Old Man Musings
It took me a full two years off from the touring profession before I could get my “gigmares” to stop. While many in the live event business suffer from gigmares, this particular term may raise an eyebrow to some. These are event related nightmares that find their way into the dark recess of your brain, waking you up to the realization that the next gig you are about to do is in peril.
Usually these are harmless dreams, such as waking on the bus to believing you left all the truss bolts or tie in tails at the last venue. But there are also real life gigmares we’ve all gone through. When something truly bad happens on the day of a show and you are unsure if the show will actually go on. Sometimes it takes right up until 7:59 to make the call on whether to pull the show. Sometimes shows are done with just spotlights alone. Sometimes all the automation involved fails due to a hydraulic leak and your 3d stage will remain flat that evening.
Opening Night – Gigmare 1
Even after decades have passed, the memories of gigmares past still wake me. In 1986 I was the lighting crew chief and ME for Lionel Ritchie’s Outrageous Tour, where we had performers Dancing on the Ceiling. At the time we were indeed the largest show on the road. Nobody was loading eight fully packed trucks into an arena at the time; the set and lights were mammoth. Our front truss was 110’ long. At that time, having 100+ moving lights on one tour was second only to Genesis. Over the course of nine months we traversed the planet and had a lot of fun times. And some memorable bad ones.
After a month of rehearsals, we load out of some LA studio and head to Phoenix for the opening performance of the tour. The crew is beat to hell as we are loading in and doing the show in one day, before a back to back to San Diego the next night. I’m the electrician for the tour and the lighting crew chief for Morpheus Lights and a four person light crew. We had Michael Keller, Flip Tyler, Bill Strawn and Ernie Wagner and myself out to start as the crew for Peter Morse, the lighting designer. Chris Lamb was the PM.
The show was supposed to start with this talking piano. It rose from the depths of hell under the 7’ tall center of this custom stage while singing “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” Upon arising in a cloud of smoke and lights the piano would spin, drive downstage, and then tilt at an angle. It was a player piano which also used the words of Lauren Bacall to converse back and forth with Lionel.
It was about 5 PM and we were ready for dress rehearsal for opening night. Underneath the stage, hidden like the Wizard of Oz by a curtain was the lead carp, Bill Ness (often described by his roadie name, ’Big Mess’). Bill had some small screen monitor and some hand controls that moved the piano. He had no actual eyesight of the stage and was dependent on the stage manager calling cues through his headset. This would prove to be a flaw in the design.
Morpheus supplied an A/B intercom. We furnished two separate intercom systems out of the dimmers, one for lights and one for carps/video. I was the only one with an A/B headset. I was listening to someone call the stage cues to Bill. “Raise piano.., stop. Rotate piano…, stop. Drive piano downstage, and tilt as you go.” The problem it seems is that Bill needed to press multiple buttons at once. At this time he’s pressing one that drives the piano on tank treads downstage, and another that tilts it up 30° or so – in order for the folks on the floor to see the piano playing the keys by itself. I listened as the calls were made. “Go further. Stop. Tilt more, no wait, just drive. No just stop. Stop. Stop. Jesus Fucking stop.”
At this point the six figure talking grand tilted past the point of no return and jettisoned off of its mobile traveling device itself into the empty front row of the arena. The wicked sound of splintered wood silenced everyone. Chris Lamb came rushing around the corner from his office asking, ‘What was that?’ ‘Why that will be the piano coming in sir.’ I replied.
It took a small army to hammer it together. It came out that night and limped downstage, played some embarrassing wrong notes. I don’t recall if Lauren even spoke that evening, but the important thing was that we pulled it off, kinda. Carpenter Bill was an incredibly smart guy, like finish the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle smart. Over a beverage with him later on down the road he noted in remorse. “During my long career I’ve done some amazing stuff. I even flew Michael Jackson out of a stadium for Chrissakes. But now I’m always gonna be remembered as the guy who drove the piano off the stage.” True dat.
Leaving Analog behind. Gigmare #2
Back then all the moving lights we were using were analog. As in 0-10v DC motors and potentiometers determined how far a fixture might pan or what color the internal color scroller would stop at to get red. Back in 1986 we had lots of 60 channel snakes running to FOH to feed all the movers on a tour, but this show was massive and we would need 1000 analog channels.
