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WHEN I was in high school, my ambition was to design theater set lighting. Then someone told me that perhaps six people in the entire world specialized in this and I looked for a less competitive career.
Imero Fiorentino, who passed away recently, had more perseverance—and was immensely more talented.
Noted The New York Times in its October 10, 2013 obituary, “He made drinks sparkle, desserts shimmer and Richard M. Nixon look less shadowy—all with meticulous tricks of the light.”
Fiorentino specialized in lighting television shows, commercials and live performances. His earliest influences came because of an uncle who took him to shows at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.
Fiorentino was fascinated by how dancers in pink would pass behind scenery and come out instantly in blue. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was the light that did it.”
He read everything he could find, lighted high school shows and earned a degree from Carnegie Tech (now known as Carnegie Mellon and highly regarded in Theater Arts).
This was all the more impressive because Immie, as he was called, lost the use of his right eye in an accident during his high school years. One of his teachers told him “You’re going to be the best one-eyed lighting designer ever.”
His first professional work was in television at ABC during the 1950s. Programs displaying his talents included Omnibus, The United States Steel Hour and Kraft Television Theater.
Early TV used fluorescent lighting, but Fiorentino preferred the warmth of incandescence and the artful shadows it cast. Noted The New York Times article, he became a master at “mitigating double chins and balding pates with the skill of a surgeon.”
Fiorentino brought his wizardry to inanimate objects as well: Illuminate a carbonated drink from the bottom of the glass, and bubbles take on a glitter as they rise.
Fiorentino formed his own company in 1960, the same year he got involved with political history—through the first-ever presidential debates that were televised.
Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy were the candidates. The first debate (before Fiorentino got involved) was a disaster for Nixon. Kennedy appeared relaxed with a healthy tan. Nixon, recovering from an illness, was sweaty and pasty.
It’s said television viewers gave Kennedy a decided victory in the debate; radio listeners—a much smaller segment—thought it was at best a draw. The entire debate can be seen at http://goo.gl/zw51l.
“They did everything wrong,” Fiorentino recalled in a 1970 interview. “To fill the shadows around Nixon’s eyes, they put a light on the floor in front of him, and it washed him out. And they powdered his beard, which made it worse.”
The Nixon camp hired Fiorentino for the remaining three debates. “We set the front lights lower than normal to deemphasize the shadows of his deep-set eyes,” he told Newsweek in a 1969 interview. “Then, to lighten his image, we put backlights on him because his dark hair absorbs light.”
Over his illness by then and properly illuminated, Nixon looked fit—though the damage had already been done. Some say that first televised debate cost him the election (popular vote: Kennedy’s 49.72 percent versus Nixon’s 49.55 percent; Electoral Vote: 303 to 219).
Fiorentino lighted more than a dozen national political conventions, Democratic and Republican. Other achievements included lighting Bolshoi Ballet’s first televised performance in the U.S. in 1959.
The New York Times’ obituary concluded by noting that at social functions, he invariably squired Angela, his second wife, into the best possible light. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013