Lighting designer Joshua White studied lighting at film and theater school and worked at discothèques like Trude Heller’s before his tenure at the Fillmore East, where he masterminded the Joshua Light Show.
Fillmore East lighting designer Joshua White had seen Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia shows, but he was much more impressed by what was happening in a venue that opened on St. Mark’s Place, in the basement space where the Dom had previously been located. “It was now remodeled as the Electric Circus,” White said. “Now, when you say remodel, what it really means is they put stretched nylon over the space inside, changing the space by throwing light all over the place. Even though it was just a ratty ballroom, it now had a shape, and they brought in an older light artist from the San Francisco scene named Anthony Martin who filled the place up with psychedelic-type projections based on the San Francisco ballrooms. They did very good stuff there.” The Electric Circus featured acrobats, go-go dancing, and even John Cage playing chess. In 1968, the experimental composer asked a young electronic musician named Lowell Cross to create a chess board with sixteen different audio inputs that triggered sounds whenever a piece was moved. Cage first played this aural game of chess against Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in Toronto, then recreated the conceptual performance at the Electric Circus later that year. “It was a discothèque,” Cross recalled. “There was a whole lot of cigarette smoking, and other kinds of smoking, and acid going on. It was very casual, not very structured at all. And that fit right into what Cage liked.” Although John Cage was in his mid-fifties by this point, he remained open to new things and continued to circulate in a variety of New York scenes until his death in 1992.
From Chapter 19 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Fillmore East was an instant commercial success, which led to a clash between Bill Graham and the East Village neighborhood radicals who demanded he “give back to the community.” The Motherfuckers insisted that the theater should be turned over to them one night a week, so the first “Free Wednesday” featured the Living Theatre performing Paradise Now. When one of the actors announced that they were going to “liberate” the theater, Graham ran onstage to stop the madness, but the crowd overwhelmed him and forcibly tied him to a chair. The psychodrama continued for hours, with Graham and the crowd yelling back and forth at each other well into the early morning. “The free nights at the theater were just drunken homeless people screaming and hitting drums. It didn’t last very long,” said Joshua White, recalling the combustible mix of people in the Lower East Side. Bill Graham closed the Fillmore East’s doors in the summer of 1971, citing the changing economics of the concert industry and an inhospitable atmosphere in the surrounding neighborhood. By the time it shut down, Joshua White had witnessed how drug consumption was shifting from psychedelics to cocaine and heroin, which created even more tension inside and outside the theater. “One of the things that I noticed right away,” he recalled, “was that even though people went around smiling and grinning at each other, there was a lot of anger and hostility there. It was not a good time, and it was going to get worse before it got better.”
Before founding the Joshua Light show and establishing himself at the Fillmore East, White had studied lighting at film and theater school and worked at discothèques before his tenure at the Fillmore East. “Lighting was always a key interest in my life,” he continued, “but I didn’t know where to apply it.” White initially created lighting systems for discos such as Arthur, Salvation, and Trude Heller’s, where he began to develop techniques that he refined at the Fillmore East: color washes, lights mounted on motors that could rotate and reverse, and reflective objects that moved and bounced light in asymmetrical ways. White had seen Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but he was much more impressed by what was happening in a venue that opened on St. Mark’s Place, in the basement space where the Dom had previously been located. “It was now remodeled as the Electric Circus,” White said. “Now, when you say remodel, what it really means is they put stretched nylon over the space inside, changing the space by throwing light all over the place. Even though it was just a ratty ballroom, it now had a shape, and they brought in an older light artist from the San Francisco scene named Anthony Martin who filled the place up with psychedelic-type projections based on the San Francisco ballrooms. They did very good stuff there.”
Curious about the light shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, Joshua White made his way out to San Francisco in 1967. “I was really struck with how sloppy it was, in the sense that the light show wasn’t particularly great,” he recalled. “The people in the audience all together, that was the exciting part, but there was something wrong about the light show—because it wasn’t that dynamic.” White and his partners still picked up some ideas from the venue’s oil and liquid projections, and when one of the Fillmore’s lighting designers moved to New York, they all began collaborating. “He showed us the artistic things which were hard,” White said, “and we showed him how to do mechanical things which were hard—like attaching a color wheel to a motor in front of the projector.” Everyone who worked at the Fillmore East came out of theater school—including White—and they also had the good luck of sharing a building wall with NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Their students came over because rock ’n’ roll was exciting,” White said, “and many of them got involved in the Fillmore. So we began with this very high level of well-trained people.” The psychedelic Joshua Light Show became part of the Fillmore East experience as soon as it opened on March 8, 1968. Bands usually performed two separate shows an evening, often for multiple-night runs, which allowed the Joshua Light Show to experiment and refine their techniques. “It was a perfect way to grow a light show,” White said. “You just keep doing it, and we kept doing it for two years. We developed a palette, and that palette just got bigger and bigger.”