. So the owner of the lighting company had someone build one of these that was good for 492 channels and we went on tour. Nobody thought to send a spare.
We load into the Nashville Auditorium one day and everything seems to be going dandy. I get a call from Peter Morse over radio. “The system is down. My desk is working, but nothing is happening.” He is correct. After a few minutes with a meter I realize the D to A converter in my dimmers is not functioning. No lights on it, it’s dead in the water. I call the shop to ask for advice. It’s 2 PM in Nashville and the shop is on the wrong (left) coast in San Jose. They don’t have a spare they can send me until tomorrow.
Knowing damn well I cannot walk into Lambo’s production office and tell him the show is over, I search for other alternatives. I ask the shop, “What other shows are out using these converters now and does one have a day off?” They get really quiet.
“Actually there is a spare, in a show, miraculously right down the street from you.” Excellent news. They offer to call up the company owner himself, who is in Nashville programming lights for this live country music award show. I tell Lambo what’s up and walk down the street into the theater. I’m told point blank by the other Morpheus tech on that stage, “The boss says you can’t have our spare, We have a live TV show in two days and he may need this.” I reply, “So you want me to cancel our sold out show tonight, in the arena two blocks over because you may need this spare two days from now?” He nods and of course I know the next move.
I went back to the arena and told Chris Lamb what the owner had said. I didn’t have time to suggest how we might play this. Lambo simply picked up the phone and called the Morpheus account rep. ‘You have 15 minutes to have that piece of gear delivered from the theater or I call Varilites and all your gear is going home tomorrow.’ The show went on as you might expect.
Kleigl consoles and cell phones. Gigmare #3
To run all those moving lights required two consoles back then. We were using the Kleigl 4 Performers with the Gold cue buttons. Brand spanking new. One ran all the spot fixtures while the other controlled the washes and color changers. Because the lights were analog, all the shutter and iris’s for the movers as well as the conventional dimmers were run off of Peter’s 90 and 60 channel Celco consoles that were bonded together. The movers that Keller ran would pan/tilt/colorize the beam, but Morse turned them on and off with his faders. Remember, this was all before one console could run every light on a show.
Every load in we would put the two consoles on road cases and roll them around under the light rig to test the fixtures before they went to trim. That day it was around noon when both desks just went dark. All the lights worked, but the consoles had apparently taken a spike from the Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland.., and the power supplies were both toast.
I get on the horn to Morpheus who are frantically trying to find two more of these Kliegl consoles, but alas, we have serial numbers 1 and 2 of this product on tour. Any others are being used on shows currently. Kleigl doesn’t have a loaner. But lo and behold, Peter Morse had one of the first cell phones. It was the size of a car battery and weighed 20 lbs. So while Keller and I are trouble shooting alternative ways to make the show happen (ever duck taped moving lights in a pan and tilt focus position?) Morse is on the phone looking for a computer repair shop in Bumfuck, Ohio.
Lo and behold, Morse finds a guy who also has a cell phone and is only two exits away on the Thruway. He swings by with a tool kit and meter, getting to work. “The bad news is that these power supplies are toast and cannot be repaired. The good news is I know how to build some from scratch.” We ask how long that would take. “Well I just gotta run to my shop and pick up some bits but I could be back in an hour. Then figure four hours or so and I can have these up and working.” What choice do we have, he heads to his shop.
I start thinking of alternative ways we can still use this system tonight without the moving light controllers. I rework the patch bay. I turn the wash lights off. These Panabeam wash fixtures were basically moving yokes with a par 64 lamp of your choice inserted and a scroller on the front. They had separate dimmers like a VL5 would copy some eight years later. So we can turn them off, point them and still run the dimmers. I send Ernie up on a truss to point these fixtures at my feet then tape the lights into place. He manually scrolls all the scrollers back to white. At least Peter can have a white show along with his 400 colored pars if nothing else.
