Sonny Sonnenfeld, legendary lighting salesman, educator and architectural lighting designer in his own right, died Wednesday, Feb. 10 at his home in New York City. He was 96 years old. During a storied career Sonnenfeld worked sales for Century Lighting (now Phillips/Strand), Colortran, ETC, Wybron and again at Philips/Strand. As an extension of his sales work in architectural lighting Sonnenfeld was one of the pioneers in the field of architectural lighting design, receiving Architectural Lighting Magazine’s Living Legend Award. He also created the Broadway Lighting Master Classes and Super Saturday Stage Seminar.
Born on Sept. 29, 1919 on New York’s Upper East Side, Sonnenfeld learned the basics of theatre at the Central Jewish Institute and its associated Cejwin camp, where he was asked to help with the scenery as a kid. He started volunteering at the 92nd Street Y, where he took over the job as TD and ran the switchboard, among other things. He liked to say that he was at the Y “after Abe Feder and before Tharon Musser.”
During WWII, Sonnenfeld worked as a lineman in the Pacific, returning to New York City after the war. He married Irene “Kelly” Kellerman, who worked in wardrobe and as a costume designer in theatre. He auditioned for a career as a stage manager, but Kermit Bloomgarten rejected him because of his New York accent. At that time assistant stage managers could be required to speak dialogue, and Sonnenfeld couldn’t sound like a sheriff in the deep south for the Elia Kazan production of Deep Are the Roots. Bloomgarten recommended him to Century Lighting where he took the job in order to be working with the great Stanley McCandless.
During this time he pioneered the field of architectural lighting, guiding stores into a new era of lighting with his uncredited designs. He became instrumental in helping architects and engineers figure out what lighting needed to be done to help stores succeed.
After 16 years at Century, where he reached the level of New York Sales Manager, he went on to create Lighting and Electronics Inc. with three partners. It went through bankruptcy two years later but remained in business and Sonny became a rep for manufacturers, working with Colortran and then for many years with ETC—which is where he again crossed paths with Michael Eddy, now a freelance writer and marketing agent in the lighting industry. “He was the consummate salesman,” Eddy recalls. “He met people and they became his friends and he became a resource. He had a Rolodex—and literally it was a Rolodex with hand-written notes on it—and he could call for favors anytime anywhere. He could call and get anybody to do just about anything. He was a one of a kind person in the industry where many people's paths intersected. The industry will really miss him.”
In the early ‘90s, Sonnenfeld got a lot of people together to start one of his largest projects, the Broadway Lighting Master Classes. The sessions brought designers and students together for lessons on the best of design, and proved invaluable for many young designers, including Scott Parker, currently director of lighting at IMS Technology Services and a member of the Lighting Design and Technology Commission for USITT—which is honoring Sonnenfeld with a Distinguished Achievement Award at their 2016 Conference. Parker was a lighting grad student at NYU when the Broadway Master Classes first started.
“So I called his office and asked if there was a student discount, and Sonny said ‘Well, I could use an extra pair of hands. Why don’t you come up and give me some help. So I was able to go and be an intern,” says Parker. “He really liked seeing young people succeed and learn the business. He was adamant that he wanted to help designers be designers—but he was also adamant that anyone could do anything in the business. He was proponent of people working in the industry a way that wasn’t just about being a designer.”
In 2003 Sonnenfeld was awarded the Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of his contributions to the field and in 2004 he moved to Las Vegas and shortly thereafter retired from ETC. His passion for the industry couldn’t be stilled, though, and he found himself working again for Philips/Strand before retiring again. He partnered with Scott Parker to start the Super Saturday Stage Lighting seminar in 2005, continuing his tradition of educating people at all levels about the lighting industry.
And in 2010 Sonnenfeld returned to New York City to be closer to the theatre he loved. He shared an apartment with the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who described the effect he had on people. “I have heard so many people—primarily salesman, but designers, too—saying to him, ‘You taught me more than anybody else in my life. It’s been so important what I’ve learned from you.’ Over and over again I’ve heard that,” says Tipton. “He always had wonderful suggestions for the LD. And they often had, I don’t want to say problems, but situations that needed solutions. And he would be the one who gave them solutions.”
