welcome to showbiz…Now Get To Work!

I‘ve had many gigs in the creative field over the years and while many were not directly related to music and guitar playing they helped make me what I am today. All of the work was educational and most of it was a whole lot of fun. In the future I’ll write about many experiences that were ALL ABOUT GUITAR PLAYING, so if you are looking for guitar articles this would be one to skip. However, I do think it is important for any musician to try and pay attention to the BIG PICTURE in all things, as well as follow Spinal Tap keyboard player Viv Savage’s philosophy for life — HAVE A GOOD TIME, ALL THE TIME.

Do You Know How Astronauts Poop?

Well do you? Have you ever thought about this? It’s not like I have some special attachment to POOP, but it is an interesting question considering that evacuation of waste is much harder in space. I’ve asked people about SPACEPOOP and they either didn’t know or didn’t want to talk about it. I’ve been interested in space exploration for a long time, saw a few of the moon landings (or did I?) on TV back in the day, have been to the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, read a lot of science fiction and built a lunar module model when I was a kid. But the other night while I was starting to write this post it occurred to me that I had forgotten how number ones and twos are done in zero gravity. Luckily, NatGeo on the Interwebs has the answer! You might think this is a trivial thing, but let’s face it, there would be no one in space if this problem hadn’t been worked out. While everyone remembers or has seen film or pics of the astronauts jumping around and planting flags on the moon, most people don’t give much thought to the people who worked out the SPACE BATHROOM solution. It’s actually a pretty convoluted operation compared to what we do on earth isn’t it? Probably not a good idea to hold it until the very last minute or drink a lot of beer in space. Could you imagine going through all of that drunk?

Let’s apply this same line of thinking to, I dunno, New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Have you ever watched or visited New Year’s Eve in Times Square and wondered how all that confetti ends up flying around? Well, wonder no more! I was one of a group of friends who dumped confetti on crowd below one NEW YEAR’S EVE back in the early 90s. It was pretty awesome — easiest gig I ever had. It did take awhile to get paid, but hey, THAT’S SHOWBIZ! You want to talk about a total stealth operation! We congregated at this secret bunker location in Times Square T-minus 6 hours before BD (ball drop). Our leader, a dude from Los Angeles named DERF (that’s Fred spelled backwards), was pretty taciturn and low-key — not at all what I’d expected from a guy assisting with the biggest party New York has every year. I’m not using his real name, but it was similar to DERF and when he took the time to explain the whole backwards nomenclature thing I was thinking, “that’s not very original is it? You’re from LA, why not just use a new name like ALGORYTHM, OTHO, SEASIDE LOUNGE CHAIR, or something like that?” I guess was he going for comedy or maybe using the whole I reversed my name thing as an icebreaker, but found himself looking at a room full of people who were giving him a BLANK STARE. After learning the correct way to empty a box of confetti (tipping, shaking, dumping was not allowed), we split into groups and made our way to strategically positioned locations high above Times Square. There were already loads of revelers and hundreds of cops all over the place and we had to get a special police escort to the building. CONFETTI GUYS COMING THROUGH! STEP BACK PLEASE!. It was totally like being one of the Super Friends

High above Gotham ConfettiMan waits for Midnight!
When midnight comes he rips open boxes of confetti and throws it on the party people below. WHEEEEEEEEE!

