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Stage Lighting South - The Legacy
(click here for more about Cecelia's retirement)

The Memphis Office of MainStage is an outgrowth of Stage Lighting South, which was started in 1970 by Sidney Chilton, father of Cecelia Chilton, our Memphis “Office Manager Emeritus”. Sidney was a manufacturer’s representative for architectural lighting and dimming manufacturing companies, primarily Ariel Davis, which became Electro Controls. As a rep, he was involved in lighting for many of the Memphis area schools built in the 1950’s and 1960’s to meet the demand of the post-war baby boom. These schools included theatres with stage lighting systems based on new (1960) technology. This new technology became a special interest for Sidney, and he narrowed the focus of his rep business to theatrical lighting. The absence of local sources for theater supplies led to the beginning of the supply segment of the business. Starting in his garage, he stocked color media and parts for lighting fixtures. When television stations began converting their studios from black and white to color, he acquired their outdated lighting fixtures and began renting them to small theatrical production groups in the Memphis area.


In 1970, Sidney turned the venture into a full-time business, Stage Lighting South, further developing the relationships he had established with area drama teachers when new schools were built. This was a time of great expansion in the technical theatre industry, and Stage Lighting South benefitted from having early dealerships with such companies as Rosco Laboratories, Altman Stage Lighting, Electro Controls, Strong Followspots, Union Connector and others.


The first “catalog” was stapled together letter-size pages which were photocopied from typewritten (manual typewriter) text, some hand drawn illustrations and some cut-and-paste illustrations (the old fashioned way-using scissors and glue). The original logo was a drawing of lighting fixtures done by Sidney himself. In the 1978 revision, there is a hand-drawn map to the new “commercial” location (he had outgrown the garage).


We have come a long way from hand-made catalogs, dial phones, manual typewriter and index cards to a multi-location operation using website marketing, computerized inventory and accounting systems and internet based access to manufacturers’ product information, but the basis of our business is the same … personal relationships between us and our customers and suppliers which are based on mutual trust.

Cecelia says that Sidney’s strong relationships with both customers and suppliers were the key to the survival of the company when Sidney died in 1982 and she began to run the business. Having never been backstage, she was totally reliant on both customer and supplier to teach her what she needed to know. In her early days, the customer would inquire about an item, explain what it was and who made it, then she would call the manufacturer and get a lesson in pricing and availability. Both customers and suppliers were eager to help.

 Old School Dimmer

In 1982, her contact with the regional theatre world was minimal. She was a good audience, and volunteer worker. In her previous career as a Life Insurance Salesman, she met Jackie Nichols, one of the prime forces in Memphis Area Theatre, and at his invitation became a founding member of Friends of Circuit Playhouse in 1975. She worked rummage sales and subscription drives, but none of this prepared her for working in technical theatre sales. She would have to hire workers who possessed the technical expertise that she lacked. This provided part-time jobs over the years for many students, techs and others who loved working on the edge of the entertainment world. These workers also taught Cecelia much of what she needed to know.


There were soOld price sheet, wish these were still around!me segments of the business which took longer to learn than others, e.g. working with contractors and distributors on new construction and renovation projects. But she knew how to build on existing relationships in the consumables segment to keep the business going while she figured out the other parts. Adding scenic paint and stage makeup products to the existing stock items made a big difference toward becoming a full service theatrical supply source.


Exhibiting at SETC provided a way to expand the geographic customer base, and attending the Tennessee and Mississippi State Theatre Festivals reinforced the existing customer relationships, as well as created new ones. In fact, it was at a Mississippi Theatre Association Festival in Meridian in the late 1980’s that Cecelia met Dean Sternke of MainStage. They began a friendly competition which led to the current configuration of the two companies as one.


After 20 years of holding the reins of Stage Lighting South, which seemed to grow in spite of what she did to it – or for it - or with it, Cecelia was ready to begin letting go. The Sternkes were interested in expanding their operation which had bases in Milwaukee and Pensacola, and Memphis seemed a good fit. The central location of Memphis was attractive, along with the existing customer base and the strong Theatre community composed of high school theatres, college theatres and community theatres. In addition, the business philosophy of both companies was similar: emphasis on integrity, customer service and staff proficiency.


And so… in 2004 Stage Lighting South became an integral part of MainStage Theatrical Supply, Inc.



A note from MainStage
: Cecelia wrote the above piece for us in 2014. She characteristically didn’t mention that in the past eleven years, she has been the touchstone of the Memphis office. Her knowledge of the industry and its players, combined with her deep roots in Memphis have been an invaluable aspect of MainStage’s growth in the Mid-South. When MainStage migrated to a new computer system five years ago, Cecelia became the office process expert and never stopped asking how or why. Her cheat sheets have been training material for many employees (we suspect they’ll still be used fairly often after she has passed the torch).


What she also didn’t tell you is that Sidney was also a jazz musician and her mother, Mary, an avid supporter of the arts and operator of the first private art gallery in Memphis (a co-operative with regional artists). Cecelia’s baby brother Alex was a famous musician, lead singer of the Boxtops (The Letter). Cecelia was raised with some form of art as part of her daily diet, still plays guitar, and is part of the local music community. She doesn’t tell you that even though she significantly pared down her work hours a few years ago, she still has customers who call to speak with her. Cecelia wouldn’t say that it’s not uncommon for people to ask about her at trade shows or manufacturer meetings – people she many not have seen or spoken to in many years but who still hold great affection and esteem for her.


As Cecelia prepared for retirement, company employees likewise prepared to be without her mentorship and guidance. It won’t be easy. We will miss her graciousness, humor and knowledge. We hope you will join us all in wishing her the absolute best in her “retirement”, which we believe is just another word for “adventure”.


Bon Voyage, CC – stop by and see us sometime, or at least send us a picture from the road now and again.