Jamestown is perfect ‘escape’ for NYC theatre designer
Back in 1974, islander Eugene Lee was living in Providence on a 50-foot sailboat named Storms Valor and working on stage designs for Trinity Rep. But a meeting with “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels took Lee from working in Providence to working with what has become a comedic institution in American television.
For the past 36 years, Lee has been the production designer of the sets for NBC’s Emmy awardwinning SNL.
“Just as Manhattan has changed throughout the decades, so, too, has the stage of SNL,” Lee said.
His changing designs have earned him seven Emmy nominations during his three decades with the show. In 1974, when the show was created, 42nd Street was filled with more urban realities and Lee’s stage designs reflected those realities. For the 100th show, SNL took on the “subway look,” with Grand Central Station as its backdrop.
Lee works on 22 SNL shows per season, he said.
“We’re on for two shows and then we’re off work for a week or two,” he said. “I take the Amtrak Acela into Manhattan mid-week and once the show airs, I have a driver take me back to my studio in Providence.”
Lee refuses to live in Manhattan; he prefers his residences in Providence and Jamestown to New York City. When asked how he stays so agile at age 71, he said that the secret to his youth and energy is “always keeping busy.”
“Keeping busy” is a relative term, it seems.
During his downtime from SNL, Lee works on six Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Right now, he is working on a play in Chicago, a revival of “Camelot” at Trinity, “God of Carnage” in Seattle, “Oklahoma” in Washington, D.C., “Train Drive” in New Haven, Conn. and another play in Boston.
Lee is most famous for his work on the current Broadway hit, “Wicked.” In addition to the show’s present New York City run, which debuted on Oct. 30, 2003, “Wicked” is currently playing in eight other locations.
“My phone is always ringing with some sort of question or concern regarding the set,” Lee said.
One of the most memorable stage designs of “Wicked” is an image of a clock, which sets the mood for the show. When asked how he came up with the concept, Lee said his wife, Brooke, read the entire book, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” written by Gregory Maguire — on which the Broadway show is based. One of the chapters she described to Lee was called “The Clock of the Time Dragon.” Lee had a collection of clocks in his home, he said, so he just selected one and forcefully threw it on the floor. Out popped pieces of gears, springs and screws, which he then put back together and sketched, complete with an automated dragon across the top.
The “Wicked” set design earned Lee his third Tony Award in 2004. He also won Tony awards for his set designs for “Candide” in 1974, “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 and a nomination for “Ragtime” in 1988.
Despite his heavy work schedule, Lee does make room for relaxation. He and his wife, Brooke, balance their time between their 1911 Steedman Family mansion in Providence and their Jim Estesdesigned beach home in Jamestown. Lee’s Providence home is filled with memorabilia from his entertainment career, as well as that of his wife. His Jamestown home is filled with a splendid view of water.
The couple came to Jamestown through Lee’s relationship with the boat supply company, Jamestown Distributors. Lee is an avid restorer of wooden sailboats.
He currently owns a Buzzard Bay 15 and a Concordia 31. He also had an English Pocket cruiser brought to Jamestown from England via Boston.
Lee’s goal, he said, is to follow a father and son’s sailing adventure from Massachusetts to Key West, Fla. in a 20-foot Cat boat. A boat builder in Wickford found him the perfect sailboat to accomplish this goal, except the boat has been deemed “unrestorable.” “Perfect!” Lee told him. “I’m looking forward to the challenge!” and purchased the boat.
The Lees were looking for a second home in Maine and Foster, R.I. when Brooke called to say, “You won’t believe it, but I’ve found the perfect house in Jamestown that I really like.”
The house was built “on spec” and had a permit for a dock. It was brand new, overpriced and came with two moorings, Lee said. Nonetheless, he said, they bought it.
“I love Jamestown,” he said. “It’s quiet. No one calling, simple, a nice little escape.”
A typical day for Lee in Jamestown is to wake up in the morning and spend a few hours working on his wooden sailboats. Then, for dinner, he and his wife love to frequent their favorite restaurant, Trattoria Simpatico, he said.
“They let me bring my Labrador retriever, George, with me,” he said. “What can be more perfect than that?”
Lee has written an autobiography, “Adventures of Eugene Lee,” which he wrote during his downtime during the 2007 writers strike. It will be released this December. Now, he is writing another book. With permission from NBC, he is writing “The Art of SNL,” which will include a look at the original mock-up stage set he did for the show 36 years ago.