NEC video wall gives The Fabulous Palm Spring Follies a little extra kick
May 9, 2011 12:00 PM
The city of Palm Springs, California, has a rich history as a winter hideaway for some of show business' most legendary entertainers. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Liberace, and many other stars of the Golden Era were fixtures on the Palm Springs scene. These luminaries often stopped at the Chi Chi, a Las Vegas-style watering hole, for a drink with friends and to try out new material before taking the big stage in one of Nevada's top casinos.
Opened in 1936 for the world premiere of the motion picture Camille, the Plaza Theatre was an integral part of the action in Palm Springs. Besides functioning as a movie house, it was also a location-of-choice for radio broadcasts in the 1940s. Jack Benny performed his radio show at the Plaza regularly, and Bob Hope and Amos 'N Andy were among the many programs that emanated from its stage.
By 1991, however, this once-shining jewel in the desert was shuttered and dark. That's when Riff Markowitz, the recently retired producer of HBO's The Hitchhiker and a man with an extensive showbiz resume, along with partner Mary Jardin, were approached by the Mayor pro tem of Palm Springs with a proposal: what could they do with this 809-seat former movie house, which the City had recently purchased and renovated to its former glory? Inspiration struck and the producing team decided upon a vaudeville-style musical revue reminiscent of the popular Las Vegas showrooms of the past.
Rather than bringing in young talent to play classic showgirls and entertainers from that era, they would use a cast that had performed on those stages then or had worked with those legendary actors. Everyone onstage would be 55 or older, and Markowitz himself would return to his performing roots to host the show—exploring, in his words, "the road not taken." Thus was born the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. To date, the show has played to more than 3 million people of all ages, and Markowitz is proud to point out he's never missed a performance.
Since its first performance, the Follies had always set the mood for its performances with curtains and static billboards that could be rolled on and off stage on tracks. While it worked, and was authentic to the period being portrayed, it was also very limiting, particularly given the cramped quarters in which the show operates.
"Over the years, we've done some fairly miraculous things in terms of scenery and backdrops," said Markowitz. "The Plaza Theatre was primarily a movie house. It was never intended for this type of production. The stage itself is small, and one wing is 15'x15' while the other is 8'x4', so there's not a lot of room to keep boards on the side. There are no flies either, which means we can't drop in scenery from above. We were always making tough choices when it came to setting the proper mood." In early 2010, Markowitz started noticing video walls in some of the hotels in which he stayed. He thought the right video wall might provide the opportunity to do more with backdrops and scene setting, and brought the idea to Bob Feudi, technical director for the Follies.
"The ability to add more backdrops and visuals to the show without requiring any more space was very appealing," Feudi said. "But we also had some concerns, not the least of which was whether our audience would accept a video wall. It is a technology that didn't exist during the time the show is portraying, so we had to make sure our approach to it fit. We also wanted to be sure it would be an enhancement to our live performers rather than a distraction from them. They're our stars."
One of the big concerns Feudi had was the resolution of the screens. He had seen video walls where the picture looked great from a distance, but up close the pixelation would make it difficult to recognize what the scene was. He wanted the backdrop to look great from every seat in the house. He also wanted it to look like one large, traditional-style backdrop rather than a group of individual screens.
Getting the color calibration to match was another concern. As a big, Las Vegas-style revue, the Follies would need a large video wall. Feudi and his team determined that a 5x5 size using large screens would create the impression Markowitz wanted while still holding them to a realistic budget. That meant calibrating 25 screens and keeping them matched for performances that often ran nine times per week, with matinee and evening shows. The same space considerations that led them to consider a video wall also created additional concerns.
"We needed the video wall to take up minimal space on the stage," Feudi said. "Our idea was to attach it to a concrete wall at the back of the stage that has been there since the Theatre opened. But we also wanted the ability to 'hot swap' the screens, so if one was having a problem during a performance, we could replace it between shows, or even during intermission."
Feudi and Markowitz auditioned LED and LCD screens from several manufacturers. Only one, however, really fit the part.
The screens they selected for their video wall were NEC X461UN displays, 46" LCDs with 1360x768 WGA native resolutions in a true 16:9 aspect ratio. Its groundbreaking ultra-narrow bezel (7.3mm screen-to-screen) and TileMatrix technology that can join up to 100 screens were ideal for the "bigger than life" impression the Follies wanted to create while acting as the background element the video wall was supposed to be.
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