood of the music, drawing gasps from the audience. As kids we were in awe eagerly anticipating the next dramatic color shift. At the conclusion of the piece, the white lights would come back on. We marveled at the effects!

So it was with some surprise that as a high school student in the late 1950s I was asked by Mr. Day to take over this esteemed job, namely operating the lights at Bandshell concerts. The pay was miserly ($2.00 and change each week) but the prestige was, well, enormous. I eagerly accepted.


Richard Day

Mr. Day introduced me to the inner workings of the Bandshell. The lights were operated from a switch panel located in a hallway off stage left. A door with a small circular window allowed me to see the conductor. The main switches were knife switches connected to batteries of many toggle switches all of which had to be pre-set manually. Once pre-set, the colors came on by slamming the hinge-mounted knife switch door closed while simultaneously opening the white light knife switch, thus extinguishing the white lights. There was one "gang" knife switch for each color, so multiple colors required some tricky and rapid synchronization. It was not a user-friendly electrical lighting system design, unlike the Ames High School Auditorium's sophisticated electrical panel and dimmer system I had also operated. By comparison, the Bandshell's system seemed to be barebones-budget and crude. Opening and closing the huge, ungainly gang switches swiftly and in time with the music was, well, a challenge.

Mr. Day's expectations of me were high. He made suggestions on which colors of combinations would visually enhance the mood of each of the musical arrangements on the evening's program. To better track and anticipate these choices, he provided me a conductor's score of the entire concert, annotated with the intervals calling for color changes. I had been a student of his earlier in my high school career as a cornet player in the Marching Band, but I left that activity when my father, the school's head football coach, asked me to take responsibility for a new coaching tool he introduced: filming each game. At any rate, I could barely read music but certainly not an entire conductor's score. Nonetheless I nodded dutifully as Mr. Day reviewed with me the carefully annotated score each week. In the end I simply relied on my ears to tell me when one movement ended and another was about to begin  that called for a color change.


Rehearsal at the Bandshell, 1956

I can't say it was fun operating the lights, but it was definitely a step up in my development from being a kid in the audience awestruck by the dramatic use of lighting to enhance the music's effect, to being the one responsible for producing these effects. I could hear the "ooohs" and "aaahs"of the audience as I slammed the switches and plunged the Bandshell's tiers into rows of red or green or blue lights, much to their delight.

I eventually went on to a career in business communication, training and consulting. My brief theatrical experience never came to play a role in my career even though my company regularly produced and staged huge new-product announcement events for major automakers. I was busy planning and consulting other types of initiatives for companies throughout the country and in many other places in the world until my retirement in 2005.

But I'll never forget those gratifying "ooohs" and "aaahs" of the audience at Ames band concerts as I delighted them with the same dramatic color changes that thrilled me as a small kid.