My friend/bandmate Jim Fournaidis and I were part of a group stationed on top of a hotel, which was nice because we were able go inside, get warm and annoy people. Some of the other groups had to stand or sit outside for 5+ hours and it was pretty frigid. We had a nice meal and a few drinks and were whiling away the hours until lift-off talking with the ladies from the group in the hotel gym. But then Hotel Management thought we were having a little too much fun, so we had to go back up to the roof and it was cold, but no biggie. The noise level up there was unbelievable; nonstop waves of guttural moaning that at times sounded barely human, plus all of the various noisemakers everyone was tooting. It’s amazing that people keep this level of energy and noise going for 4-5 hours beforehand. Alcohol is certainly a factor, but there are other people for whom this is a kind of Quest or something and they really get it into it. I forget how many stories up we were, but we had a bird’s eye view and saw everything including fights, arrests and the whole range of human emotions. It occurred to me that there is something very sexual about the New Year’s Eve event. Freud would totally look at NYC NYE, stroke his beard and say “ze party is not always ze party”. When midnight came and all of us launched the confetti, it was a massive rush and pretty impressive and amazing, I gotta say. See, like the SPACEPOOP, there was a ton of planning beforehand, all of the details were worked out and this is what this post is trying to illustrate — how the thinking, preparation and work behind an event, concert or production enables the MAGIC to happen in a truly spectacular way. Also, before reading this, while I’m sure you’ve probably at least seen the whole shebang on television, you never gave much thought (spacepoop!) to how this happens and who does it. It’s a silly operation for sure — none of us cured a major disease or saved any kittens, and the actual work took a little over a minute. But it was a very important minute for all of those people in Times Square, some of whom traveled thousands of miles to be there and for Dick Clark and all of the people watching New Year’s Eve Countdown on television at home. A large amount of confetti flying around was and always is an integral part of the show and the beginning of a NEW YEAR. When our group had tossed all our confetti we stood there and took in the moment. Because of our elevation and a mild wind, the confetti didn’t just do a straight drop to the ground but was floating and blowing over the crowd below like a huge blizzard. It looked really cool! Our group hugged and wished each other HAPPY NEW YEAR and then we started getting out of there. We all had parties to go to and even though we were rushing, by the time we got back down to the pandemonium on the street, the Sanitation Department had already begun sweeping up.

Years before the New Year’s gig, very soon after I moved to NYC, I was an extra in the opera, AIDA. I was a spear-carrier for one act and although opera and theater were never really my thing, the chance was there, it paid and I was new to NYC, so I figured why not? This was really the beginning of my career in Arts and Entertainment and what impressed me the most was the size, scope and intricate workings of the support people who enabled the production to function smoothly. True, it was a pretty heady rush to be standing onstage at The Metropolitan Opera looking into the Lincoln Center audience dressed as an Egyptian soldier, and the tallest one at that. While all of the drama was really taking place between a couple of singers, as with the confetti in the last story, the fact that I and 30 other dudes were standing there added to the AMBIANCE of what was happening, and someone had figured out how many spear-carriers were needed, the costumes we would wear, the correct mix of body paint that would make us look all Egyptian and buff. So even though the role I played as a performer was cool, seeing how the MAGIC was a coordinated team effort really impressed me. The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in NYC is BIG BUSINESS baby. These cats aren’t playing around and all of the people who come to see these productions pay for, and expect A SHOW. This takes a whole lot of smart work and follow-through. If that isn’t happening, you might end up with STONEHENGE! Just the sheer logistics of making sure everyone is onstage and off at the right time takes a few people. I had never seen or heard the opera, I didn’t know what I was doing and as with movie productions, extras come and go as they are available. Someone WHO KNOWS when and how everything is supposed to happen must take charge. The funniest part of the evening occurred while all of us spear-carriers were waiting in the wings to go on. We had been led up to the edge of the stage to wait for our big entrance and were standing there when Aida, the female lead (or Primma Donna if you’re into the whole 18th century thing), a very attractive woman showing some really bodacious cleavage, finished her very beautiful aria and shuffled quickly offstage hissing…“GIVE ME THE F*CKING KOOL-AID!” and there was an middle-aged mousy woman there whose job involved having a Dixie cup of cherry Kool-Aid and a lit cigarette waiting. The Kool-Aid lady also was calmed Aida down, “You’re doin’ well tonight, uh-huh, just take it easy…”, kind of like the trainers who are in a boxer’s corner between rounds. Even though I was about to walk onstage I saw this and thought two things. First, I had expected the singer to sound more like “oh, darling, do give Dollie some juicy as that last high C constricted my poor tonsily wonsilies” in a Julia Child kind of voice. Give me the F*cking Koolaid is not what I thought OPERA was all about. Second thought: WOW WHAT A COOL JOB! Little did I know that within a few years, I would be performing similar functions for rock and rollers, but Kool-Aid would not be the beverage of choice and there wouldn’t be as much cleavage, but hey, ya can’t have everything. My spear-carrier went on, looked very soldierly, and then got back out when we were supposed to without a hitch and it was pretty cool. As I said, the whole OPERA scene wasn’t for me but I was pretty jazzed when I left Lincoln Center because I hadn’t even been in the city 2 weeks. After my bit that night I went out to eat with a few people and when I got home, even though it was late, I called my mother and said “I was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera tonight.” When I talked about it at the next family gathering she asked “You were really there? I thought I had dreamed that.”

