by Frances Saux
Last spring, Kenyon’s drama program invited Jim Fenhagen ’76 to campus to give a lecture about his career. While in Gambier, he learned he had been offered the job of designing the set for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which premiered on CBS on Sept. 8.
Fenhagen, who majored in drama at Kenyon, has been a freelance set designer for a wide range of companies, including PBS, MTV and ESPN. Recently, he has done work for CBS This Morning, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Meredith Vieira Show and The View. He has won 20 Emmy Awards for his designs.
Fenhagen received the Colbert call the day before his lecture. “I went into the lecture the next day … and at the end I said, ‘I just got The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,’” he said. He acknowledged the coincidence of receiving the job offer to design his most high-profile set yet while in Gambier: “My career began there,” Fenhagen said.
Fenhagen is still quite involved with Kenyon, as his son, Aaron Fenhagen ’17, now attends the College. And while Fenhagen has finished his work on The Late Show, Kenyon artifacts will remain on the show: After his visit to Gambier, hundreds of books from Olin and Chalmers libraries became props on the new set.
Fenhagen wanted the set to showcase Colbert’s intellectual side and suggested a two-story library with a winding staircase in a single corner of the set. “Colbert loved that idea,” Fenhagen said. They just needed to find books.
Fenhagen found a serendipitous solution to his book problem while visiting Kenyon. While describing his ideas for the set to Liz Forman ’73, a former admissions officer, Fenhagen learned that Carmen King, the College’s fine arts and humanities librarian, had recently removed a number of old books from the library shelves. “They were basically reorganizing the library and had all these pretty old books that they needed to get rid of,” Fenhagen said. King boxed up about 50 boxes of books and The Late Show paid for the shipping. “I don’t know exactly what was going on in the library, but they needed to purge and we needed books. So it was perfect.” King declined to comment for this article.
As a student at Kenyon, Fenhagen designed sets for student theater productions. After graduation, he took his talents to theater companies in California and his hometown of Washington, D.C., before pursuing his MFA at the New York University School of the Arts, now the Tisch School of the Arts. After completing graduate school, Fenhagen returned to Kenyon as a set designer for the Kenyon Festival Theater, a professional summer theater company run out of the Hill Theater between 1980 and 1984 under the direction of Ted Walch ’63. Fenhagen spent the summer living in the New Apartments with his actors. He’d soon have another change of scenery.
The 1980s were the decade when cable television took off. Fenhagen began landing more commercial jobs in TV and moved back to New York. “I ended up being at the right place at the right time,” he said. He also attributes much of his success in television to his theater background. For his work on the PBS children’s show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which won him his first Emmy Award, Fenhagen said he applied his experience in the theater. “There was the detective’s office, and the train station, and the map of the world,” he said, giving examples of playful, dramatic qualities of the show’s set.
Today, he works in a New York City office, where his design company, Production Design Group Ltd., has merged with Jack Morton, a communications firm. He works with several assistant designers and his daily schedule varies. On any given day, he might take the train into the city from his home in Montclair, N.J. to meet with his team, or he might design from the privacy of his home office. The rest, he said, is “just like an art job,” and involves working in the shop or finding fabrics and furniture.
“Then some days when the show is ready to go we’ll be installing,” Fenhagen said. “I’ll go directly to the TV studio and work there all day. So I’m either designing, or I’m in my office working with my staff, or I’m in the TV studio.”
After The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, his latest work can be seen on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, which debuted on Comedy Central on Monday. After polishing up the set designs for two of late-night television’s biggest premieres this year, Fenhagen said, “I’m about to be able to take a deep breath.”