Michael Keller and this local computer repairman have been in the back room for hours. It’s 6:45 and I get a call to come help them. I walk back and the two Kleigls are in pieces and laid out on a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood. Wires running everywhere connected to metal bits. He and I carry the plywood deck back to FOH through a packed house and plug it in. It works. But the opening act has to go on. Ky Cabot lights them with pars while Ernie and I go up on the truss to remove the tape from the movers. The consoles worked and the show went smoothly. We had new consoles delivered to the next gig while a garbage can of parts was shipped to Kleigl. Spare consoles become a new line item for tours after this evening.
Power Outage – “Who said you could do this?” Gigmare #4
In America we had used some modular dimmers that ran on 110/208 and worked great. But now we were crossing the Atlantic. On this particular tour however, the Morpheus owner had decided that we would rent transformers for all of the movers, but for the dimmers he chose to swop ours out for these two 96 way x 2k AVAB dimmer racks they had in the shop. His rationing was we would be fine to just run these bad boys on 240 volts as they were made in Sweden originally, (and that was their native voltage over there right?).
A few modifications were made somewhere on the racks by someone in the shop and we headed to Europe. I knew nothing of these dimmers, first time user, and just figured the lighting company owner knew the gear and what was best. So for a week everything appeared to work great. Until a pre rig day in Stuttgart when everything as they say in the UK, went horribly pear shaped.
The lighting rig had just gone to trim and we were getting ready to head home. The set and band gear would load in the next day. I’m powering down FOH when we hear this huge boom and the arena goes dark. A minute later the arena switches over to emergency lighting and I look stage right as massive amounts of smoke pour out of the two AVAB dimmers. I run to the electrical room to kill power to the mains, but the switch itself is blown off the wall. The electrician grabs me and walks me outside. He is pissed. I look over and a transformer formerly mounted on a pole is lying smoking in the parking lot and all the buildings in the surrounding neighborhood have blacked out. “Das ist nicht gut.” cries the house electrician. We took out three blocks of surrounding power it seems.
I call the shop and they insist I must have lost a neutral somewhere and it’s obviously operator error. Read – I suck. Lambo, I and the house electrician retrace all follow all the feedr cables and I have not lost a neutral. Chris Lamb (former lighting crew chief himself) gets AVAB on the phone in Sweden and I describe what has happened. Staying calm, the rep asks, ‘Who said you can do this? Who told you that you could run these dimmers on 240 volts?’ “That would be my boss. I imagine he talked to a rep from your company who said he could do this.” No, they replied that this was very bad. The racks were strictly designed for use in America and while a conversion is possible, it is very stupid. Why did you not just use more transformers?”
But they reckon they can figure out a way to rewire everything and make it work correctly. The next day Magnus Annuel from Sweden arrived on the scene and rewired all the burnt harnesses, replaced some bits and made the racks work again. After the show Magnus asked for a hotel room and his plane ticket back to Sweden. Chris Lamb had a different idea though. He had his wife overnight a suitcase of clothes to the next venue. Magnus wasn’t going anywhere as long as Morpheus was the lighting vendor. He became a touring employee for the remainder of the European leg.
“Well at least the rig is already in the air.” Gigmare # 5
After the AVAB meltdown and console disaster Lambo decided our tour needed an emergency fixit guy, just in case. It turned out to be an amazing bit of insight as Dickie Ollett was brought on board. As the story goes, Dickie and his brother Paul were the founders of Avolites, having built the first console on their mom’s dining room table. Dickie spent most of his time regaling us with great road stories while imbibing alcohol. But when the shit hit the fan, his knowledge was invaluable.
I should preface this paragraph by mentioning that Morpheus made all of their own gear. Trusses, cable, AC distribution, road cases, lights, scrollers etc. So you couldn’t just call any other lighting company and rent a cable, let alone a dimmer rack or motor controller.
Mid show I’m standing side stage when a burst of flame shoots out of the top of one of the motor control racks. I need a fire extinguisher to put it out and we get on with the show. After the show Lamb, Ollett and I start opening up the boxes and of course I have no idea how to fix this bit of kit. But Ollett looks around and I hear a lot of ‘ah ha’s and harrumphs’ emitted. “This is an incredibly simple design. But there are no fail safes.” I nod my head as if I agree with something I am by no means qualified to discuss. “It’s a Saturday Night Nook, so nothing we can do about this now. I suggest we ask the promoter rep to find us an electronics store that can open at 9 AM tomorrow in exchange for some free tickets, and we can fix these so it can’t happen again.”