Shortly after the opera stint I began working for a party planner as a driver, stage-builder, lighting guy and all-around action figure. I was introduced to the crew through a couple of people I was playing music with and this was typical of almost all of the gigs I had. Musicians, artists, writers, actors all do work of this nature for the experience, money, fun and flexible hours. There is a whole lot of money in New York City for parties and partying and it is a very integral part of some very major business functions. Over the 3 years I was involved with this company, we set up very expensive weddings, had major corporate accounts with clients like The City of New York and American Express, decorated Donald Trump’s Christmas tree, and I drove all over the country, sometimes with Kitty Kelly (a drag queen) in tow, throwing parties for L’Oréal. Kitty was the set and stage boss and was pretty friggin’ amazing at setting up and lighting sets that were sometimes as involved as those one might find at a Broadway show. S/he and many others associated with the company had been in Show Business their whole lives and all of us rock and roll band guys liked working with Kitty because we learned a lot and s/he was funny as all get-out, drunk or sober. Never one to mince words, she had a whole lot in common with our Rock and Roll! attitude, even though she preferred musicals and Irving Berlin. Besides the stage sets and lighting there were linens, props, flora and fauna, and accessory stuff we would integrate into one big synchronized color+sound+light design. What we needed for a gig would completely pack at least one 36 ft. rental truck (often 2-3) and when we traveled far from home it had to fit in one truck that I would drive and whatever else we needed was provided by local vendors.

L’Oréal had costumes made for some of their products and beauty products for women can sometimes be sexually suggestive, especially if they are large enough for someone to wear as a costume (think…LIPSTICK TUBE). Ironically, or not, some of the women hired to wear these costumes for an event were exotic dancers or strippers. Since the favored party spot at the time was West Palm Beach, FLA, this meant driving through the southern states with a very nervous Kitty Kelly and a truck full of really outrageous and/or elegant looking stuff. One of the funnier moments on our travels occurred one year at the Florida border, where the State Police do truck inspections to make sure no one is smuggling in anything that will hurt their agriculture and because they like messing with people. The cop was a typical Southern hard-ass with mirrored sunglasses, toothpick, and the swagger and appearance of someone who spent 25 years in the Marine Corps. Our exchange went something like this:

(looks me over) SON, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON MY HIGHWAY?

Taking a bunch of stuff down to West Palm Beach for a party.

(looking me over) A PARTY? (looking at truck)

Uh-huh.

OPEN THIS!

He raps on the door and I jump up on the tailgate and open it. The truck is packed to the back — a huge collection of stuff, but a 4 foot lipstick tube and eyeliner brush, buckets of glitter, fake palm trees and plastic stars that we are going to hang on the staging are stand out. The Cop moves in for a closer look, then begins turning red in the face and neck. His opinion of me has just dropped 300%.

WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?

Well that’s glitter, that’s an eyeliner brush, the stuff in the-

ARE YOU TRYING TO BE FUNNY WITH ME? WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM AND WHY ARE YOU ON MY HIGHWAY?
(getting up in my face)

(I start laughing)…. This is all party stuff for L’Oréal, ya know, the women’s cosmetic company? …The party’s probably going to be real entertaining. I’ve never seen a lipstick tube dance, but I hear that’s what it will be doing…But the palm trees are fake though. So…no worries. Really.

The cop looks the stuff over again, looks at me, looks at the truck and shakes his head with disgust.

CLOSE THIS UP AND GET THE HELL OUT OF MY CHECKPOINT!

