Light still shining brightly for dedicated business owner


By John Arbucci

Going blind is never easy for anyone, but it is particularly difficult for someone who works with light.

Patrick O’Rourke, the owner of a theatrical lighting supply company, was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease in 1989. By 1996, he was temporarily blind.

“Light is about seeing,” O’Rourke said, “When I was diagnosed and the doctor told me what was going to happen, I was just devastated.”

The doctors told O’Rourke, now 57, that the disease, Fuch’s Dystrophy, would slowly cause him to go blind, but that corneal transplants would allow him to see again. In 1993, O’Rourke couldn’t read small print. By 1996 he couldn’t read the “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs on street corners.

These vision problems did not stop O’Rourke from working in the lighting industry, and eventually buying the rental supply house he worked for.

Like many businesspeople, O’Rourke started his career in the arts. Like many creative people, he discovered that a life in the arts exacted a price higher than he was willing to pay. Unlike many of his peers, however, he was able to use his skills to enter – and eventually buy – a business that keeps him involved in the arts on a day-to-day basis. To do so, he had to adapt not only to the changing needs of his customers, but also to the changing needs of his eyes.

Trained in theatrical design at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., O’Rourke came to New York City in 1977 as resident lighting designer at Dance Theatre Workshop. When that one-year stint ended, he began freelancing. For the next several years O’Rourke went on repeated tours of Europe and South America, illuminating performances for dance companies such as Twyla Tharp and Alwin Nikolais.

It was not a romantic existence.

“I was touring so much I had no life,” O’Rourke said.

Looking for work that would let him stay home and remain connected to the dance world, he tried his hand as a booking manager in the early- to mid-1980s. But he didn’t find much satisfaction in that work. When the then-owners of Big Apple Lights – the company he now owns – offered him a job as sales manager in 1987, he took it.

Big Apple Lights rents lights, cables and control panels to off-off-Broadway theatres. Black pipes, from which lights can be hung, rest in racks adjacent to the company’s loading dock. Behind the pipes, two-foot long lights are stacked like cans at the end of a supermarket aisle. In the basement, red bins hold coil upon coil of thick, black cable.

Kyle Chepulis, who won an Obie award for set design, is O’Rourke’s friend and client. Chepulis said that at the time O’Rourke arrived at Big Apple Lights, the company did not have a good reputation. Sometimes customers received poorly maintained equipment. Other times they received an incomplete order. The company also didn’t have new equipment, which meant that designers often could not get what they wanted.

O’Rourke set about to change all that.

“Patrick treats people the way he would want to be treated,” Chepulis said. “The end-product is first with Patrick, not the ‘Hey, where’s my ten bucks?’”

O’Rourke also acted as Big Apple Lights’ in-house consultant, sharing his expertise with any client who needed it.

“I really enjoyed taking time with clients,” O’Rourke said, “helping them with color choices and teaching them about angles and color temperature.”

In 1989, two years after he started working at Big Apple Lights, O’Rourke’s doctors determined he had Fuch’s Dystrophy. This genetic disorder gradually causes the cornea to become cloudy and distorted, leading to blindness.

At the time of the diagnosis, the disease was not very advanced.

“Because you lose distance vision first,” O’Rourke said, “I was able to work fine here.”

His work was, evidently, more than fine. In recognition of his contributions, the owners made him a partner in 1993. That was the same year that he noticed a significant decline in his vision.

“It’s a sort of blurriness which gets worse and worse,” O’Rourke said. Ultimately, “it’s like looking through a piece of frosted glass.”

The only treatment for people with an advanced form of Fuch’s Dystrophy is a corneal transplant.

Following his doctors’ advice, O’Rourke put off having the surgery for three or four years. The doctors explained that the disease would eventually damage the new corneas, and the transplants would have to be done again.

“The doctors wanted me to wait until I felt it was absolutely necessary,” O’Rourke said.

While he waited, he had to make adjustments for his inability to see clearly.

“I just had to have people read to me what was on the computer or write it in big words for me,” he said.

Despite these difficulties, O’Rourke bought out his partners in 1996. In the same year, he said, his vision had become so bad it endangered his life.

“I almost got hit by a car because I couldn’t tell if a car was moving or not,” he said.

Within a month of that incident O’Rourke had a corneal transplant in his left eye. Six months later, surgeons placed a new cornea in the right. His corrected vision, with eyeglasses, is 20/20. Or, rather, almost 20/20. The transplanted cornea in his right eye shows signs of damage from the disease, and will eventually need replacement.

Until then, O’Rourke has a lot to do. Like many downtown businesses, Big Apple Lights was adversely affected by 9/11. There are fewer off-off-Broadway shows being produced, which means fewer equipment rentals. To make up for this, he is working on a business plan to sell equipment to bigger venues. The company has already had some success, selling equipment to Town Hall, the Theatre of Riverside Church and American Ballet Theatre.

He also has an educational series to run. Four years ago, he and Jason Livingston, another lighting designer, founded Big Apple Institute, which offers equipment seminars, hands-on training and backstage tours.

Those who attend, O’Rourke said, include “everybody from college students and high school students up to seasoned designers.”

O’Rourke said the Big Apple Institute is one way he shows his appreciation to an industry that has served him well. And to his customers whom, he said, were “very patient” as he got it organized after he took charge.

“It’s the duty of every businessman to acknowledge the support he gets from his customers,” O’Rourke said. “We aren’t here just to make money. We’re here to provide a service to the community, and be a part of the community.”