Lighting pioneer, brainchild of UW-Madison students, prospers in Middleton
Photo: Jeff Miller
The opening line was decidedly off-hand for a performance that has run for more than three decades on Broadway and off: “Gak, this is disgusting, I can do it for $5,000!”
Even “Watson, come here, I want you,” the imperative that founded the Bell Telephone empire and ultimately AT&T, had a bit more resonance.
But such was the founding moment for Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. (ETC), a Middleton, Wis. firm that has grown into a worldwide leader in designing and manufacturing entertainment-technology and lighting. The company’s products “perform” on Broadway, at the renovated Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and in thousands of other locations where live performance still rules.
The year was 1975, recalls Fred Foster, now ETC’s CEO, and he was studying at University of Wisconsin–Madison with Gilbert Hemsley, a “dynamic, exciting professor of lighting who drew moths to the flame of his intensity.”
The recently completed Mitchell Theater at Vilas Hall had a new electronic lighting control console, Foster says. “It was not quite computerized and cost $150,000, and it was big advance,” since it had a programmable memory for lighting changes.
Foster and his brother Bill, a UW–Madison physics student (BS ’76) were talking about starting a theater-electronics company. When Bill eyeballed the new controls, he realized that the computer chips that were hitting the market could do more for less.
The brothers seized the opportunity, setting the stage for a smash hit.
The Fosters announced their intention to build a digital controller on Christmas Eve, 1975, at a party at Hemsley’s house. The response — widespread skepticism — challenged the brothers, Fred Foster recalls.
“We started buying bits and pieces and making components in our parent’s basement. One year and one day later, we showed a one-foot by one-foot by three-foot box — not three racks of electronics like at Mitchell — at another party at Gilbert’s,” he says.
The Fosters did not get much applause, let alone a standing ovation. “The general reaction was, ‘What are you going to do now?’ We had this thing but we did not know what to do with it.”
And that put the spotlight on the commercial side of theater lighting, so the Fosters, working with two student friends, Gary Bewick, (physics ’77), and James Bradley. The foursome hustled their new lighting control console at trade shows, eventually finding a company that would sell their device under its own label.
The four friends built five consoles in the Foster house and moved into a garage as business prospered. A contract to design controls for the new Disney Epcot Center project in Florida gave them credibility, and by 1983, ETC was selling control consoles under its own name.
“Most of our customer-facing people came out of theater technology and lighting backgrounds. We have a tremendous service structure — 24/7 support and a dealer network that spans the globe.”
In 1990, “like a moth swallowing an elephant,” Foster says, ETC bought a much larger business that made dimmers, which “gave us the ability to provide a whole entertainment light package.”
In 1992, ETC sold the first of three million Source Four spotlights.
In 2004, ETC consolidated operations in Middleton, in a new building that has since expanded to cover more than seven acres. The lobby resembles an elaborate 1940’s stage backdrop with an Edward Hopper-esque Nighthawks diner, storefronts, a theater and a skyscraper. Thickly clustered along the ceiling, of course, about 300 ETC lighting fixtures are rigged to go through a series of effects as the day progresses.
About 600 people now work in Middleton, with 150 more at offices in Hong Kong, London, Hollywood, Orlando, New York City and elsewhere.
Advanced technology helps explain ETC’s growth, but Foster says the employees are the main driver.
“Most of our customer-facing people came out of theater technology and lighting backgrounds. We have a tremendous service structure — 24/7 support and a dealer network that spans the globe,” he says.
When 2,000 people are in their seats, waiting for a show, the products simply have to perform, Foster adds.
To prevent last-minute disasters with its ever-more sophisticated controls, room after room at ETC headquarters are crammed with racks of test equipment, computers and cables.
But most of the acreage and employees are devoted to manufacturing. Wouldn’t Asia or Mexico be cheaper? Yes and no, Foster says. ETC gains flexibility with a do-it-yourself attitude.
Take spotlights: “There are probably 30 model types, each in two or three colors. We can get an order for 25 white Source Fours and build, paint and ship them this afternoon. From China, this would require a 17-week lead time, or we’d need a full warehouse here, or face an air-freight charge that would dwarf the value of the products. To put a few pennies in our pocket at the expense of a workforce that continues to improve production is not the kind of business we want to be in.”
So the company writes its own software, solders its circuit boards, punches, bends, and paints its sheet metal, and assembles the products.
“We are committed to vertical integration; it works for us,” Foster says.
Fred Foster, who left UW–Madison before graduating, and co-founder Gary Bewick, are still with the company, and the company’s history includes numerous ties to the university.
Fred’s father, G.W. (Bill) Foster was a law professor, and Fred’s mother, Jeanette Foster, was on the academic staff. ETC’s four founders all hung out at Hoofer’s, sailing. ETC continues to hire employees from the UW system, especially Madison’s Theater department and College of Engineering.
And when theater wing of Memorial Union opens after its first full facelift, it will sport a full complement of ETC products.
“This is a theater where I learned stagecraft as a student,” Foster says. “We are donating the entire lighting system to the Frederic March Play Circle, with the agreement that we can put in anything we want, to serve as a sort of theater-tech laboratory.”
The company offers lighting products for entertainment use in theaters, television studios, theme parks and cruise ships. And it has a strong presence in the architectural market, lighting exteriors and interiors of commercial buildings, retail spaces and houses of worship.
The company’s newest product line is rigging — the machinery that lifts backdrops, curtains and lights in theaters. “We’ve found a clever approach to rigging,” Foster says. The standard for a new product is practical innovation. “Does it bring something new to the market? We don’t have much desire to do ‘me-too’ products. We need to offer something better.”