Growing a Christmas tree on ice before an audience is one of those problems best left in the hands of someone not easily intimidated by things technical. An airline pilot, for example.

Thus, the last few weeks have found Rodger Palmer spending hours in the basement of his Arnold home putting together pieces of "The Nutcracker," including a 20-foot Christmas tree made of shiny insulation panels.

Upstairs on a kitchen counter, Palmer has worked out the lighting plan for the show -- to be performed at the Columbia Ice Rink Dec. 9 and 16 -- on a computerized control panel.

Palmer, a 23-year United Airlines veteran, has been charting a new course for himself.

"I studied engineering in college," said Palmer, a 48-year-old former Marine pilot. "I've always been a tinkerer. I'm fascinated with gadgetry.

But I have an artistic side of me that every so often screams for attention. (Stage) lighting requires a mix of technical and artistic ability."

So Palmer has been teaching himself the ways of stage lighting and set design, and has, by his admission, become a "lightaholic." He greeted his visitor last Friday morning wearing a sweat shirt imprinted with the phrase: "If all the world's a stage, I want better lighting."

Three years ago Palmer's chief interest in lighting extended to runway illumination and control panel indicators. But when he and his wife Barbara joined the Columbia Figure Skating Club for the exercise and recreation, he was drawn into the world of theater. The club performs shows every year and needed help on lighting and set design for last year's Christmas show.

Palmer volunteered.

He threw himself into this other world with zeal, reading books on stage lighting, applying his technical knack in a new arena. He has designed sets and lighting for two shows at the Columbia Ice Rink, and for a performance by the professional New Ice Age dance company at the Northwest Arena in Baltimore.

He has found that lighting an ice rink, as opposed to a stage, presents a number of peculiar problems.

For one thing, the average ice rink is huge compared to even the largest theater stage. The rink in Columbia is 200-by-85 feet. The stage at the Kennedy Center is about 60-by-60 feet. Stage lighting instruments are designed for stages, not for ice rinks.

So Palmer worked on breaking up the rink into smaller sections with scene dividers, rigging the lights from the dividers themselves.

Palmer works out his lighting schemes on graph paper to keep a consistent scale of distance. He's found his technical skills handy in programming his new computerized lighting control panel to send cues to up to 24 lights. Since Palmer skates in the Columbia shows, he cannot be there to oversee the execution of his own lighting plan.

Growing the Christmas tree on ice, though, presented another problem.

Palmer designed a hinged tree with a cable affixed at the peak. With any luck, when the stage crew member gets the cue, he or she will pull on the cable and the tree will rise to its full height of 20 feet.

"It's a dicey business to be in, you don't have the luxury of doing it over and over again."

But the United Airlines first officer who has helped in thousands of landings and takeoffs is familiar with that sort of situation. A new career in the making here? Maybe, said Palmer.

He said he'd like to branch out and offer his services to community theaters, if only for the opportunity to learn. He's found theater an exciting contrast to the trans-continental world of jet piloting.

"I work for a huge corporation and we do our thing in a very competitive, sometimes very hostile environment. The scale of everything is huge. Whereas the entertainment industry is just the opposite. It can be so cozy and so focused. Everything is right in one little area."

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