Set Design for Billy the Kid
16 x 13 in.; 40.6 x 33 cm.
Gift of Charles Lisanby
This set design is one of Charles’ earliest drawings and truly the one that launched his career in New York. After impressing Ralph Levy—who at the time worked for CBS—with his work for the Friar’s Club, Charles was offered the opportunity to design the set for an experimental made-for-television ballet. The project, a 3 pm airing of Aaron Copeland’s Billy the Kid, was to be the first non-news broadcast on evening television. With no precedent, CBS had little grasp of the manpower needed to pull off such a program, forcing the small crew involved to perform a wide variety of tasks, including some for which they weren’t necessarily trained. For Charles, this meant that he had to not only design the set, but also help build it and adjust the stage lighting for the show. As Lisanby recalls, “I really wanted it to look exactly like the sketch… so I was talking to the painters about it and they said, “Well, would you like to paint along with us?” So they showed me how to mix paint. In those days, the paint only came as powdered pigment… it was really quite complicated”. The novelty of this project is again evident in Charles’ recount of its filming, which was done on the same day that it was to be broadcasted. “At about two o’clock, I realized we weren’t through the first half of it”, Lisanby recounts, “And I said, “Rob, you know, it’s getting very late, are we going to be alright?” He said, “We'll be alright”, and he tore a page of the back of his script and he wrote “Please stand by””. Fortunately, other than a slight delay at the start, the televised ballet went off as planned.
Charles’ work for CBS soon garnered the interest of the Theatrical Stage Designers Union, which was beginning to organize television workers at the time. They demanded he cease working for CBS until he joined the Union himself and pass their entrance exam. At the test, which he passed with a perfect score, Charles met famed English designer Oliver Messel. The day after the test, Charles introduced himself to Messel and actually taught him how to mix pigments and make paints. Messel was greatly impressed by Charles’ knowledge of the history of design, as well the creativity of his set sketches, offering him a job soon after as his assistant on Olivia de Havilland’s 1951 production on Romeo and Juliet. From there, Charles’ career quickly took off.