At age 100, Gene Rudolph of Concord recalls working with stars like Sinatra and RFK

  • Gene Rudolph, who lives in Concord by himself and will be turning 100 on January 4th, stands outside his McKenna’s Purchase home on Wednesday, Dember 30, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gene Rudolph, who lives in Concord by himself and will be turning 100 on Jan. 4, greets his daughter, Toni Verville, with a fist bump outside his McKenna’s Purchase home on Wednesday. Verville lives in Manchester and Rudolph’s other daughter, Laurie Owen, lives in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Gene Rudolph stands on his porch with his twin daughters, Toni Verville (left) and Laurie Owen. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Gene Rudolph, who lives in Concord by himself and will be turning 100 on Jan. 4, stands outside his McKenna’s Purchase home last week.

 Monitor columnist
Published: 1/3/2021 4:57:55 PM

Gene Rudolph always lit the way for others.

The Concord man celebrating his 100th birthday Monday illuminated theatrical stages with a fine eye for details, and thus lit the way for the early production pioneers of television, beginning in the 1940s and ’50s.

He met big stars – Sinatra, for one – while doing the stage lighting for big TV and theater shows in New York City.

He moved to the Granite State more than 35 years ago and lives on his own in a Concord condo, four years after his wife of 67 years, Irene, passed away.

He’s helped by a solid support system, including twin daughters Laurie Owen of Concord and Toni Verville of Manchester. His neighbors check in as well.

“I am surrounded by some great people. They’re always around,” Rudolph said last week. “If there’s snow in the wrong place, someone will shovel, and sometimes I don’t even know who it was.”

The staff at Concord TV have tapped into Rudolph’s unique skills. He lent them a lighting systems from the old days, and he taught them about the finer points of lighting.

As former director Doris Ballard said, “To have him in Concord was a blessing, because he was a star in that field, and to have him be a part of Concord TV was big.

“He was very knowledgeable and he would give master classes on lighting to the staff, but he was always humble and you never knew about what he’d done until he started sharing these stories.”

The man himself is a walking story. He lit JFK’s inaugural gala, where he met Bobby Kennedy and Sinatra. He lit “The Steve Allen Show” and the “Price is Right.” He met Harry Belafonte and Claudette Colbert.

Rudolph presented a less flashy figure on a frigid day outside his front door, flanked by his twin daughters. With a blue Greek hat and gray beard, he combined Zorba with the Old Man and the Sea with Popeye the Sailor.

He’s as sharp and witty as ever. Asked what he’d like for his 100th birthday, Rudolph, without skipping a beat, said, “I’d like to get up in the morning.”

Much of his long life has been dedicated to helping others see an art form better through light. The knack for lighting is now part of his family.

Gene’s grandson, Jason Rudolph, has won three Emmy Awards for his lighting design during Super Bowl halftime shows.

That means Jason worked with Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

It began with Rudolph’s father, the lead electrician at the world famous Hippodrome Theater in New York City, billed as the world’s largest theater at the time, 5,300 seats, before closing in 1939.

Rudolph immediately shifted to the address, saying it slowly – and accurately – as though referring to the loss of an old friend.

“Between 43rd and 44th streets,” he said, “on 6th Avenue.”

Rudolph went to the theater often with his father, saying, “The stage was 90 feet deep, with 600 to 700 people on stage. I spent my young days there.”

His father and mother, a chorus girl, met at the theater. Sometimes – often, in fact – little Gene Rudolph went to work with his father. “I learned about switches and switch boards and lighting from the get-go,” he said.”

He helped TV make the transition to color. He was lead electrician at the world-famous Colonial Theater, on “62nd Street and Broadway.”

And he got really big in the world of stage lighting for live TV. He worked for CBS and NBC. He described the lighting needed for shows back then as the equivalent of “550- to 600-foot candles so it could be clear on the cameras.”

This was hard work, the show-after-show-after-show style of live TV, every day, with 300-pound cameras that increased to 800 pounds once mounted.

“I had a crew of five to seven, sometimes nine,” Rudolph said. “My job was to follow the suggestions of the lighting designer. Hang lights, connect, focus them, maintain them and create what the lighting designer had in his mind.”

He lit JFK’s 1963 Inaugural Gala, serving as lighting guru Bill Klages’s right-hand man. That’s where he met Sinatra and Bobby Kennedy, but he didn’t meet the president.

In years later, the name Rudolph meant enough to get Gene’s children onto some of the New York City-area children’s shows, like “Wonderama.”

“He was known all over the world,” said Toni Verville, the twin daughter who lives in Manchester. “If someone would ask who they should call for lighting purposes, they would call my father.”

Something similar has evolved around here. Once Rudolph connected himself to Concord TV, word of the senior citizen with the light touch spread around the area. This was no ordinary light man. This man was brighter.

“When we needed lighting, Gene was the man,” Ballard said. “Anytime we needed anything to do with lighting, he was first person we called and he was there, Johnny on the spot, always. He loved it.”

Rudolph did a check on the Bow High School lighting system when the school opened 25 years ago. He installed a light-dimming system at John Stark Regional and Hillsboro-Deering High Schools, and helped automate the recording system in a meeting room at H-D.

These days, his twin daughters and neighbors see to all his needs. And relative to his age, Rudolph doesn’t need much help.

Verville features her ‘Tuesdays with Toni’ routine, better known as grocery shopping. Her twin Laurie Owen, a retired teacher living in Concord, says Rudolph is “the best friend I have”

He took the girls to their first concert, Blood Sweat and Tears, and the girls repaid the favor years later by taking their dad to see Chuck Mangione. The man loves music. He loved going to see opera at the Capital Center for the Arts. He’s streaming it at home these days.

“I would go bananas if not for the TV set and YouTube,” Rudolph said. “I travel virtually, I listen to music from all over the world, and I find it fascinating.”

Today, the twins mentioned serving cupcakes to celebrate their father’s 100th birthday. Let’s hope for 100 candles.

The man deserves that kind of light.

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