On The House – Derek Heckler, The Riviera Theatre

Posted on March 7, 2023

You might say that Derek Heckler was born and raised to be the house LD at the Riviera Theatre. When he was a child, his mother sang in seasonal choruses and orchestral concerts at the 1,200 seat theatre outside Buffalo, NY.

Attending these performances, he fell in love with the ornate beauty of the historic venue, from its gilded walls, to its organ chamber, featuring a Mighty Wurlitzer, installed when the theatre opened in 1926. Years later, Heckler, who holds a BFA in Lighting Design and Technology, was working as a touring LD when he was asked to fill-in for some shows at “The Riv.”

As things turned out, time did not diminish the spell the theatre’s aesthetics had on him. Soon after his “fill-in” gig, he was designing posters for shows and revamping the website, work he still enjoys doing today in addition to serving as the theatre’s house LD.

As The Riviera Theatre’s “Design Specialist,” Heckler gets myriad opportunities to express his creativity, both as a graphic artists and lighting designer. The popular theatre hosts a diverse range of acts, from recording artists like The Guess Who and Christopher Cross, to tribute bands, as well as a variety of movie nights and concerts, some of which give this talented LD the opportunity to light performances on one of the few remaining Mighty Wurlitzers.

The Riviera Theatre is one of the few venues that still has a Mighty Wurlitzer. Can you tell me how and when it’s used? How do you light music from such a historic instrument? How is it different from lighting the music from modern instruments?
It truly is a gem, and one of a kind at that. It is the only Mighty Wurlitzer organ that was originally installed in the same town it was manufactured in (North Tonawanda), and was one of two of the company’s demonstrator models used in Buffalo, back then in the 1920s, it was used to show prospective clients on how it would sound in a theatre of this size. To this day, for most events, we have a professional organist play for 30 minutes before the show begins, to keep its spirit alive and provide some pre-show music. In addition, we have occasional concerts where national and international organists come in to play and often accompany a silent film, free to the public. It’s such a big part of our history and ultimately why our theatre is still standing.

“For the larger organ concert events, I typically light the interior of the theatre, such as the walls and the organ chamber lattice-work, as well as the stage to set the mood to the music. Often times the music that is played is classic 1920’s-40’s American Standards and showtunes, so I keep it simple with soft patterns and rich colors. Back in the day, they would just dim the house lights low and that would be it. I love bringing some visual interest to it and reinforce the mood of the music.”

You get such a broad range of artists appearing at the Riveira Theatre do you like the music of every artist who plays there?
“For the most part yes. We do a lot of classic rock and roll, lots of 70s’ and 80s’ tribute shows and headliners. I grew up in the late 80s with my parents always jamming out to those records, so I think it always stuck with me.”

Still, you can’t love them all, so how do you get pumped up to light music from artist that aren’t your cup of tea?
“At the end of the day, even if I don’t enjoy some of the music – my goal is to make our audiences happy and walk away with positive feedback for our venue. Knowing that I’m visually enhancing the music and making our patrons and the artists happy with my work will always bring me joy, regardless of the music. “

You have a nice arched frame over your proscenium stage. Do you incorporate that into your lighting design?
“Yes! In many of our shows I will have the proscenium brushed with some saturated light that harmonizes with the rest of the color, or colors, on stage in any moment. I think of it as an extension of the stage, framing in the action happening front and center.”

About what percentage of the band’s bring their own LDs as opposed to having you run their shows?
“Very few, as I mentioned earlier most of our music shows are tribute artists. They trust me with my aesthetic and knowledge of the music to make their show look great. On the other hand, most, if not all of the bigger headliner names we get will come with their own LD’s.”

Any advice on collaborating with those visiting LDs?
“Communication is paramount. I will get the visiting LD’s email or phone number as soon as we have a contract from my Technical Director. I introduce myself, send our house plot, hookup, and other important information. This way, most problems can be ironed out early, and there are no surprises the day of show. Also being friendly, understanding, and going out of your way to make the day go smoothly goes a long way.”

You mentioned earlier that you have movie nights at the Riviera. Do you light those?
“One of our biggest movie events each year is our Rocky Horror Picture Show Party. It’s a crazy night of burlesque and drag performances on stage, all culminating in the live interactive screening of the film at midnight.”

What are the best and most challenging things about being a house LD?
“I love being a part of the energy of the show. It feels great – it’s a rush. I do everything live/busk, so there’s never a dull moment. Always thinking at least one or two steps ahead as to what I’m going to do for the next song. Sometimes I’m calling follow spots simultaneously, which can be a challenge. The other challenge is simply time constraints. All of our shows for the most part are one-offs. We load the band in in the afternoon, do a sound and lighting check, have dinner, then open the house for the show. I need to do all of my homework during the week so that I’m ready to hit the ground running day of show.”

In addition to being the house LD, you are the marketing director of the Riviera. Do you ever include lighting in your marketing messages?
“Absolutely. Since we are primarily a music venue, I employ a lot of rock concert atmosphere in our flyers and advertisements. All of the photos I took myself. In fact, our recently restored wall mural on the back of the theatre depicts a rock show scene on stage, complete with lighting.”