Rosenthal, Jean (1912–1969)

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Rosenthal, Jean (1912–1969)

American designer of architectural and theater lighting. Born Eugenie Rosenthal on March 16, 1912, in New York City; died on May 1, 1969, in New York City; only daughter and one of three children of Morris Rosenthal and Pauline (Scharfmann) Rosenthal (both physicians); attended the Ethical Culture School, Bronx, New York; attended Bill Fincke's Manumit School, Pawling, New York; graduated from Friends' Seminary, Manhattan, New York; attended the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1928–30; attended Yale University Drama School, 1931–33; never married; no children.

A pioneer in the craft of lighting design, and the originator of many techniques still in use, Jean Rosenthal is considered by some to have been nothing short of a genius at evoking mood and creating special effects. One of only a handful of women in technical theater during her time, she fought constantly against discrimination, but was eventually accepted and even sought after. Before her untimely death from cancer in 1969, Rosenthal designed over 4,000 theatrical productions, including dance, opera, plays, and musicals, and also consulted on dozens of architectural lighting projects. Martha Graham , with whom Rosenthal worked for 37 years on various dance projects, once called her a "pure person." "I have never known her to compromise," said Graham. "If she could do it, she would, if not she said no. Hers was the religion of the individual—dedication to as near perfection as possible. She never deviated from that … and had discovered the wonder of life. That is not easy."

Rosenthal was born in New York City in 1912, the second child of two busy physicians. (A second boy would later complete the family.) Weighing only five pounds at birth, she thrived on a diet of sour cream and bananas served up by the family's "one in help," a fat Hungarian cook. The Rosenthal children were educated in various progressive schools in and around New York City, and were afforded every opportunity the city had to offer to supplement their formal education with theater, opera, ballet, and museum visits. Because of her unconventional education, however, Rosenthal was turned down by several colleges, and ended up at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where her parents believed she would have the opportunity to "enlarge her horizons." "There I met the people who have had the most lasting and dominant influence on my life and way of thinking," Rosenthal wrote in her book The Magic of Light. "Louis Horst, Martha Graham, Laura Elliott , Irene Lewisohn —and of these Martha Graham was certainly the most important."

Rosenthal soon discovered that she hated performing and dancing, a fact which may have subconsciously precipitated a fall down a flight of stairs in which she injured her back. Sidelined, she drifted backstage, becoming a technical assistant to Graham, who fascinated her. After 18 months, Rosenthal left the playhouse and, probably through her mother, was accepted into the George Pierce Baker Workshop at Yale University. There, she was totally immersed in the theater, studying with those involved in the profession outside the university as well as within it. Of special significance was her lighting course with Stanley McCandless, a taciturn Scotsman who had difficulty communicating, but from whom she nevertheless learned a lot. "If I never did learn anything really practical from him, I did learn an orderliness, a way of organizing it," she wrote. "I have come to know since that if you can organize your ideas in the theater, you have half a chance of putting them over."

Rosenthal left Yale in 1933, during the Depression. Economically secure and living at home, she did some non-paying theater work, then joined the One Act Project, which was part of the WPA Federal Theater Project. It proved to be an extraordinary experience for the 21-year-old, whose variety of responsibilities included working as an assistant to John Houseman, and participating in the historical first performance of Marc Blitzstein's propaganda musical about labor unions, The Cradle Will Rock (1937), after which everyone associated with the production was fired. Rosenthal then went to work as the technical director for the Mercury Theater, which was the brainchild of Houseman and Orson Welles. In her down time, she continued to work with Martha Graham and began what would be an 18-year association with Lincoln Kirstein and his Ballet Society. Dance remained one of Rosenthal's favorite forms of theater, and she would later design for the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater, among others. "If I leave anything to posterity," she once said, "it will be, I think, most importantly in the field of dance lighting."

In 1940, while sporadically engaged with Orson Welles and the ballet, Rosenthal, together with Helen Marcy and Eleanor Wise , two fellow Yale Drama Workshop graduates, opened a small firm called Theater Production Service (TPS), which offered complete design service for shows and for theaters. The business endured for years, although it had difficulty surviving during the war, when supplies became hard to obtain. Although it never made a great deal of money, Rosenthal said it provided her with a "sense of organized professional continuity."

Throughout most of her early career, Rosenthal was associated with lyric rather than commercial theater, and it wasn't until the late 1950s that she began to concentrate on more classic Broadway shows. (In 1957, she designed three musicals, including the very popular West Side Story.) Rosenthal always found repertory the most satisfying venue for her work in that it was a continuing effort in which respect and friendship had time to flourish. Commercial theater brought Rosenthal numerous contacts, but usually not friendships. One of the most harrowing factors in all of her collaborative efforts was sex discrimination. The world of technical theater was a dominantly male bastion, and it set up instant barriers. "She had a hard time in the theater," recalled John Houseman. "There was constant and long-term and even violent opposition to her from the electricians because she was a woman, in the beginning a child, and show business is death on women, especially in the technical end." To overcome the rudeness she frequently encountered, Rosenthal developed a tranquil, courteous, but impersonal façade. However, knowledge remained her most useful weapon in the battle for acceptance. "I did know my stuff, and I knew that the technicians knew theirs. I honored, truly, their knowledge and their prerogatives. And gradually they came around—from stagehands to directors—to honor mine."

Rosenthal had a second career as a consultant, and in that capacity worked mostly on designs for professional and academic theater buildings, although she also consulted on the illumination for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, in Hawaii, and the Pan American World Airways Terminal at the John F. Kennedy Airport, in New York. "It is hectic and dangerous to lead the life of a consultant," she once said in a speech, referring to clashes between clients, architects, and vendors. "These forces are all applied to the consultant, and if he or she has humor, judgment, and the ability to sort out the essential aims of each of the people involved, then I think the consultant serves a proper purpose."

Rosenthal, who never married, lived her entire life in a succession of apartments on Manhattan's East Side. Late in her life, she was drawn to nature and established a second home on Martha's Vineyard, where she said the air was the softest and the light the most delicate in the world. She died there of cancer on May 1, 1969, shortly after designing the lighting for Martha Graham's production of Archaic Hours, at the New York City Center.


Rosenthal, Jean, and Lael Wertenbaker. The Magic of Light. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1972.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts