about ray klausen

from yale drama’s alumni magazine

rayRay Klausen is a man of the theater-committed, dynamic, talented, shrewd, and very fortunate. A 1967 graduate of the Drama School, Ray has a long resume of theater and television credits, including Broadway, off-Broadway, and international productions. His work in television has garnered him three Emmy awards for set design (two for The Academy Awards show and one for the Cher series) and twelve nominations. Sitting in his study, surrounded by books, framed playbills, and beautifully lit set models that are like fine sculptures, it is impossible to miss the sense of pride and joy of an artist who loves his work. “My whole life has been a series of taking risks and having great adventures. I’m just crazy about my work.”

Adventure and luck, as well as hard work and perseverance, have played crucial roles in his life. Though theater is his true passion, the story of his career evolution reads more like Hollywood, complete with earthquakes and fires, presidents and divas, and a big-break scene that could have been written for Jimmy Stewart. It is a testament to his character that the sensational aspects of his success are countered by a profound gratitude, and generosity, for the opportunity and ability to do what he has always loved.

“I fell in love with the theater when I was six years old. My parents took me to Radio City Music Hall and I just thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe my eyes.’ I was especially bowled over by the curtain. Years later, Broadway producer Alexander Cohen hired me to design Night of 100 Stars and was sitting in Radio City Music Hall telling the crew, ‘No, I want the curtain a little higher there, a little lower there’, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, I am so blessed.’ It was just amazing.”

Ray’s parents, who emigrated from Denmark, taught him discipline and practicality, while firing his ambitions to succeed – attributes that served him well at Yale and professionally. He comes from a working-class family where money was tight. As a teenager, he would save his money and every Friday, take the train from Long Island to the City to get standing room tickets for Broadway shows. “I saw a lot of theater and consequently I wanted, more than anything, to design scenery. But of course, that wasn’t practical. Not many people get to do that.” So, Ray put his theater plans aside. During a brief stint teaching art at a junior high school, and at the same time pursuing a Masters degree at NYU, his scenic design professor Patton Campbell (’52, ’50 YC) told him, “You must go to Yale.”

Though Ray had only enough money to get him through one and a half years, he decided to try his luck and came to Yale to study under Donald Oenslager (Former Faculty). At the time, the design department, making substantial cuts at the end of each academic year, only graduated about 25% of its students. Ray says “That made you work VERY hard – taught you how to present your designs and deliver workable sets. Survival at Yale was terrifying to me, but making it through made one very strong. I always joke that because of my Yale experience, I can face Diana Ross on her worst day and convince her to perform in front of a brown paper bag!”

Beyond the excellent training, Ray is also grateful to Yale for its financial support. It paid for his last year and a half and sent him to Europe upon graduation. Last year, as a thank you, Ray set up a yearly scholarship for design students.

After graduating, Ray found that the market for Broadway was very tight. He initially eschewed the lure of television to stick it out in New York as a theater designer, and suffered through a very lean fall and winter, culminating in a holiday with a pathetic Christmas tree decorated with self-made tinfoil-covered matchboxes for ornaments. “It was a real low moment for me,” Ray said with a grin. “I remember thinking, ‘My life is not going to be like this. I am going to make something of it. I’ve worked really hard at Yale. I’m going to make it pay off.’ So, I went down to my bank and held up my diploma – this is the absolute truth – and said, ‘I’m gong places and I need $500 to get there.’ And they lent it to me!” It turned out to be a great investment and a big break for Ray. He bought an excursion ticket Los Angeles to seek design work there.

California proved to be the right place at the right time. Within two weeks, he landed his first job, painting scenery for CBS, and immediately began networking and developing friendships. One of them led him to Jim Tritippo, a leading production designer. One week after their initial meeting, Tritippo’s assistant of seven years quit and Ray began assisting him. Ray never looked back and within two years, became one of the most sought-after television designers in Hollywood.

“I think part of the secret to my rapid forward movement was that Yale prepared me so well that I could risk taking chances, being cutting-edge, because I knew what I was doing. I love to break rules, but to do that you have to really understand the rules to begin with.” Ray also acknowledges that he was very lucky and worked tirelessly, often over eighty hours a week, grateful for the opportunity to grow and hone his craft. Over the years he developed an extraordinary career in television, designing more than 400 shows, including Christmas shows for Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Andy Williams, (remember the pathetic Christmas tree), Tony and Emmy Award shows, shows for three presidents, and creating The Kennedy Center Honors look, as well as countless specials and series. He focused on musical variety shows because they were the only forms that offered the theatricality he craved.

Ray managed to squeeze theater into his busy schedule whenever he could, working at LA’s Mark Taper, the Kennedy Center, St. Louis Rep, and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, to name a few. After he realized that he had achieved all he wanted from working in television, and the Los Angeles earthquake totaled three houses around the home he had just designed and built for himself and his partner, he said, “Enough! I’ve always wanted to live in and work in New York City – now’s the time to make the move.” So, he relocated to the City and refocused on his true love, theater. He has since designed 9 Broadway shows and countless Off-Broadway and regional productions.

Ray is cautious about being so married to his work that he forgets to live, posting a reminder on the wall of the lesson he learned about keeping things in perspective. It is a framed room key from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas where he designed the sets for Jubilee! The inscription below the key reads, “Remember, you’ve had harder days.” While loading in the scenery for Jubilee!, Ray was trapped on the twelfth floor during the horrendous fire that killed 86 people. He escaped by actually tying bed sheets together and lowering himself down, from balcony to balcony. He even saved an elderly woman on the last balcony by dragging her to safety across the burning roof of the casino. “That is really asking a lot from a set designer,” he quips.

Ray reports his life now, though always adventurous, is wonderfully balanced. He treasures his friendships as well as his partner of many years, John Harrington, whom he met in Europe while on a Bates Travel Fellowship from Yale. “Another thing I have Yale to be thankful for. So far, it’s been a great life. I’m just curious what the next adventures will be.”

– Greg Copeland (’04)