Eugene Lee was a young theater set designer living out of a 50-foot bulkhead in Rhode Island in the early 1970s when he got the call that would change his life. "I was rowing the cove in Providence. And it was someone from NBC saying, this Canadian producer would like to meet you if you're interested. He's at The Plaza, you just have to call him up and make an appointment," Lee, 78, told Gothamist. "And I thought, well, what's the harm here." That Canadian producer was Lorne Michaels, and he ended up offering Lee the gig of a lifetime—production designer for a little show called Saturday Night Live.
Lee, who was the show's first hire, has worked for the series ever since, and he's seen all the hosts from George Carlin to Donald Trump. (In September he showed us a sketch from Trump's show and said he was "very nice" to him, but told us, "Now that the country is in ruin. You young people, trust me, it's over. Good luck to you, you will need it."). Lee also worked on a long list of theater productions, including Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and Candide, for which he won Tony Awards.
We caught up with Lee to find out what it was like designing for the show's most politically-charged season, now that he's finally getting a couple months off.
Were there any sets you worked on this season that were particularly trying or difficult? The last shows of the season was, I thought, pretty successful, design-wise. It was a kind of dark show. I don't know why that happens from time to time. I worked on the little amusement park ride, which was kind of fun. It was somewhat of a challenge. But it seemed to work out pretty good.
Was there anything this season that you were surprised about, in terms of sets that you had to design or skits the show was doing? No, but not really. Because of a lot of political stuff. You know? [With] the last show,they couldn't decide how to open it. It was typical Saturday Night, because they said they wanted the White House. They wanted the Oval Office, but the other side of the Oval office. Not the windows, but with desks where the sofas sit.
So we did that, just got it all built and instantly got canceled. Typical. And then they had another thing, I don't know what. It got canceled. And then they finally called and said, "Well, it's just going to be a piano sitting on home base." Which I thought was actually pretty good. The family. You know?
So for the Hillary Clinton sketch, right after the election when Hillary lost, did you prepare anything for that show that they ended up scrapping? I don't remember. I thought [the lone piano for the Leonard Cohen song] was a pretty good idea actually. It's hard to find something with the right tone.
Who came up with that idea? Oh, I have no idea. The writers. We don't know. They work in pairs. They work together. They work singularly.
When do you get the list of sketches and design concepts? Very simple. The read-through is scheduled Wednesday. In theory, at 3 o'clock. Usually by 3 o'clock we have a kind of list of what we're going to read through the read through. And a lot of writers don't even know. In the read through room around 3 o'clock—It always says on the script, 2 o'clock or something, but that's when the script is closed.
So we have the read-through on Wednesday and we find out. It's been done differently over the years. Now we have one of the assistant directors. He usually comes in and has a list of what they would like to produce, and then that's it. He runs down the list and things like the piano is not there because it's just a cold open, "to be decided."
When do they decide on the cold open? There's no rule. They just tell us later. That's all.
What's the shortest amount of time you've had to put together a set? Well, I don't know. Things get changed all the time. That's one of the joys and pleasures of the whole project.
What makes it great is that it's a live show. That's the big deal. That's really what separates it from lots of other shows. We don't mind. We're the "easy-going design department." If they don't like the color of [the set]..."What would you like? We'll repaint it for you."
To be honest, it's a wonderful show to work on. I'm happy now that we're on a little break because it's kind of tiring. I've decided to—they were doing four shows in August. Just Weekend Update. Which I was trying to decide whether to work on it but then I decided, "Oh, why not?"
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
For the Weekend Update set, is that always the same set every time or do you design new sets? It's the same set but it changes from time to time. Sometimes I get tired and I like to make a new set, or sometimes the Weekend Update people would like to [change it]. Whatever they want. Things lately have stayed around a little bit. Like the home base, we used to change it more often. The current one is probably the longest it's been the whole show. But I'm rather fond of it.
You've been working with the show since the beginning—you were the first hire on SNL. Can you remember another season that was as politically charged as this one? Well, nothing beats this one! This is totally, it makes you crazy, this one. Nothing else even comes close.
Can you tell us about the time you met Donald Trump? It was a long time ago. It must've been ten years. You know, he's been on the show a few times. I've never had any particular contact with him.
What was it like when he was on the show last time? We had a little chat about Addison Mizner who was the architect of Mar-a-Lago. So he talked that up a lot which was kind of fun.
Did you go to Mar-a-Lago? No, I didn't go.
When a musician performs on the show, do they submit their ideas for their set and then you design it? It's a mixture of things. In early years, we had a music set and people came and performed in it. There was a time in the general arc of the shows where they wanted to have their own set. I think our feeling is, that's okay. If they want to deal with that, as long as it doesn't affect the show, it's something we can deal with, because sometimes, some of the stuff people come with are really interesting ideas. Which I think is great.
