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PARcan lighting fixture

Monday Musings: PARcans

I read on Facebook the other day that Altman is stopping production of its venerable PARcan, one of the industry’s standard lighting fixtures for many years. Not sure if it’s rumor or reality, but the company’s Wikipedia page notes that they invented the PAR64, which they introduced in 1966 for a Rolling Stones concert tour. There are varying reports, one that Altman first made these fixtures for the 1964 World’s Fair, but in any case they have been around for over 50 years and probably will stick around for a while, even as tungsten sources dim even further, and LED PARs take their place amongst the myriad LEDs on the market today.

PAR is an acronym for parabolic aluminized reflector. The number of the PAR indicates the diameter of the lamp in terms of 1/8ths of an inch. For example, a PAR38 bulb is (1/8 x 38)” or 4 ¾” across. In addition to Altman, Strand and James Thomas were leading manufacturers of lighting fixtures using the PAR lamps. Is the end of the PARcan accelerated by the recall and discontinuing of PAR46, PAR56, and PAR64 lamps by Osram? No lamps, no fixtures.

Rock 'n' roll and television were huge consumers of PARcans, until moving lights, such as the early Vari-Lite fixtures, for example, began to replace them. How many automated lighting fixtures did it take to replace the endless battens of PARcans on a rock tour? The change was inevitable but the PARcan stuck around for decades, even after Genesis went on their Abacab Tour in 1981 and introduced Vari-Lite fixtures to the world.

PARcan lamp

In the UK, there was an attempt to animate the PARcan back in the 70s, when my friend Peter Wynne Willson invented a moving system called the PAN CAN…it didn’t take off but showed there was already interest in automating lighting.  

Does the demise of the PARcan signal the demise of tungsten sources? Not necessarily, but as more and more generations of lighting designers enter the arena with an arsenal of LED fixtures at their disposal, will they even compare them to a tungsten source?

In the UK, there is a movement called #SaveStageLighting, which is fighting against strict Euro-zone rules about lamps that seem rather draconian to many…and not just tungsten sources are at stake, as the UK Association of Lighting Designers website notes that even high-output white LED sources are under the microscope.

Lighting designers are artists who are flexible in terms of what’s in their toolkit or on their palette. Many have embraced LEDs wholeheartedly, while others may still have a soft spot and a bit of nostalgia for PARcans and other fallen-by-the-wayside lights, like some of us have for vinyl and print. Neither of which really ever went away, so I suspect the traditional PARcan will be with us for sometime and, who knows, may even see a renaissance sometime in the future. The PARcan is dead; long live the PARcan!

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