THE BLOG
02/25/2014 08:13 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Astoria Characters: The Lady of the Lights

It is the light of the sun that brings Barbara Barrow to life. Intently, she watches the flakes fall from the sky. There are no rays today. It looks as though a baker is shaking powdered sugar over an ice-skating rink.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Barbara started out seeking the stage.

In this winter of winters, this warm-weather woman gathers her construction-site-scarred parka around her and sighs.

"If there's a patch of sun, my face will be in it," she says wistfully.

Barbara's interest in light goes far beyond what nature sends her way. A lighting-control consultant, her illuminating career started when she studied theater in high school in her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her bright idea, at least in the beginning, was that she would be on stage in the spotlight.

"Like lots of girls that age, I wanted to be an actress," say Barbara, a towering redhead with a sculptor's strong hands. "But I instantly became fascinated by lighting and stagecraft."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She's channeling the sun.

Barbara has no Southern belle accent. Whatever drawl was there was drawn out and eradicated in teenage acting classes. Her words, spoken serenely, crawl easy and steady like a tortoise who knows he's aced the race.

The light took Barbara to places she had never imagined. After earning a fine-arts degree in theater from East Carolina University and working in North Carolina for a short spell, she headed for the bright lights of The Big Apple.

"I needed a change of scenery," she says. "Besides, all my friends from college had moved to Manhattan to make it big."

Barbara went from Broadway (she was the lighting director for the original production of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy) to Studio 54 (until disco died, she drank, danced and did the lighting, often in that order).

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Barbara lays out and sets up wireless lighting systems.

"It was really fun working there because work and play mixed all the time," she says. "It really was wild, and I got wild."

She laughs. Ah, the memories she doesn't remember; they are as great as the ones she does recall.

When that party ended, Barbara started designing the lighting for big, high-budget corporate events. Somewhere along the way, she did a three-month stint as a roadie for The Pirates of Penzance. But town after town, she grew weary of putting up and breaking down her sets, eating midnight dinners at truck stops and sleeping on a bus.

"I longed for a 9-to-5 job," she says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Barbara has 693 titles on her Kindle.

For a while, she was a salesperson for a lighting consultant. Then, in 1995, she started her own company, Controls, which specializes in residential lighting. She and her laptop spend a lot of time with architects and contractors on construction sites laying out and setting up wireless smart systems that operate at the touch of a button. She's helped the likes of Matt Lauer, Glenn Close and David Bowie see the light.

Running her own business doesn't leave Barbara much down time. She spends most of her evenings reading. She whips out her Kindle and scrolls through her 693 have-read titles, most of them contemporary novels and science books on genetics, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

Barbara is an independent spirit.

"I've never wanted a husband," she says. "I'm not good at compromise, and I don't need that sort of companionship. I can be happy for hours with my own thoughts. I find myself incredibly interesting."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She'll follow the light.

Barbara knows that change will be coming before she's ready for it. She's 57, no actually she's 56, but she's in the habit of making herself a year or two older.

"That way people always think I look younger than my age," she says.

Barbara can see her professional sunset on the horizon as clearly as she sees the snowflakes melting on the sidewalk.

She doesn't know where she'll end up. But she knows she can't go wrong if she follows the light.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling