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In Memoriam:
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For the Record
Richard D. Thompson

The recent death of USITT Fellow Richard D. Thompson calls for a celebration of his life and achievements. Some USITT Fellows have contributed to this celebration.

Dr. Joel E. Rubin
USITT Co-Founder

I believe that Richard D. Thompson, a Fellow of the USITT, who passed away on February 12, 2007, may truly be called one of the earliest members of USITT. He joined the Institute within a few hours of learning, in February 1961 from Ed Cole at Yale, about the formation of our new theatre organization.

Dick's father was distinguished professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, and Dick's upbringing in Texas taught him always to be courteous, seldom without a smile on his face, a hard-worker, extremely well-organized, and committed to completing any task he undertook. Dick was probably the least pretentious expert I have ever met. I always have looked forward to receiving Dick's seasonal greetings letter summing up both his personal quirks and his yearly consulting tasks. I suspect that Dick is still hard at work and still researching in theatre heaven.

Dick first popped up in my consciousness as a sales engineer with the Ward-Leonard Electric Company, then a prominent manufacturer of resistance, autotransformer, and reactance dimmers. (Yes, magnetic amplifier and SCR dimmers were yet to come.) I suppose this would have been in the late 1950s. In the early years of USITT, he was very active as a member of the Engineering Commission under the first Chair Felix Graham (Syska & Hennessy, Consulting Engineers) and later under Chair Hans Sondheimer (USITT Fellow, technical director, and lighting designer of the New York City Opera).

His organizational skills were such that Dick was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Institute in 1963, a position he filled with great distinction. As President, I asked Dick if he would like to be considered for the USITT Presidency to succeed me. I think I was a bit surprised when Dick turned me down, but by then he had concentrated his energies on a subject area that fascinated him for the rest of his working life -- safe theatre equipment and safe building codes.

In the early '60s, New York City was undertaking a complete rewriting of its building code. Ben Schlanger (theatre architect), who was Vice-President of USITT, had been called into the Code Panel as an authority on "places of assembly," and Ben suggested that USITT might wish to be involved as a resource that would actively contribute to the "places of assembly" code panel. I appointed Dick to chair our USITT effort.

Through Dick's leadership, USITT was able to recommend alternates to the then mandatory safety curtain that dropped to seal off the stage from the audience chamber in the event of a fire. This change in code allowed theatre productions in New York City to burst through the proscenium and come forward into the audience chamber. From the interview Dick gave to Fellow Richard Stephens in 1999, (TD&T, Spring, 2000) we learn that Dick's army experience in the mid-50's with the NIKE program first exposed him to fire suppression systems. (All of this is real history!)

Dick served on the National Fire Protection Association's National Electric Code Panel 70 for over 30 years. He was elected Fellow of USITT in the 1977-78 class. In 1988 he was awarded USITT's International Health and Safety Award.

Dick's career as sales engineer eventually moved him from Ward-Leonard to the newly formed Skirpan Lighting and Electronics, and (I may have missed a turn or two) into the field of consulting with the firm of Imero Fiorentino in television lighting and later with the firm of George Thomas Howard (Fellow USITT) and Associates. Dick's organizational skills with George were short-lived after Dick ordered 24-four-drawer file cabinets to be delivered to the GTH Offices. (George's method of file keeping was completely different, but that is another story). That in turn was a good happenstance that found Dick starting his own consulting firm. An association with Milton Forman, then the doyen of motion picture studio design, introduced Dick into the middle of Hollywood studio practice and gave Dick new fields in which to practice his skills.

Richard Thompson had a rich history of activity within USITT for well over four decades. We celebrate Dick as a friend, and we celebrate his most fruitful life and the lasting contributions he made towards safety in the entertainment industry.

Dr. Randall (Dr. Doom) Davidson

I was very fortunate to know Dick Thompson and to work with him on many projects for many years. Projects included dimmer systems, entertainment electrical cable, nitrate film storage, electrical safety projects involving devices for grounding, and seminars for electrical safety. With Mitch Hefter we began the first in a series of workshops for the development of Certification of Entertainment Electricians. We worked together on developing standards for carnival safety. Dick was a master electrician and I was the safety expert, and I found his knowledge was encyclopedic in many areas always filling in the gaps where I was weak.

We spent more than 25 years together on the NFPA NEC Theater, Television, and Movie Committee, where his knowledge and insight helped form new codes and standards for the entertainment industry. We also spent many years working together on theme park safety. I could always count on Richard to put me in contact with the people who were exemplars in the industry. We both worked together on motion picture safety, and he was recognized as an individual who was always ready to propose safety standards to protect the employees, IATSE, and anyone else who worked on the sets or in the studios.

His constant and consistent dedication to health and safety in the industry has made the industry a much safer one in the last 40 years.

James R. Earle Jr.
Chair of College of Fellows, USITT

Richard was always a good friend to me and was, in fact, the first person in USITT with whom I had personal contact. Back when I was an undergraduate at Purdue, I joined as a student member, and Richard began sending me reams of minutes, technical reports, and position papers for the various Commissions as he was then, I believe, first the Membership Chair and later the Secretary-Treasurer for the Institute. I fondly recall Richard making me feel welcome and at home in an organization that seemed quite distant from Lafayette and in a membership that included the leaders of an industry I was just beginning to explore.

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Richard Thompson during an interview for the USITT Living History Project.

Photo/USITT Archives