Lighting the Way

Family and friends remember Emmy® Award winning camera operator Bruce Balton

“I walked onto a television set for the first time, a young, naïve girl from South Jersey, and I thought everyone would know each other except for me,” recalls Mary Balton, the wife of Emmy® Award winning Guild camera operator Rob Balton, and the force behind Balton’s company, Camera Moves. “This big guy with a booming voice walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, I am Bruce Balton.’ We chatted a little bit and I felt relieved that I had at least one friend on the set. Little did I know how he would become part of my family years later,” she reflects about marrying his brother.

That booming voice and open friendliness, along with his impeccable eye behind the camera, is what so many will miss with Bruce Balton’s passing last year. And although Balton is no longer booming through sets and life, his impact and legacy live on.

Mary Balton isn’t the only one who remembers that voice. “In an attempt to temper Bruce’s booming voice in the studio while wearing double muff headsets,” recalls production sound crew member Mark Spector, “I would crack open his BP-325 intercom back, crank his sidetone listen gain pot all the way up and his headset mic output gain down to 50 percent. Most of the time it worked, because he was screaming loud to himself. But if he slid one ear of the headset aside, all bets were off.”

All bets were often off for those working on the set with Balton, who, they remember, loved to take a dare. “I remember putting on motorcycle helmets and running head on into each other, and realizing afterwards that it wasn’t a good idea,” laughs camera operator Mark Whitman.

“We worked for many years at ABC News with a terrific director named Roger Goodman,” adds Emmy® winning camera operator Lyn Noland. “One year, when we were shooting election coverage in an ABC studio, the legendary journalist, David Brinkley, took a fall on the track of Bruce’s jib and fell flat on his face. He was unhurt. Later, Bruce found some yellow tape and made an outline of a man over the track. Goodman, who has a tremendous sense of humor, had us shoot a video with crazy sound, lighting and camera effects, which we named Man Down! We all couldn’t stop laughing, and to this day, it remains one of the funniest things we’ve ever done on a set.”

Bruce showing Ryan (C) and Dustin (L) crane set-up at the Caribbean Music Awards

“Bruce also loved the swag from shooting concerts,” Noland continues. “When we did Woodstock, he bought a number of gift items – shirts, hats, etc. I will always remember Bruce in his Woodstock shirt. When we shot Sessions, a wonderful music show, Bruce suddenly appeared wearing various items of Sessions clothing. He had a great sense of humor and a real love for music.”

“Some might call it kleptomania,” Balton’s son Ryan, a jib/Steadicam operator who recently co-produced an independent documentary, recalled during his father’s eulogy. “Coins, hats, key chains, credentials, autographs, discarded props and signage, beer glasses, beer growlers, beer bottles – you name it, and he saved it.

“But it wasn’t just to clutter the basement – the museum of Bruce,” Ryan explained. “He hung onto those things because they were a physical representation of a moment in time, experiencing something extraordinary with people who were extraordinary. Every photo that hung in his office, everything that sat on a shelf in the garage, the guitar picks under the Plexiglas on a bar he had from a Kevin Bacon movie, served as a physical reminder of the story behind it. He was proud of what he did, because of the people he got to do it with and the people who benefited from what he did.”

Balton’s natural enthusiasm rubbed off on everyone around him. “Working with him really wasn’t an option,” recalls his other son, Dustin, who has transitioned from camera to engineering for an MEP consultant firm just outside of Philly, although he still does freelance work on weekends and during the holiday season. “From a young age he was always bringing us to all sorts of jobs. And that kind of made us feel like celebrities, to experience things that no one we knew ever got the chance to.

Bruce (L) with Dustin (R) operating crane in Astoria, NY

“We were lucky to have a dad who was such a great teacher,” Dustin continues. “He was meticulous, but always willing to share his craft. And we had been so immersed in his lifestyle and his work ethic that we couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps. I always wanted to be on my best behavior when I would work with him, to help make his day a little easier. On one of our last jobs together, he told me how proud he was of me and how much he appreciated having me around.”

Those who say Balton was a tough taskmaster understood that drive came from wanting to be as good at his craft as he could possibly be. “The work ethic, a creative eye to detail, and interpersonal skills that the business demands of everyone on a production crew, especially in the freelance world, were things that he instilled within my brother and me – at home and when we’d go to work with him,” remembers Ryan. “Working crazy hours under demanding conditions, with no guarantee of job security, requires a special, focused, dedicated person – and Dad was no exception.

“Growing up, we always had cameras around at home. Before our family’s house burned down in 2011, we had, literally, months worth of videotapes. Having that technology around the house made it easy for me to develop a sense of ‘what looks good’ alongside developing a technical understanding of how it all works.”

Ryan Balton recalls and how he and his brother used to shoot “little sketches and news reports” with the family camcorder, once they were old enough to use his gear. “I remember it being a big deal when he started trusting us to shoot things, even just for home movies during the holidays or one of my brother’s band concerts,” Ryan adds. “It wasn’t just Dad handing off the camera – it was a man who had an Emmy and shot television events that the entire country was watching.”

Despite the demanding travel schedules (and insane hours) of shooting live television, Balton always made family a priority – not just because he was supporting everyone but also because he cared deeply for a quality of life. “After he had his stroke, that was a big thing,” Ryan says softly. “He wanted to get back to work not for himself and the satisfaction and fulfillment the job provided him, but to support us.

Ryan and Dustin Balton in the studio for the 30th Anniversary of Sesame Street broadcast

“He would always share his career with other people,” Ryan continues. “If he knew a family member or a friend who was a big fan of someone he was shooting, he’d bring them along or get them an autograph or swag from the show. We had autographed photos of the entire cast of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? with a personal message to my brother and me. I remember Sheryl Crow’s drummer showing my brother, who had just started playing the drums in Elementary school, his drum kit at a show at Sony Music Studios. Tickle-Me Elmo wasn’t so impressive to us when we had hung out with the real Elmo and Big Bird on the set of Sesame Street.”

One memorable “Balton Family” job was shooting the 140th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, for a film called Gettysburg: Three Days of Destiny. Ryan says it was the first time he and Dustin both worked for their father. “We helped build a 40-foot jib in the middle of a battlefield that was pretty neat,” he recounts. “We even got our first screen credit as PAs.”

Bruce’s wife Terry has her own fond memories from the set. “Like the Rolling Stones Steel Wheel Tour, when Ryan was an infant on stage at rehearsal in Atlantic City. Or Dustin sitting on the jib platform for the Brittany Spears Concert,” she smiles.

Terry, Ryan, Dustin, and Bruce at Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego with host Greg Lee

“One of Dad’s obsession was lighting,” Ryan recalled in his father’s eulogy. “Whether it was work – actually rigging lights for a TV shoot, which was what he first started out to do in the business – or his remote-controlled lighting scheme to illuminate the house or his property, he always lit the way for us.

“It’s one of the reasons why we are collecting money to install a new street light in Milford [PA] in front of the new library in his memory. And, while it may no longer be with solar panel LED lights, he still is lighting the way for us. Lighting the way to the day when we no longer have to keep his greatest hits album on repeat – but when we can join him for the reunion tour. He has given us his example to lead us [and those he touched] there – to save, to share, to love.”

You can view Ryan Balton’s eulogy to his father, Bruce, a dedicated Local 600 member since 1999, at YouTube at:

By Pauline Rogers. All photos courtesy of the Balton Family