Remembering Eugene Lee
We're sad to learn that production designer Eugene Lee has passed away at the age of 83. Lee began his career on Broadway as the production designer for Candide. He was hired by Lorne Michaels as the original production designer on Saturday Night Live in 1975 and has worked, almost continually, on the production design team for the past 48 years. He re-designed the legendary Studio 8H specifically for the show, and lists its legendary balcony as one of his proudest career achievements. Lee also worked on The New Show, Kids in the Hall, Ricki Lake, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Late Night with Seth Meyers. He is the receipient of numerous awards including multiple Tony and Emmy awards.
In his 2018 interview, conducted at the designer's home in Providence, Rhode Island by Jenni Matz, Lee discussed some of the memorable sets he's constructed for both Broadway and television.
On his proudest career achievement:
I think it’s the redone balcony in 8H. I think it is the most important because first of all, it made Saturday Night’s structure what it is, it hasn’t changed. And I mean, there’s been different sets, but that’s not as important as the balcony. I looked on the space very differently - I always wanted to play the studio kind of longways, and have the cameras move around. And you know, I’m just one of these troublesome guys, I just like space and so we did it the way I wanted to do it. The seats were like the seats you find in high school, bleachers, you roll them together and they stack up and they push. First of all it’s theater, so it has little stages. And the cameras have wheels, let them roll around. Whatever you can say about Saturday Night, some years good, some years bad, almost canceled, back again, whatever, one thing for sure, you know, the audience loves the movement of the technical equipment. The people would race down, and people changed things in view. Even if the show is not so good, that part of it people like and have always liked it, you know?
On how he got hired as the production designer on SNL:
Candide is a bit hit on Broadway. I win the award that year, a Tony. He [Lorne Michaels] sees it, he likes it I guess. So, I'm rowing around in the morning, and the phone rings. We don't have cell phones or anything back then. The phone is sitting on the boat. I row over and I pick up the phone and it's someone from NBC, saying, I'm from NBC, we're doing this show with this Canadian producer, he'd love to see you guys. I have never been in a television studio. But he seemed very nice and young, in retrospect now, and I think he was shoeless, but I'm not positive, but that seems right. And he didn't want to look at any work. We brought him some drawings of some things that we had done; didn't have any interest in that. [Lorne] said, "I'm going out to a comedy club, why don't you come?" So, I don't remember how we got there or anything. The only thing I remember is that we're sitting there at this comedy club and this guy comes up, it turns out to be Dick Ebersol, but I don't have a clue who that is, and he says to Lorne, "Are they hired yet?" Now, no one said anything about getting hired.
The next day we go into 8H, I'd never been in a television studio. And there was a whole group of designers, I don't know, half a dozen. They came in nine to five, okay? So they sent people around for us to see [as assistants] and they were all pretty hopeless, okay? We have come to believe that they purposely sent bad people, okay? Because the general feeling was this was the first live show that NBC had done in 16 years, so to have some hippies from Rhode Island, beard to here, little glasses, was not a popular thing. So, they sent really bad people. I don't know if it was purposeful, who knows, but they -- we didn't like any of them. So I called Pete Fuller, "Pete, it's Eugene. I have this job at NBC and I'm looking for a really good person," you know? And they say -- he says in fact, he's working for me now- Leo [Yoshimura]. So, Leo comes -- he had a little red toolbox, his hair was down to his shoulders. He had gone to Yale, and he seemed perfect. He had a great, like gung-ho attitude, "When do we start?" I said, "Well, how about now, right away?"