I spent the latter part of college doing so many things at once: full-time courses, doing some play either at school or a local theater, and – every now and then – working as an extra for the local stagehand’s union. And what, you may ask, is a stagehand’s union? Those are the folks who, among other things, help set up shows that come to your town. If a concert or musical or other major production is touring, they usually travel with a small core of roadies and such and then supplement as necessary with local workers. Being a union, there were lots of rules to becoming a member – and it was highly coveted because although the work was often strenuous, it paid VERY well. But when extra-large productions came through, they’d need more people than usual, hence the ‘extras’.
Now, it’s almost as hard becoming an extra as it is becoming a full-fledged member. There was no way you’d get a shot unless an existing member personally recommended you. But I got in through our excellent director of Technical Theater at Jacksonville University (now at Florida State College), Johnny Pettegrew. Johnny is a hairy elf in blue jeans and a denim shirt. He’s small but spry and was completely at home jumping like a mountain goat over precarious set pieces and hanging like a chimpanzee among the lights high, high above the stage.
Even though I was primarily interested in acting, I’ve always been handy with tools and ended up spending almost as much time hanging and working with the tech crews as I did onstage. I wasn’t the best ‘tech’ but I was a hard worker and got the job done. Apparently I was good enough that one day Johnny asked if I’d be interested working as an extra at a rock concert coming into town. A few other friends of mine were already on the list of extras and I’d heard how great the pay was, so I said heck yeah!
I don’t remember what my first gig was – but in general, it usually involved a heavy metal/hair band at the Jacksonville Coliseum. Another part of my life that’s been demolished, the Coliseum was huge and round and the only venue big enough to accommodate some amazing acts that came through the region: Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and even Elvis Presley played there (once he was finally allowed to do more than move his little finger).
It’s an odd job. We’d show up at 6am (sometimes *shudder* earlier) and pass the parking lot full of long buses and semi-trucks before entering backstage. There’d be a craft table crammed with pastries and bagels and a LOT of coffee and soda. The tools of the trade were:
- A crescent wrench attached to an elastic curly cord (Like the ones telephones used to have? Remember? Before they went cordless? Never mind.) You added a clip so you could attach the cord to your belt loop and then stuff the wrench in your back pocket. That way, if you’re hanging off some steel scaffolding while attaching lights, the wrench won’t fall out and kill somebody.
- Some trusty weight training gloves – the ones that are padded for good grip but fingerless. It helps protect your hands while you’re lifting and pushing heavy objects but still allows you the dexterity of your fingers.
- Your comfiest pair of jeans, a dark tshirt and you’re good to go!
Of course I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of three women in a group of over a hundred stagehands. But growing up in music, I was kinda used to that ratio. We never got treated differently though, and the folks were almost always cool.
First order of business was unloading the trucks. Pretty simple – just rolling big ass steel cases from the semi-truck to backstage. Just keep your head down, look alive, always carry with your back, not your legs, etc. That went on for a few hours – with the usual union breaks and lunch provided by the craft table. Then of course you actually had to take things out of the boxes and set them up. The core crew were insanely organized and mapped everything out – usually by colors and codes. They split the stagehands up into different crews to work on various part of the production: lighting, monitors, stage set up. You never saw the cool stuff, like instruments and gear until much later.
This being the late 80’s, almost every show I worked on at the Coliseum was a heavy metal or hard rock band and man, these productions were HUGE and almost every piece of the stage seemed made of lead. Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, KISS, Motley Crue, Queensryche, Rush. And I couldn’t stand most of those bands at the time. Oh, how I rolled my eyes!
Around 3pm, they’d usually send us locals home and finish up with the finer details. But that was just the first part of your work day. Because then you had to come back at 11pm to break everything back down after the show. And it was a WHOLE different scene at night. As soon as you walk in, there’s a film in the air from dry ice on the stage and the endless cigarette smoking backstage. And of course, there would be a looong line of groupies lining the walls waiting by the green room door. It didn’t matter who was playing, there were chicks as far as the eye could see in (now classic) 80s trashy kinderwhore wear, spiky bleached blond hair and as much tits and ass exposure as possible. I wonder how many of those girls are now pageboy-wearing soccer moms in minivans? Again, oh how I rolled my eyes as I walked past (but then again, so did they.)
What did interest me was all the guitars – there’d be racks and racks of guitars: Telecasters, Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Flying Vs, in colors ranging from classic blondes, blacks and reds to vomit green and acid pink – a veritable Guitar Center’s worth of axes backstage. It was all top notch and super shiny under the love and care of the guitar techs. At that point I was strictly an acoustic guitar player – but I never could help ogling the guitars while the other hands were ogling the groupies.
We’d stand around chit-chatting until the band finally came off stage for good (after the second or third encore). After a concert when they’re all spent and sweaty and flush with adoring applause, they ALL looked the same: a bunch of short, skinny white guys with long stringy hair wearing spandex. They’d be whisked off to the dressing room and then we’d all stream out onto the stage and do our various parts in breaking it aaaaaaall back down. many a time I got stuck sweeping up the main Coliseum floor. There were the regular concert leftovers: soda cups, food wrappers, spilled popcorn, sticky beer and the odd patch of vomit. But sometimes you’d find guitar picks and weird pieces of jewelry – which I would collect (I think I still have a few rattling around in my pick jar). And every now and then, you’d see some – ahem – evidence of hanky panky that must have been inspired by the romantic music. And that’s as much as I’m gonna say about that.
Finally around 2am or 3am, they’d let us go. It was a long strange day, but it paid about $15/hour which was pretty awesome at that time for a college student. Even though I only did it every few weeks, it was all the income I needed. Enough for gas in my Hyundai, some Zataran’s red beans and rice and loads of cassette tapes.
You know what? I kinda miss that job. Even though the hours were bizarre, there was a certain satisfaction I’d get working with my hands like that. Even when it was just rolling carts off of a truck. And the people were the best. They were intelligent, nice, interesting folks who were completely professional and knew their shit. And they would teach it to us greenhorns without making us feel stupid (even though we were!) And they especially taught me that no matter how flashy or rockin’ or spectacular a show is – it could never happen without a hard-working crew of people in black whose faces you never see. Thanks to the IATSE Local 115 chapter – you guys and gals really rock.