Historical SM Calling Technology: Cue Lights

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Electric Lights at The Bijou. Boston Daily Globe. Dec. 17, 1882. pg. 7
Electric Lights at The Bijou. Boston Daily Globe. Dec. 17, 1882. pg. 7

“It will surprise many people to learn that this electric light has been brought so wholly under control as to be available for all the purposes for which light is required in a theatre.” - Electric Lights at The Bijou. Boston Daily Globe. Dec. 17, 1882. pg. 7.

According to the Boston Daily Globe, in 1882 the Bijou theatre was the first theatre in the country to install and use electricity throughout the building. Some companies had already installed electric house lights, specials, etc. But the Bijou was the first to use electric light in every corner of the theatre. As a result, the development and implementation of cue lights followed shortly, which inevitably silenced the Prompter’s aural cueing methods and changed the way in which the audience experienced the performance. (For more information on earlier cueing, see my articles on bells and whistles and speaking tubes)

Electricity brought cue lights to the forefront of preferred methods of cueing. According to Peter Bax, author of Stage Management, cue lights allowed prompters to silently cue their crew members, usually by turning the light on as a warning, and turning off at the execution cue. The red circle in the photo below indicates the cue light location for the fly rail. 
Carson, L. The Stage Year Book - 1910. London: Carson & Comerford, 1910. 21-22.

Bax also indicated that in other situations, the prompter used a green light to warn the crew and a red light to indicate the GO. Below is an example of a portable cue light control box, followed by the crew’s cue light box.
A portable cue light control box, built by Strand ElectricThe crew’s cue light box, built by Strand ElectricThe prompting corner was updated to include an electric control board that allowed the prompter to call the show from one central area. The assigned cue lights were placed throughout the theatre and labeled accordingly at the prompter’s control board. Cue lights are one of the quietest ways to cue and allowed for Prompters to cue multiple crew members with one light, thereby, replacing the whistle. 
Carson, L. The Stage Year Book - 1910. London: Carson & Comerford, 1910. 21-22.

In Richard Southern’s 1940 book, Proscenium and Sightlines, he contends that if an adequate system of signaling could be maintained between the electrician and the stage-manager, the stage manager could sit in the back of the house, which provided them with a better view of the stage. With these improvements, the prompter transitioned from being a known aural fixture to a silent invisible conductor and allowed the control booth to move from the backstage area to the back of the house.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.