Much has been written about the magic of the stage, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. But to this child of the 50s and 60s being backstage holds a personal fascination. Like so many kids of our generation, my first “stage” was the choir loft at Mass where every Sunday my classmates and I would sing out the hymns that the sisters dutifully taught us. We carefully rehearsed and learned to sing “out of our heads and not out of our chests.” Even as our young voices started to change, they were always pushing us to reach for the high notes. We also learned to sing with an “N” sound not an “M” when humming because that gave us more volume and control.
In the years between choir in elementary school and band in high school, there was not a lot of stage time for me, but from high school on, there has been a stage somewhere where I could stand. One of the first, the stage in the “cafetorium” at high school wasn’t much more than a shell built into one of the walls of the multi-functional room. The only access to that stage was via a pair of steps at either end of the stage that was barely a couple of feet higher than the floor of the main audience area. Yet it was during my high school years that I was introduced to a “real” stage for the first time. I was a member of an orchestra that performed several concerts at the then new Jacksonville Auditorium. I will never forget making my way through the backstage area to the stage and with my heart pounding a million beats per minute looking at all the stage trappings; the ropes, pulleys and counter weights that held the backdrop in place, the lights, the microphones and sound systems. It all seemed so dark, mysterious and confusing. Finally, there was the stage itself where I was transfixed, looking out over the footlights across that vast auditorium that seemed to fade into infinity just before reaching the back wall of the auditorium. I could just make out the sound and lighting booths in the murky distance.
Left: Cooper Union in New York City
Since then, I have been backstage in over 100 theaters across this wide country and I have been amazed at the wide variety of designs and styles. One of my favorites is the modest stage at the Cooper Union in New York City where Abraham Lincoln made the speech on February 27, 1860 that some say made him president. Another was the sound stage in Los Angeles where William F. Buckley debated the issues of his day in the latter 20th century. In fact, it was Buckley who afforded me the opportunity to intimately visit some the great backstage areas all over the country. He invited me to be a member of production team for his debates that were broadcast on PBS during the 80s and the 90s.
Left: Newberry Opera House, Newberry, SC
As I became familiar with backstage after backstage, I quickly learned that no two were alike. Some had small wings, the area just off curtain at the side of the stage; some were voluminous, as big, or even bigger than the performance area itself. This provided space to quickly move sets onto and off of the stage proper between acts. A common trait for these backstage areas is that they all seem to be a complicated and confusing warren of hallways, rooms and areas where one could easily be lost.
Another of my favorite venue backstage areas is in a small 400 seat theater located in the small town of Newberry, South Carolina. It has a three floor backstage connected by an elevator and a stairwell.
Backstage at the Newberry Opera House, clockwise from left, Billy Scott, me, Clifford Curry, Maurice Williams, and Cassie Fox
There is a small wing on the one side of the stage barely big enough for the lighting boards but the other wing is as big as the stage itself. I have spent many a happy hour there watching some great performances. But the most interesting part of the backstage at the Opera House is the small eating area.
Onstage at the Newberry Opera House with the Sensational Epics
The walls of this room have not been painted in over 50 years. The reason is that all the artists who have performed there have signed the walls. That one wall bears testimony to the great touring acts from rock and roll to country, jazz and blues. I can’t even begin listing the individual names on that wall but it looks like a high school year yearbook with folksy greetings from the greats across the annals of time. It made me realize that there was another side to the artists that made up the soundtracks of our lives. They were also real people thankful for the hospitality they received in a small town far away from home. Oh MY!