Russell Johnson

Acoustical Society of America

Wallace Clement Sabine Medal


Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson, eleventh recipient of the Society's Wallace Clement Sabine Medal, was born on 14 September 1923 in Briar Creek, Pennsylvania. Berwick, the nearest big town, housed the American Car and Foundry Company's (ACF) industrial plant which provided employment for Russell's grandfather, William Smith Johnson, his dad Frederick, and several of his uncles, as well as for Russell himself in his teens. He quickly rose from messenger to "ink-on-vellum" draftsman as soon as his supervisors noticed his awakening design talent. Russell's dad introduced him to woodworking so that by his 18th year, Russell was a pretty good carpenter who built simple scenery for the Berwick amateur drama group. A significant early interest in music was aroused by Russell's Aunt Josephine, a professional pianist whose performances of Chopin during her visits to grandpa's house mesmerized young Russell on more than on occasion. Another early influence on Russell's lifetime love affair with classical music was Louise Hartman, choir director and soprano with Berwick's First Presbyterian Church. Her renditions of the Inflammatus from Rossini's Stabat Mater entranced the 11-year-old choir boy as did the church's ample pipe organ. Russell often snuck into the organ chambers hoping to learn how such a collection of pipes, whistles, and wind chests could generate such soul-stirring, powerful sounds. Louise's husband, Berwick High School's concert and marching band director, Russell Llewellyn was another influence. Frequent rehearsals in the nearby band practice hall and mentoring by Llewellyn further strengthened young Russell's interest in the design and functioning of performing arts places.

The Texaco-sponsored Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, particularly Wagner's Ring Cycle, became Russell's long lived passion and addiction. The beloved Met radio announcer, Milton Cross, became a "close" radio friend and Russell's first teacher about the world of opera. Russell began providing sound effects for the Berwick amateur drama group productions as well as designing and building their sets.

Russell's World War II service in the U.S. Army did not impede his burgeoning interest in the performing arts and facilities for them. Russell had continued working at the Berwick ACF Company war production plant until he was drafted in March 1943 and sent to the University of Dayton for pre-medical training. Russell visited Dayton's Fine Arts Museum whenever possible but he was most excited when Laszlo Halasz brought opera to the "post theater" where he also experienced his first ballet. Russell's visits to Manhattan on leave introduced him to the true magic of professional theater productions such as "Angel Street" at the John Golden Theater and the elaborate stage productions at Radio City Music Hall. His acoustical awakenings continued during these visits, including listening to the choir and the pipe organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

After rebelling against the Army's plan to make him a combat surgeon Russell was then sent to take high-speed radio operator's training at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Upon completion, communications specialist Johnson boarded a troopship for Dutch New Guinea in the Pacific where General MacArthur's forces were gathering to retake the Phillippines. Russell's nine-member communication team was dropped to the surf on the second day of the Luzon Beach landings as part of a headquarters section of the Eleventh Airborne Division. When Luzon was subdued, Russell ended up quartered in the swimming pool off a mansion in a Manila Suburb from which he explored what was left of the island's performing arts facilities including the ruined Metropolitan Theater in downtown Manila. Russell attended many symphony performances conducted by Dr. Herbert Zipper in a decrepit movie house in Manila. Russell's first "heavy dose of live symphonic music" as he recalls.

Following discharge in January 1946, Russell began a serious search for a college to advance his formal education in performing arts facilities design under the GI Bill. He looked for a cross-enrollment curriculum with components in architecture, electrical engineering, drama, and music. With some fourteen acceptances in hand, he enrolled at the School of Architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. With the desired cross-enrollment possibilities assured, he set out to prepare himself to be a great theater architect along the lines of Norman Bel Geddes and Joseph Urban. After his sophomore year at Carnegie Tech, Russell seized the opportunity to transfer to Yale's School of Architecture. There he cross-enrolled at Yale's prestigious Drama Department and studied with Stanley McCandless (theater lighting), Edward C. Cole (theater building design) and later, George C. Izenour (theater engineering). Furthermore, Yale's famous Stirling Library housed vast collections on performing arts facilities ready to satisfy Russell's thirst for historical background on the world's theaters, concert halls, and opera houses. Russell earned his Bachelor's in Architecture degree in the Spring of 1951. While working in New Haven architectural offices, he began studies toward a Master's degree in Architecture. At the Office of Douglas Orr, Russell met a visiting consultant from the newly established acoustical research and consulting firm, Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. With the urging of Professor Cole, Russell saw an opportunity to fill the one remaining void in his education in performing arts facility design...acoustics. With a promise to Bob Newman to stay at least 24 months, Russell dropped his graduate studies at Yale and joined the architectural acoustics consulting staff at BBN in July 1954. Precisely 16 years later Russell left BBN to form Artec Consultants thereby fulfilling his vision that holistic consulting in the performing arts required a dedicated group to undertake all aspects of facilities design from initial feasibility, programming, and conceptual design studies through detailed engineering, acoustical design, construction, and final checkout.

Throughout his years at BBN, Russell collaborated with some of the brightest talents in acoustics, including visiting greats like Lothar Cremer and Erwin Meyer both of whom spent post WWII sabbaticals at BBN giving frequent seminars to the consulting staff. Russell focused his efforts on performing arts projects at BBN and, during his 16 years there, hardly a multi-use auditorium project, concert or opera hall, drama theater, music education facility, or the like escaped his (not always totally welcomed) critical observations. Russell saw the need to expand BBN services beyond acoustics on most performing arts projects. In the mid-60s he helped form BBN's New York based theater consulting group. Russell's curriculum vitae adequately documents the vast number of halls that bear the imprint of his creative genius at BBN and during his 27 productive years at Artec. Russell has lectured and published widely on his philosophy of acoustical design of performing arts spaces. One early paper in particular, "Acoustics for Music Performance," written for Musical America in February 1960 outlines the already well developed philosophy that guides his work.

Most colleagues consider the Meyerson-McDermott Concert Hall in Dallas, Texas completed in 1989, and Symphony Hall in Birmingham England, completed a year later, high water marks of Russell's distinguished consulting career. Like most of his designs, Dallas and Birmingham employ the classic "shoe box shape" model, but with a unique difference. By means of cleverly conceived cubic volumes coupled to the main listening chamber and with adjustable-height, sound-reflective canopies over the concert platform, Russell's halls achieve simultaneously both reverberance and clarity. His halls throughout the world have received wide acclaim from the musical community, conductors, music critics and, most importantly, listening audiences. These halls have greatly enhanced the art and science of performance hall acoustics and have elevated the profession in the eyes and ears of the public. It seems altogether fitting to honor a colleague who has brought such esteem to the profession of acoustics.

William J. Cavanaugh
David Lubman