Like many in the industry, Sonny Sonnenfeld traces the beginning of his professional life to the theater--more specifically, a rainy day in social hall at summer camp.
"I was 12 or 13 years old and this guy asked me to help him move a piece of scenery to the stage," recounted Sonnenfeld. "I guess I moved it so well that he asked me if I'd come back in the afternoon to help him." And thus began a 50-year career that has straddled the worlds of theater and architecture and brushed shoulders with some of lighting's most respected names.
Sonnenfeld's early experience seemed to foretell a life on Broadway. From summer camp, he went on to stage-manage at a Jewish community center and later, the 92nd Street Y, where he became technical director in 1940, following in the footsteps of lighting designer Abe Feder. After serving in the army, he returned to New York with the dream of becoming a Broadway stage manager and received his big break when he interviewed with famed Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarten for the position of assistant stage manager. He was turned down on account of his distinctively New York accent. "According to equity rules at the time, the assistant stage manager could have a walk-on part and speak up to three lines," said Sonnenfeld. "The role for the assistant stage manager in the play was a deputy sheriff and I couldn't act like a deputy sheriff from the South with my accent."
The decision proved a turning point, as Bloomgarten sent him to Century Lighting, where he met owner Edward Kook and the head of R&D, Stanley McCandless. Sonnenfeld jumped at the chance to work with McCandless, who "wrote the bible on stage lighting" and who was considered one of the first independent architectural lighting consultants. Under McCandless, Sonnenfeld learned the aesthetics of architectural lighting while helping to develop architectural and theatrical lighting fixtures. Kook and Jim Fedigan, executive VP at Century, taught him the art of the sale.
Sonnenfeld's "tutelage" lasted 16 years, during which he rose to the position of New York sales manager and assisted architects in the lighting of their projects, many of which were department stores.
"You have to remember that when I started selling at the end of 1945, there were very few independent architectural lighting consultants," said Sonnenfeld. "The manufacturers, reps and salesmen did a great deal of the architectural lighting design." As training, he visited different stores, stopping at each floor to ask himself, "If my father owned this store and I could do anything I want with the lighting, how would I light it?" Said Sonnenfeld, "Sometimes, it took me three hours to go through the entire store, but in the meantime, I had relighted every department. It was a good teacher for me because I could draw on that visual experience when working with clients. I recommend it to all lighting salesman. Look at the lights, see what they're doing, not just what they are. Visualize the space as a whole."
After Century, he and three others formed Lighting and Electronics, an architectural and stage lighting manufacturer. The company filed for Chapter 11 in 1965 and Sonnenfeld left to become a manufacturers' representative for companies like Architectural Lighting and Daybrite McPhilben Omega, with whom he served as New York sales manager for a short period of time. After operating his own rep agency, he was hired by Electronic Theatre Controls and continues to work as a consultant to the development of theatrical lighting fixtures and architectural dimming systems.
An IESNA member since 1952 and U.S. Institute of Technology fellow, Sonnenfeld has written extensively on theatrical and architectural lighting and participated in numerous lighting-related committees. In 1992, as a way of giving back to the theater that had nurtured him professionally, he started Broadway Lighting Master Classes, a four-day seminar on theatrical lighting design, and enlisted lighting designer and friend Jules Fisher to serve as creative consultant and assemble the faculty. The program now draws more than 100 people from all over the world and according to Sonnenfeld, is "one of the best things that I've done--that and my son."