“Behind the Red Curtain,” the latest Broadway 101 lunchtime event organized by UMB’s Council for the Arts & Culture, began with an apology and ended with a rousing ovation Nov. 18 at the Hippodrome Theatre.
Stagehands Bruce Holtman Jr. and Chuck Lamar greeted a group of 30 faculty, staff, and students from UMB and the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) by explaining that “we’re not professional tour guides” so keep expectations in check. But more than 90 minutes later, after seeing the Hippodrome stage, “fly floor,” spotlight room, orchestra pit, and dressing rooms, just to name a few, the visitors applauded their “non-guides” for a job well done.
Standing on the stage of the Hippodrome is beyond description. (See for yourself when this Broadway 101 tour is repeated next spring.) It almost makes one want to burst forth in song like Frank Sinatra did there in his first performance with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and in 1939 with Harry James’ band. The sight lines are amazing. You can see each of the 2,300 seats.
Behind the Scenes
But sharing the stage where Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Dinah Shore performed was an expected part of the tour, the third Broadway 101 event held in the past year at the Hippodrome, which UMB donated to allow for its magnificent renovation and reopening in 2004. What was unexpected was seeing what those working behind the stars do, often meeting seemingly impossible deadlines without a hitch.
“For ‘Book of Mormon’ we started loading in at 9 a.m. Monday, we worked til midnight Monday, we came back Tuesday and worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or so, took a dinner break and came back and did the first show,” recalled Holtman, head “fly man” at the Hippodrome and business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 19. “The ‘Mormon’ traveling road crew knows the show and they rely on our ability to learn it quickly. There are seven crew departments — carpentry, sound, props, electrics, flys, etc. Each crew and each department has one or two people who know the show in and out. ‘Book of Mormon’ we had 24 people working. You just have to pick up the cues real quick.”
The “cues” come from the stage manager, who sits stage left just out of sight. There is much to do. In “Wicked,” Holtman recalls, there were 500 to 600 spot cues a show.
To understand the complexity of what the stagehands do, those standing on the stage could look straight up. Way above the actors is an amazing array of intricate rigging, an endless series of adjustable pipelike structures on which fabric, lights, and more can be hung. They hold up to 2,800 pounds each. “It’s slightly dangerous,” offered Lamar, now the head soundman at the Meyerhoff and a former Hippodrome employee who still helps out with tours, summer camps, and Hippodrome Foundation events. “But we’re extremely qualified.”
For a closer look, Holtman and Lamar took the visitors up four flights of steps to the “fly floor.” There 86 double rows of cable reside, looking like the thick rope used in tug of war. For “Book of Mormon,” one road crew member and five Hippodrome stagehands raised and lowered the batten rigging on command. “It’s a lot of hands-on labor,” said Holtman, who explained how the counterweight system is “more boring but more safe” than some others he’s seen in his 26 years behind (and above) the stage.
Earlier, the UMB guests were shown the loading site, where truckloads of sets are unloaded by hand or forklift. “‘Phantom of the Opera’ had 22 tractor-trailers,” Lamar recalled. The two-lane unloading site looks like an average garage that has been stretched to tractor-trailer length. “One piece for ‘Phantom’ was 28 feet long,” Lamar added. “The Hippodrome is well-suited for Broadway shows, but they could never do opera here. The sets are much grander.”
Taking a Peek Downstairs
Less grand were the no-frills downstairs dressing rooms, with a bathroom, locker, sofa, and light-lined mirror for star No. 1 and even less fancy digs in the chorus room, where musicians performed for Billy Joel’s Broadway show “Movin’ Out” when the orchestra pit was too small. Downstairs is also home to a laundry room (three washers and three dryers), a wig and hair room, a makeup room (“Shrek spent a few hours a day there being painted green,” Lamar recalls), an equipment room, a kitchen, and more.
Several floors above, the spotlight room, which is above the last row of balcony seats, provided a hands-on experience for those willing to climb the steel built-in ladder to get there.
Throughout, Holtman and Lamar entertained the visitors with stories, observations, and tidbits like:
- The best seats are the first row of the balcony.
- Most crewmen start by doing summer concerts like Merriweather, but it’s so hot.
- The Hippodrome’s central air conditioning unit is housed in the ornate roof above the central chandelier.
- Tom Cruise, believe it or not, is normal. Real short, but normal.
Both stagehands showed a love for their craft and for the Hippodrome.
“‘The Lion King’ played here for 14 weeks one time, but every night was different,” said Holtman.
The UMB guests left the Hippodrome impressed by what they saw. “It gives me an appreciation for why tickets to a show cost so much,” said Lindsay Alger, MD, medical director of labor and delivery at the School of Medicine. “There are so many people involved.”
“Encore,” said Arnold Hoffman of UMMC when the curtain came down for the last time. “This is so much more than I expected. You guys [Holtman and Lamar] did a fabulous job!”
— Chris Zang