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This year, Wybron celebrates 30 years at the cutting edge of stage lighting invention and manufacturing, from the current LED technology of the Cygnus line to dichroics and watchdog systems, all the way back to the company’s initial offering of scrolling color changers.

Invented by Wybron CEO Keny Whitright in 1980, the scrolling color changer sparked a revolution in the way lighting rigs were outfitted, designed and employed. Colormax, the first scroller, paved the way to the subsequent ColorWiz, to The Scroller, to the Coloram, and then to Wybron’s current offerings, the Forerunner, Coloram IT and CXI IT. The advent of scrollers allowed for vastly consolidated rigs, providing a quick and painless way to squeeze many colors out of one fixture. No one knows this better, perhaps, than Jim Lenahan. Lenahan is the longtime LD for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—and will be back on the road with them beginning in June—and was the very first designer to use the scrolling color changer.

“[Rigs at the time] looked like one color, one focus, one light," Lenahan says. "If you needed another focus, another color, you needed another light, and so, of course, everything was massive rigs of lots and lots lights just to do simple things that today we do with a few lights. Our standard rig in those days was 450 lights, and that was all pars and lekos and ACLs and a few odd bits and bobs here and there, you know—a beam projector or something like that. But mostly it was 1K pars and 1k lekos, and it was hot up here. But I was always trying out new things, and they had a color changer back then that worked like the boomerang on a followspot and solenoids. It would actually throw in a gel, in a very similar way to a followspot color changing system, and it was really terrible. They’d get all beat up on the road, and bent, and the little frames that held the gel would start coming apart, so they were always held together with gaffer tape and stuff, so they’d stick, or they’d hit each other and wouldn’t change, or get stuck halfway in or halfway out. It was pretty awful, but it was so novel at the time to be able to have more than one color come from one light. I was into it, but I knew there had to be a better way to do it than that.”

Lenahan heard about a color-changing prototype while on the search for a new console and tracked it down to the source. “We went down to Texas to Keny Whitright’s house to look at the first Colormax. Keny had it set up in his garage, and he had a Commodore 64 computer to control it, which was high-tech stuff in those days. It wasn’t in a housing or anything yet. It was just computer step motors and a scroll between them, mounted on a bench, and a bunch of gel, taped together. And it was like, ‘Okay, watch this,’ and he’d punch a couple numbers into the computer, and zip! it’d go to a color, and then another couple of numbers, and zip! it’d go to another one. It was like, ‘Oooooh, aaaah.’ I’d never seen anything like that. It could roll to a precise point and stop. So I had to have one of those.

“And so I was the first person to take Colormax on the road. It was all analog in those days. The control was analog—I remember the old board very well. It had buttons that you’d push that would light up. There was a grid of these buttons; let’s say there was ten buttons high and five buttons across, and so that meant you could have ten channels, or however many colors of gel, there were that many buttons. So you’d punch button one on light one, and it would go to color number one, and it would light up and would be lit solid. And then you could punch another button, say light one, button number four, and it would start blinking. That meant it was ready to go to that other color. And then you’d hit “Go” and it would go. That was cool, because you set up one, two, three, four, five and five, four, three, two, one, and it’d in one of those and be ready to to the next one. It was the whole kind of two-scene preset mentality that all the boards were using at the time. It was a really easy way to see what am I in now and what have I got set up for the next cue because in those days, it was all about being two or how ever many cues ahead of where you were, being set up that many cues in advance. It was all manual; you were just running it live anyway. There was no prerecorded anything.

“It was actually a pretty good system. I really liked it, because you could set up something really fast and then set up another one and have one running and the other in standby, and then basically hit your crossfade and while that one was in go you could set up standby for something else. It was great for those days, where everything was about winging it and being able to do anything at a moment’s notice, where the band’s not going to have a set list and they’re going to play whatever they feel like playing. The boards were set up to do that, and they’re not now. Now it’s all about pre-programming.”

Colormax and its descendants became nearly ubiquitous fixtures, but how quickly did Lenahan notice that others were using them? “Instantly. Everybody had to have it. In the pre-moving light days, we’d come up with all kinds of crazy things to give you any kind of movement or increased capability from the lights that we had. I used to do a thing where we’d pull out the shutters from a followspot, and we’d make a gobo that looked like a spatula, with a long handle on it, and you could slide it down into the guides for the shutters, and you could follow people around on a gobo. It sounds so simple now, that you could have a moving light with gobos in them, but in those days nobody had ever seen a gobo move. It was a lot simpler time. The same thing applies with the scrollers. Up until some of the par LEDs that they have now came along, it was the only way to do a lot of lights for a reasonable amount of money, that could change colors and didn’t have to move or change focus.

The scrolling color changers made by Wybron are everywhere, from megachurches to high schools to cruise ships and retail stores, but even in a day when additive LED color mixing is on the forefront, Lenahan thinks that the scroller retains viability.

“They’re still a great way to go. There’s one thing that scrollers give you that color mixing lights can’t give you, and that’s when you run from one end of the scroll to the other really fast, with the light on. Sometimes we used to do that, just because it’s such a kick-in-the-butt kind of look. Sometimes you’d want to black out while you change the color and not see it change and then bring it up in the new color. But there were times when you’d definitely want to see that thing go zzzzzzzz! and slide through there. And particularly we used to do a lot of those kind of effects on toners, where you’d have toners all over big system with a lot of truss in it. When it started zooming through all the colors it was a really effective look. There’s still a place for scrollers, I think.”