A Blaze of Bruin Glory
Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM
The stadium went dark. The crowd was hushed, but not necessarily surprised. This was the 1953 UCLA football season opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, after all, and it was not unusual for the Bruin faithful to light matches en masse during night games.
But this was different. The band started playing and, suddenly, in blazing color, came a rapid travelogue of lights from the Coliseum's south side — the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Taj Mahal and more. These weren't your ordinary card stunts. These were light stunts, performed by some 1,800 students shining flashlights through eight different colored filters.
The south side crowd roared. Spectators on the north side filed onto the field to see what the applause was all about. And when the amazing show was done, it closed with the traditional U-C-L-A spellout. The following week, UCLA's light stunts made both Life and Time magazines — the superstar media channels of the day.
That blaze of glory rekindled a tradition that had originally begun in 1935 when, in a collaboration between UCLA and Walt Disney Studios, light stunts were performed at halftime with different colored bulbs. But the stunts were discontinued with the advent of World War II. That was it for Saturday Night Bruin Lights, until 1953. It was a time when the university already was considered the best in the country at game-day card stunts, and constant innovation was expected.
The lights went back on, in fact, because of Bill Ackerman '24, then the graduate manager of Associated Students at UCLA, who asked the Rally Committee if the tradition could be revived. They decided that flashlights behind colored filters was a better approach than colored lightbulbs and ordered 2,000 from Hong Kong.
Seeking to continue the tradition, Don Gertsman '56, the 1954 Rally Committee chairman, heard a radio ad for Cinerama, in widescreen and with stereophonic sound. Sound! That was the answer.
The 1954 football season opened with the Bruins playing the San Diego Navy Training Station, so the Theater Arts Department, under the leadership of Dick Tumin and in collaboration with Rally Committee artists, created a vignette about Joe Bruin chasing down pirates on the high seas. The light show was accompanied by voices, sound effects and music. Reporting on the show the following week, Variety suggested that future movie moguls could be found at UCLA.
Those precious images are mostly all gone now, but the magazines they came in — and the memories of one of Westwood's long-gone but most brilliant traditions — live on. The light shows themselves have fallen back into memory, along with other historical UCLA traditions.
But for Gertsman, the memories linger, bright and brilliant, to this day — along with the fact that UCLA won its only NCAA football championship in that magic season of 1954.
"Those were exciting and fun times in an era when UCLA could be truly proud of its card stunts," he recalls. "With all our national championships, maybe we should add this to the list. Perhaps someday UCLA can once again do 'Card Stunts in Lights and Sound' and share the excitement with a new generation of Bruin fans."
— Jack Feuer and Don Gertsman '56