SNL Set Designer is Live from the East Side

A chat with Providence resident and Saturday Night Live set designer Eugene Lee

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Like many of our favorite events and shows, Saturday Night Live adopted an at-home format toward the close of its 45th season. As election season ramps up, so do our hopes for live episodes in the new fall television season. While no date has been set, the cast returning in some capacity to perform live on stage is reportedly in the cards. Eugene Lee, the show’s longtime set designer, makes his home on Providence’s East Side. We thought this would be the perfect time to revisit Robert Isenberg’s interview with him from last October’s East Side Monthly.

A few years ago, during the writer’s strike, Eugene Lee had some spare time, so he decided to write the story of his life. There’s a lot to tell: Lee has designed sets for decades. He designed the original set for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked – and won Tony Awards for each.

If you’re not a Broadway fan, you’ll still recognize his work: Lee designed Jimmy Fallon’s desk for The Tonight Show. He designed the set for Late Night with Seth Meyers. He’s served as production designer for Saturday Night Live since the show’s first season. When you watch the “Weekend Update” segment, everything you see – except for Michael Che and Colin Jost – was first drafted in Lee’s head.

Yet, Lee doesn’t live in New York. He commutes regularly from his home in the East Side, where he lives with his wife Brooke. The Lees live in a historic house previously owned by the Lippitt family.

“Things work,” says Lee, with characteristic understatement. “The dumbwaiters work. All the things you can’t do now because of fire laws. The Victorians knew how to build houses.”

The Lees have lived on the East Side for 20 years. “I always say, you can’t leave the house without running into somebody,” he quips. Together, the couple has left an indelible mark on Providence’s cultural life: Brooke works as an artist and is involved with WaterFire. Lee has served as resident set designer for Trinity Repertory for half a century. Last fall, the couple was honored at the annual FireBall event, a WaterFire fundraiser.

How does he press on, at an age that most people have retired? Lee chuckles, remembering some advice from director Harold Prince. “If you just keep working, you don’t have time to die.”

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