In the city (NYC) the crew would take well-known locations like Roseland Ballroom and transform them into a luxurious, color and sound coordinated environment so the well-to-do could have a rip-it-up kind of party. As I said, there is a whole lot of money in New York City for partying and it was really funny to spend two days setting these events up with the total cost in the neighborhood of several hundred grand and then have to keep the attendees from walking out with the table-centerpieces at the end of the night. It took quite a bit of skill to wrestle expensive vases away from blue-haired dowdies who were wearing enough jewelry to pay my rent for 5 years. They held on tight and it was tug-tug-tug, but seeing as most of them weighed under a hundred pounds I couldn’t tug too hard or they would go flying into the scenery. One time I had to take 3 vases away from the same lady. She was drunk and kept going back to get another vase each time I took one out of her hands. When I say Roseland, maybe you’re thinking “oh that’s such a glorious place with a long history”, or maybe you’re thinking something like, “Hey I saw Rob Zombie and Monster Magnet there in 1998 (I did). Either way, on a rainy Friday morning when we were loading in to begin setting up an event, Roseland was a passed-out 75 year old lady of the night who smelled of unwashed feet and stale booze and had a countenance that approximated 16 blocks of bad road in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. But, by HIT TIME Roseland was TRANSFORMED into a glamorous and very elegant Society Hostess ready to party, thanks to great planning and lots of hard work and creative genius performed by the crew, including yours truly. The boss was really great when it came to planning these things out. It was a definite combination of science meets art and he wasn’t afraid to get up on an 8 ft. stepladder balanced on top of two folding chairs to hang streamers from a chandelier. When I think of how many chances we all took do set-up in those days, it’s pretty incredible. Usually things went pretty smoothly and even though some clients were incredibly demanding, they were happy with the final result. Things didn’t ALWAYS work out though. We got a contract to decorate a new bar with a “sports” theme, and because the place was in Brooklyn Heights and they’d hired a professional decorator it was assumed that they wanted the usual artistic touch. So the boss put together this classic kind of Sports Lodge look (Preppy 1950s) and we picked up a whole ton of props, including an 12 ft kayak that was so old it had it looked like something Teddy Roosevelt would’ve paddled (does one paddle a kayak?). Long story short: The sports bar was “mobbed up”, they thought all of the props looked like crap and were looking for a much more MANLY theme then what the boss had intended. So they threw us out… about ten seconds after I sawed the kayak in half in order for it to fit down the narrow staircase that led to the bar. The boss came running out onto the sidewalk yelling “Don’t cut the kayak” and there I was with the saw in my hand and pieces of a kayak. This caused Kitty and some of the other crew people to guffaw loudly, which the boss didn’t appreciate very much, especially since he had just heard he “didn’t know d*ck about sports bars” from Joey Gallstones. So he told me to RETURN the kayak to the prop house, which was, of course, a complete waste of time. Kitty was along and although we had a whole lot of helpful suggestions — “How about this…you could rent it out as 2 canoes! Brilliant!” the guy just kept repeating “YOU CUT IT IN HALF!” with barely-restrained exasperation. The kayak was retired to our storage and eventually thrown out without ever being used.

All of this background work really opened my eyes to the FOREST that is PRODUCTION. Musicians usually focus on the TREES, because we are often a small part of the whole production and need to do our part well and not worry about other things that are going on. While I was doing all of this work I was playing in bands all over the NY metro area and so were half the people on the crew, so there was a lot of OVERLAP between gigs. Being involved in the process of productions onstage or on-location was a very good learning experience and is certainly something I would recommend to anyone with a desire to do so. Not only was this a great help to my music career, but I also think it made me a very excellent production manager in the publishing business for almost 10 years. Having a feel and and eye for integrating many distinct and sometimes contrary elements together is a skill that is worth learning and one that can be applied to many situations in one’s life. While television shows and the internet can give you a feel for how it works, there is something cool about being a part of a crew or company making it all happen. As cynical as everyone on any of these crews could be sometimes, we really did some amazing stuff and as EVERYBODY knows, people with a lot of bread are not easy to impress. Sometimes, especially with the weddings, we were not only paid, but thrown a bunch of cash as a tip. Depending on the role one plays on the crew, the work can be very physically demanding, high-pressure and take place during very weird hours or require long hours of set-up without a break. Kitty and I and another guy who was doing stage work with us once worked 36 hours straight for a half-million dollar wedding at the Plaza Hotel. Not only did we build a very involved stage, but we also had to hang almost 50 glittered foam core designs from the ceiling. It is certainly very easy to burn out after a few years, but there are people who stick with it forever. The crew often becomes like a family with all of the fun, good times and drama that entails. In a place like New York City where, especially back then, there were so many characters and various NY cultures interacting with all of our productions, it could sometimes be a non-stop laff-fest. After three years though, it was time to move on and within 6 months of leaving the decorating company I was writing for Guitar World and working for VITAL VAN and both of these gigs were much more music-related. It was very helpful to have already had the background I did though and there were many times when I was thankful for the experience I had gained in the first few years. If nothing else, it has resulted in a post that has gone from Spacepoop to Roseland Ballroom, with New Year’s Eve, The Metropolitan Opera, L’Oréal and Dinosaurs in between… Wait, I didn’t tell you about the Dinosaurs we set up in Central Park? Stay tuned!

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2 Responses to “welcome to showbiz…Now Get To Work!”

  1. CabCityComboGuy Says:

    Aida???? WTF!!!!!

  2. Very useful article, I will follow your blog frequently.

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