Sonny Sonnenfeld lived a full life and passed away at 96
Industry icon Sonny Sonnenfeld died today. He was 96. In 2014, Lighting&Sound America wrote, "There is no more indelible personality in the lighting industry than Sonny Sonnenfeld." The legendary salesman and educator mentored many of the key figures in today's lighting industry and participated in the startup of many key industry companies. He was also a commentator (and sometime gadfly) for many industry publications. Beginning his career at a time when entertainment lighting was dominated by a small number of conventional lighting manufacturers, he saw the industry transformed several times over, by the advent of automated lighting and LEDs, among other developments. His passing represents the end of an era, when the major manufacturers had offices in Manhattan and sales reps had close personal relationships with the designers working on Broadway and in television.
Born on September 29, 1919 in New York City, Sonnenfeld was first drawn to the theatre while attending Cejwin Camp in Port Jervis, New York; the camp's technical director asked him to help move a piece of scenery, and the first of many business relationships was struck up. Reminiscing to LSA in 2014, he said, "I became his assistant at the Central Jewish Institute, which was affiliated with Cejwin Camp. I then went to the 92nd St. YMCA [as technical director] after Abe Feder and before Tharon Musser. I followed my brother, Irving, on the stagecraft squad at DeWitt Clinton High School. I lit dancers and plays at the Y, but I really knew very little about what I was doing until someone lent me a copy of Stanley McCandless' A Method of Lighting the Stage."
Sonnenfeld's budding career was interrupted when he was drafted into the army in October, 1941. He served in World War II, spending three years in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines and earning a Silver Star. His formal education after high school consisted of one year of night classes at Cooper Union.
After the war, Sonnenfeld applied to the Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden for a job as an assistant stage manager for the play Deep Are the Roots. The play was set in the deep South and the job included a three-line role as a deputy sheriff; because Sonnenfeld couldn't master a southern accent, Bloomgarden sent him to Ed Kook, president of Century Lighting. He was hired as a "sales engineer," covering the theatre, television, and architectural markets. "I consulted with architects, store designers, theatre groups, hotel designers, and electrical engineers in the design of theatres of all sizes all over the world," he said. McCandless, who was head of R&D at Century, schooled him in the business. "He really taught me about architects and architectural lighting. I could not have asked for any better training."
Sonnenfeld stayed at Century Lighting for 16 years, then left to become a founding partner in the firm Lighting&Electronics. When the company filed for Chapter 11 in 1965, he went to work as a rep for several companies, including Strand Lighting, Colortran, Wybron, and GAM, as well as a number of architectural lighting companies. He ran his own firm for a number of years, then was hired by ETC in the mid-1990s. He retired in 2004, with a grand party, sponsored by ETC, at Sardi's, attended by many industry notables. A year later, he surprised the industry by un-retiring and going to work for Strand Lighting. He also operated another rep firm, Entertainment Lighting Reps, with Chris Beck.
Sonnenfeld also played a key role in many industry organizations. He joined the Illuminating Engineering Society when at Century, and ultimately became president of the New York section, as well as chair of the theatre subcommittee. He was a founding member of both USITT and USITT's New York section. In March, he was to receive USITT's 2016 Distinguished Achievement Award in Lighting Design and Technology. In 2003, he received The Wally Russell Foundation's Wally Award, for lifetime achievement.
Sonnenfeld had many accomplishments as an educator. He wrote the chapter on television studio lighting equipment layout for the fifth edition of The National Association of Broadcasters Engineering Handbook. He taught architectural lighting at Pratt Institute. He founded the Broadway Lighting Master Classes, with a curriculum devised by Jules Fisher, which latter morphed into the Live Design New York Master Classes, as well as the Architectural Lighting Master Classes and TV Lighting Master Classes. With the designer and educator Scott Parker, he founded Stage Lighting Super Saturday, the most recent edition of which was held last month.
Famed for his ability to sell, and for such techniques as showing up at a client's office armed with bagels and the latest industry gossip, Sonnenfeld told LSA: "My creed as a salesman, as well as in life, is a simple one: 1. Respect your customers. 2. She/he is probably smarter than you are. 3. Never fake it. Say, 'I don't know, but I will find out and get back to you' -- and do so. 4. Be honest; don't lie. 5. Start early and work late. 6. Make friends with your customers. I have become friends with some spectacularly wonderful people." Many in the industry have stories to share about phone calls and faxes from Sonnenfeld, offering impromptu advice, constructive criticism, and career direction.
Sonnenfeld was married twice. His first wife, the former Kelly Kellerman was a well-known industry figure. He retired to Las Vegas with his second wife, Rose, returning to work after her death. He is survived by his companion, the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton; his son, the film and television producer/director Barry Sonnenfeld; a daughter-in-law, Susan, and a granddaughter, Chloe. Sonnenfeld requested that there will be no funeral. A memorial party will be announced at a later date.