From the world’s tallest building in Dubai, to Main Street Disney in Orlando, to the lights on Broadway in New York City a Middleton, Wisconsin company is lighting the way. Fred Foster’s journey doesn’t resemble the career path of a typical CEO, let alone someone who become one of the 10 most powerful people in the entertainment technology industry.
Foster runs Electronic Theater Controls (ETC) which employs about 700 people in Dane County at the center of their product development. ETC makes everything it takes to run a theater from lighting to sound and they also provide landscape and exterior building lights for some of the most famous destinations in the world. Foster’s creative fingerprints can be seen all around Electronic Theater Controls. In the factory you only have to look down to spot their revolutionary lighting in action and their “Made in Wisconsin” product has a worldwide reach. Pointing at the different lighting in the factory Foster said, “So these will head to China, to Europe, to North America, to South America. Anywhere that they need a spotlight or that piece of equipment.” All of this is the brain child of a University of Wisconsin dropout and born from the curiosity of college students.
Foster was a theater department student and when the university decided to buy a new computerized lighting board for Vilas Hall. The mechanism cost $150,000, a small fortune in 1973 and Foster wanted to show it to his brother who was studying physics. Foster said his brother Bill reacted this way, “His direct quote was, gack, this is disgusting, we can do it for 5,000 dollars.”
The Foster brothers ran with the idea and built their first production light boards in Bill’s bedroom at their parent’s house. Talking about those early days Foster said, “ETC was a total joke. Then we moved into our first garage in 1979.” Just like Walt Disney, Harley-Davidson and Bill Gates at Microsoft they all started their companies in a garage. Foster said that wasn’t their only connection, “I think we were one of Bill Gate’s first customers, we bought a development software package from them and I think we called for technical support and likely talked to him on the phone.”
ETC went on to create the first computerized lighting console right after the microprocessor had come out. Foster said, “That was a big step.” A revolutionary step indeed but those early years for the Foster brothers were not easy. Foster said, ”There have been many times that we have been challenged. During that time when we couldn’t make payroll. It’s not wrong to be too stupid to quit.”
Foster may have quit college, but that doesn’t mean his didn’t value his time at the University of Wisconsin. Foster says he has a tremendous respect for the university and added, “I regret not being patient enough to take advantage of school. And so looking back, I suppose I do regret it, but I can’t imagine that I ever would have been able to finish it.” But what he did learn at UW-Madison is immeasurable and if there was a degree in passion Fred foster would have earned it. He fondly remembers his days in the theater department, “I think my favorite theater is the Memorial Union Theater. The large proscenium house, and not only that, when I was a student, I learned my stagecraft. So there is a really strong emotional tie, the number of all-nighters I worked there.”
Foster talked about why Wisconsin, “It was kind of a no brainer to go to UW in 1975 when I was interested in lighting because there was a fabulous lighting professor named Gilbert Helmsley, who was not only a very good artist, but he was a very exciting educator. He was kind of a bright flame that drew moths, who turned out to be some of the most successful and best lighting designers in the country and in the world. So it was a really exciting time to be in theater at that point. Vilas Hall was pretty new, we could as a freshmen, Gilbert went to New York and was lighting at the Met and he took me along as a freshmen, basically I got sandwiches, but I watched him light two shows at the Metropolitan Opera, and that’s when I fell in love, not so much with opera, but with opera houses. So it was just an incredibly dynamic time to be at the university at the middle to late 70’s.”
Years later “work” would bring Foster back to the Union Theater again and again. Like so many great theaters, ETC lighting hangs from the rafters. When the Memorial Union underwent renovations Foster forged a new partnership with the University. In the Play Circle, ETC donated an entire lighting and stage machinery package on the grounds that they could put in anything they wanted. In essence, creating a theater lighting lab for students to learn their stagecraft, just like Foster had done years before.
Every night you can catch the light show outside of ETC seven acre headquarters in Middleton, Wisconsin. The color array isn’t just for looks, these light are being tested and the mood lighting continues when you step inside. The lobby is called Town Square. It’s a space inspired by the famous Edward Hopper painting called “Nighthawk”. The lobby resembles a 1940s New York City stage backdrop.
Foster enjoys telling the stories of what inspired the lobby design. Foster said, “Across the way is the ACME office machinery which actually houses our computer help desk. The Richard Kelly Insurance Company over here is our Human Resources help desk. He was our insurance agent when we were a joke in a garage.” Foster has come a long way since those early days in a garage. Foster said, “We have grown from garage to garage and arguably we’re still in a garage, they’re just bigger garages. I don’t think any of us ever saw ETC turning into what it has become.” You don’t have to look any farther than Foster’s office door to see he’s never forgotten where he started. His office door is designed to resemble a glass garage door. Foster said, “It’s been a great ride. And I don’t think we’re done with it.”
Click here for more about ETC’s part in a long history of evolution in lighting technology.
ETC employees compete in an annual bobblehead decorating contest – at the expense of their CEO.