By Brian Robin
Efren Delgadillo Sets the Scene at the Mission
Efren Delgadillo Jr. didn’t need a formal introduction to the music of Million Dollar Quartet. He’d already made the acquaintance when he was 12.
“I started listening to Johnny Cash when I was a kid. Nobody introduced it to me,” said Delgadillo, the scenic designer for Million Dollar Quartet. “To listen to the music and to be asked to do this, with my culture and upbringing, it feels like you were meant to design this.”
The Sun Recording studio set Delgadillo designed at the Mission San Juan Capistrano provides a distinctive, creative setting for the story of the December 4, 1956, once-in-a-lifetime gathering of rock-and-roll immortals Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The gold records-as-lights on the stage right wall and the back wall above the studio office provide a reminder about Sun Records owner Sam Phillips’ eye for talent.
There’s the recording booth in the back, where Corey Jones-as-Phillips produces the recording that eventually became the Million Dollar Quartet album and Spotify station. And, of course, the stage-as-recording-studio, with the placements of guitars, amplifiers, Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano and Fluke Holland’s drums.
So how did Delgadillo bring Sun Records from Memphis to the Mission San Juan Capistrano? It started when he took an iPhone photo of the Mission courtyard. From there, Delgadillo said it became a mixture of artistry and pragmatic applications. He wanted the set to blend in with the Mission’s overall architecture in terms of texture.
“I do two types of research: inspirational and pragmatic,” he said. “I start with the visual and inspirational. I want an image that tells a story. That has lighting and drama and suspense when I show my colleagues. I want it to start a conversation immediately.
“Then, I begin my research of photographers and artists who shot this. Anyone who has beautiful art of this, I essentially appropriate that in my art. If I’m lucky, I can find both historical and inspirational (art).”
Delgadillo found a perfect image of the Sun Records building that he described as “feeling ominous, even though it wasn’t ominous.” He took that image and went to work creating Sun Records West, consulting with director James Moye and lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. His experience designing sets for Outside SCR’s inaugural 2021 season helped guide him into designing a set for the “container,” a nickname for the actual stage.
It took three and one-half iterations to create Delgadillo’s final Sun Records design.
The result was a seamless, time machine set to 1956 Memphis.
“As theatre designers, we put so much passion into the work and we have to infuse our soul into it,” he said. “You have to infuse some of yourself into the pieces so it’s not lifeless and so it doesn’t lack integrity. It feels like it comes from you. It’s born from your heart and what’s really important is it has passion. That’s the word that comes to mind here.”