A hundred years of invisibility

By Paul Wozniak

Making a living in show business 'in the middle of the cornfields'

The Wharton Center stage teemed with people and activity Saturday night, but the plush red seats in the audience sat empty. Banquet tables loaded with freshly grilled steaks and ribs, poster boards covered in photos and a light splash on the floor were not aspects of an elaborate touring Broadway production. Instead, the stars on stage that night were a group of folks who, if they do their job correctly on any given production night, are all but invisible.

“It’s a beautiful ballet that paying audiences never see,” said Steve “Heini” Heinrich, Wharton Center stage manager and member of the (deep breath) International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada Local 274 Chapter. Heinrich was part of the celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary for the Local 274, which covers central and northern Michigan.

Backstage ballet can certainly describe the cohesive and cooperative responsibilities of stagehands, the generic term for behind-the-scenes laborers in the entertainment industry. According to IATSE International, its locals represent workers “in all forms of live theater, motion picture and television production, trade shows and exhibitions, television broadcasting and concerts,” including the supporting equipment and construction shops. In live theater, stagehands set-up and operate the sets, lights and sound to accompany and support a performance.

“Between wardrobe and the other departments, there may be 35 people working (backstage) with the road crew,” Heinrich said. “Putting props on and off stage, flying scenery in and out, miking up actors, and wardrobe people quick-changing actors.”

Heinrich gave an example of a crucial bit of coordination that he took part in happened after the (literally) soaring finale of “Mary Poppins: The Musical” last year, after the title character “flies” over the crowd and into the balcony area.

“Riggers unhooked her from her harness, she exited the theater doors, ran through a huge lobby by the administrative offices, into the backstage area through to service elevator on the third floor which was being held open for her,” Heinrich said. “The doors closed, there was three more wardrobe people in there, they did a complete quick-change on her between the third floor and the first floor, then she ran in through this door and back out in time for bows.”

He smiled.

“People off-handedly talk about ‘theater magic,’ and that’s what they’re talking about,” he continued. “We see how the magic’s done and (the audiences) see the results.”

“If we’re doing our job right, no one will notice us,” said Matt Woolman, president of Local 274 and lead audio technician of the Breslin Center. “When you come and see a Broadway show, you don’t think about anything else except of the fantasy that’s played out in front of you.”

Tommy Rivera works “on the rails” at the Wharton Center, hoisting backdrops. You may not have seen Rivera with his thick, dark beard and toned physique, but you’ve probably seen his work.

“In ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ when the Phantom cut the lines and the (chandelier) came crashing to the ground, that was my pull,” Rivera said. “I had to make sure it looked like it was crashing.”

When Rivera isn’t terrorizing audiences, he does carpentry work for films shot in Michigan. Recent work includes the “Red Dawn” remake that shot, in part, in downtown Detroit as well as in Grand Ledge, and “The Five Year Engagement,” which was shot in Ann Arbor.

Heinrich also cites the fun of stagehand work is the ability to work in different genres of entertainment.

“Once we did a monster truck show on a Saturday night until probably 2 in the morning,” he said. “Then I came back here and did Mikhail Baryshnikov in a White Oak Dance Theater. It just keeps going back and forth like that.”

That unusual schedule can be difficult to explain to outsiders, Heinrich said, including his own mother.

“My mom’s friends at the country club would say, ‘Bill’s doing great at Edison. John’s a lawyer, Mary’s in real estate,’” Heinrich said. “Then they’d ask her, ‘How about Steve? What’s he doing?’”

He paused, then launched into what one could only guess is an imitation of his mother: “‘I don’t really know what he does. He’s in show business and he works really bad hours, it’s hard to explain.’”

Not all stagehand work is unionized. IATSE International’s website says its first branch formed in New York in 1893 “to establish fair wages and working conditions,” in response to perceived unfairness and abuse similar to other labor industries. Although IATSE as a labor union works primarily to protect its workers, Woolman argues that the standards of the union also benefit the employer looking to hire. “This is what we do for a living,” he said. “It’s not a hobby.”

As a unionized stagehand, Wright said that the benefit for him as an IATSE member allowed him middle class stability in a fickle industry.

“The union allowed me to raise six kids and buy a house,” he said. “It allowed me to make a living in the entertainment world in the middle of these corn fields.”