Has there been anything particularly interesting that musicians have asked you to do? The usual people who love crazy stuff. Lady Gaga, she wants something special. But whatever, we're easy.
Kanye West? Of course. You can figure out who they are. And that's worked out pretty good. I think that's okay. Sometimes I have little negative feelings about [the sets] but we try to make people happy. Hey, it's a comedy show. You know?
When you have negative feeling, is it because you didn't like the way they wanted to design a set? No. No, no, no. One might be sentimental about the old days, the first years. In the general arc of the show, things have become more realistic because they want them more like movies. They want more detail.
But things change, that's all. If you look at the first show it looks like The Honeymooners. There's a potted plant or a hanging plant painted on the set. In a way it's kind of sweet and simple. But now, they like more real. It's like the little amusement park sketch, with the water and everything. We put a video wall behind it, which we're starting to use. We've kind of resisted that but now— If you look at the whole show, we started out doing little painted sets.
And then, it went from there in the last years. Just like in life. Billboard painters are much like scenic painters. Billboard used to all be painted by hand. That's gone. Now we have digital printing. On the plus side, it can be more accurate. It can be more literal to what it is. That's all. Now we're starting to use LED walls more often. Nothing wrong with that. It's okay.
Do you ever design anything for the digital shorts? Occasionally, but not too often because we have put together a wonderful film unit. James Signorelli, who's no longer with us, did all the parody commercials. And occasionally, we helped on that.
I didn't do too many. I did the very first one, which was kind of great. It was called "Show Us Your Guns," and it was a truck that ran around and stopped and people ran out of their houses with their guns.
The film unit has [since] developed into its own little unit. But they still use the same scene shop. We have to help them. They ask for stuff. They want stuff. We give it to them. We're all working together.
Do you see yourself working with the show indefinitely? They asked Mr. Michaels that. I think he had said, "As long as he can." Whatever that means. I think that's kind of how I feel. I like doing the show. I like doing other things too. I'm sitting here reading a script for a show that I'm doing in New Haven. I do other work. I'm a theater designer at heart.
You designed the Nutcracker set for the Grand Rapids Ballet, right? I was just there and they mentioned you. I did. We do a lot of things like that. We're working for Glimmerglass, which is an opera company up near Albany, which is famous for singing as opposed to amplifying. What else would I be doing? Better to be working.
Can you tell us about the time you met Prince? Nobody seemed to know what he wanted [for his SNL set], so I said, "Why don't I go out [to Minneapolis] and see what he wants?" I called a friend of mine who I'd hired to do The Tonight Show and said, "Hey, you want to come out and see Prince?" And of course, he said, "Sure."
So they booked me a flight and the usual transportation to do it and I went out... It seems to me in my brain, because I cannot remember so much anymore, that I actually talked to him once before a long time ago. I remember doing a set for him on Saturday Night, maybe it was one of the anniversary shows, that was all black like a coal mine.
But in this case, we went out to Paisley Park. Is that what it's called?
Yeah. It looks like a warehouse and we got to the gate and it was all no cars, locked up. Then eventually we got ahold of his people, and they said, "Come back at one o'clock," or two o'clock, or something like that.
So we went back to The Walker, a very wonderful museum there in town. We looked at things, passing the time. We went back and there was still no cars or anything but the gate at one o'clock had suddenly opened, electrically, and we went in, and there was this one door.
There were no cars. There was one door propped open by cinder block, and we thought that must be the entrance. And there was a big soundstage, set in the middle of it was a rock 'n roll stage, and there were some people working on sound equipment. And we waited, and waited. They were very kind, and said "Go in the other room. There's coffee if you want."
We waited and then suddenly there he was. He just appeared like magic.
He invited us in, and he had the all-girl band and he sang and we all sat down. It was a very interesting room. Around the top of the room were piano keys painted on the wall. It was kind of nice. And he's a very nice guy. And he sat down. And played the song and sang it with the girls two feet away.
This has happened in my life from time to time. I did Sweeney Todd on Broadway and you always get that call, "Stephen Sondheim would like you to come by. He has that new song and he'd like you to hear it." It's really rather touching. To be that close to a really famous musician or composer.
Anyway, [Prince] was nice. And then he had some images he showed us. We were getting a little nervous. We could've stayed longer but we didn't want to get stuck there. We wanted to catch our plane home, and so as we were leaving he said, "Do you know Natasha?" And I said, "Yeah, I know Natasha." Natasha [Katz] is great. Natasha is a very famous lighting designer. I've known her forever. She's done all the Disney musicals and she's really fabulous, and I said, "Yeah, sure. I love Natasha."
He said, "We should have Natasha." So when I got back to New York, I said to everyone, "Could you track down Natasha? He wants Natasha." And we got her too. So that was fun. Hey, it's all good.