Family and friends who were searching for the gathering to honor the passing of David Bourn needed only to follow the lights in the sky.
At a memorial earlier this month for Bourn at Broadway Pizza in north Minneapolis, searchlights were stationed in the parking lot, crisscrossing the skies as a tribute to the Minneapolis man who died March 27 at the age of 77.
The well-illuminated send-off was appropriate for Bourn, who spent his life beaming lights toward the sky as a searchlight operator, lighting the stages of rock stars and illuminating movie stars on the screen as a film projectionist.
According to his family, Bourn was “one of the last carbon-arc searchlight operators in the country.”
His lifelong fascination with lighting started when, as a student in Minneapolis, he was picked to run the movie projector. Back then, the projectors used carbon arc lamps to illuminate the images thrown onto the screen.
Carbon arcs also were found in giant searchlights used by anti-aircraft crews during World War II to spot and shoot enemy planes out of the night sky. After the war, the army surplus lights found a peacetime use as a form of advertising, lighting up the heavens to draw attention to a grand opening or a big show.
Those lights attracted Bourn like a moth. As a youth, he would ride his bike to events in the Twin Cities where they were shining and ask if he could get a job, said Bourn’s son, Brian Bourn.
Bourn was still in his 20s when he bought his first war-surplus searchlight, a 5-foot-diameter, 800-million-candlepower light that could be seen up to 30 miles away. He went into business in 1964 as Hollywood Premiere Searchlight Advertising.
Over the years, Bourn was hired by car dealerships, shopping malls and the Minneapolis Institute of Art to generate nighttime buzz. A photo on his company’s website shows one of his searchlights in front of the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis for a performance of “South Pacific” featuring Robert Goulet.
In a 1980 Jim Klobuchar column in the Minneapolis Star, Bourn was quoted about the possibility of sending his searchlights to Washington, D.C., for use in Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration: “I would love to have my searchlights in it, because I want the world to know that we’d got the greatest searchlights ever polished, shining right here in Minneapolis.”
Bourn also owned, operated and rented out theatrical spotlights like the Super Trouper models immortalized in an ABBA song. He put the spotlight on rock acts, professional wrestlers, ice skating shows, circuses and monster truck competitions at venues ranging from the Minnesota State Fair grandstand to the Metrodome.
When scenes from the 1984 film “Purple Rain” were shot at First Avenue, two of Bourn’s spotlights were used to shine on Prince. Bourn operated one, his son Brian ran the other.
David Bourn also worked occasionally as a projectionist, screening films at some of the Twin Cities’ great movie houses like the bygone Cooper Theater in St. Louis Park. At one time he operated the former 65-Hi Drive-In theater in Blaine.
He maintained spotlights up to the end of his life, according to his son. In recent years, however, demand for searchlight advertising declined. And easier-to-operate xenon lamps replaced carbon arc lamps, which take a skilled operator to run and maintain. But Bourn remained loyal to his carbon arc lamps.
“His searchlights were his family,” said Brian. Bourn is survived by his sons Brian and Bradley Bourn, daughter Elizabeth Johnson and two grandchildren.