I get a call from Morpheus. “This should not have happened.” No shit Sherlock springs to mind. “By no means can you have Dickie or anyone else work on our motor rack.” There may be liability issues and trade secrets involved it seems. OK then, I answer. “Guess I’ll wait while you have someone get on a plane at SFO and deliver us a new motor rack by tomorrow evening in Paris so I can bring the rig down.” Somehow the connection to the office got lost that evening and being a Saturday Night the crew hit the town hard. Dickie worked all the next day and fixed the modules by loadout. A week later the other motor rack would blow as well. We had the necessary parts and Dickie. “Who said you could do this?” sprang to mind.
“On the count of three” The final gigmare
I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Celco consoles. I liked the way they felt, the spring in the faders, the ease of programming, the cue card memory saving device. But on the downside, they broke. Morse was the first person I think, to ask Norm and Peter over at their Long Island shop if they could sync a 90 and 60 channel console together. With some wiring modifications they made it work, so in essence Peter had a 60 channel slave console to go with the brains on the big one.
When the AVAB dimmers took out Stuttgart that fateful evening they managed to send a shock to the console. Only the 90 channel one was on at the moment of the explosion and apparently all of the pico fuses (a small wired fuse) that were soldered between the board outputs and the Socapex connectors blew out. Of course I didn’t think to check the console output the previous night because power was out all evening. The next afternoon I discovered the issue with the console and set out to the store and bought new fuses.
From 5-7 PM that night I stood at that desk asking Morse which channels were the most important to him as I soldered. Finally it was 8 PM and I had Chris Lamb leaning over my shoulder. I looked at him, closed the back and told him to call house lights. We went without the front truss and nobody noticed.
Once the Euro leg was over I was glad to see those consoles go back to Celco. We were on our way to Japan with a B-rig of sorts and they had plenty of Celco desks there. The shows went uneventful and we head to Hawaii. awaiiHawaii
It’s the end of the tour. Lots of just chillaxing in paradise for a week. At this week of my career I start what is now a 35-Year relationship with one of my favorite lighting company owners, Bob Harmon of Eggshell Lighting. I had a runner take me out to Bob’s shop where Morpheus had shipped a moving light package to hang on his truss. I was to make sure all the interfacing with Eggshell gear worked. Bob has two Sea containers in the driveway outside his residence. I would soon find out that these were his “shop” at the time. Systems were prepped on the driveway.
Now Bob had one particular thing he was really proud of back in 1987: the only set of Celco consoles anywhere on the islands. A 90 and a 30. We were going to use his desks for our final few shows. We load in and everything goes seemingly fine, though it’s a long day by the time we have the old set and lights working, focused, and it’s time for doors to open. Peter Morse comes up to me, ‘Hey uh Nookie, the Celco keeps flashing. Like it’s going on and off.”
I had seen this problem before and it was usually just a loose connection. Over the last nine months I had become very familiar with every connection and what could go wrong on these desks. So Harmon and I removed the back plate, unplugged connections, sprayed Blue Shower wherever necessary and reconnected everything. Plugged it back in, same issue. Except now it would come on, only to die three seconds later. I call Celco, mind you it’s now 2 AM in New York. They give me a few suggestions of things to tighten up, but basically I’m on my own. Something is loose. I look over and see the sweat on Bob’s brow as I tighten all the screws on the buss bar for the third time. I hammer on the power supply with a love tap. I screwed the back of the desk back together and fired it up.
Nada. Zilch. Game over, Your worst frickin’ gigmare. Not a single LED comes on. By now I’ve got Chris Lamb on headset with the band side stage. Artist standing in the wings. Harmon and I instinctly knew that we only have one chance. We’d have to go for ‘the drop’.
I looked Bob straight in the eye as we set our legs apart, positioning ourselves at opposite ends of this six foot long wooden beast. We lift the console a few inches off the table and I eye him. That’s not high enough. We raise it a full foot off the table. “On the count of three.” I recall saying. On three we both let loose and she loudly crashes down on the table. With full amazement all the lights came on and it was functional. I looked at Bob, he looked at me. I counted to five to see if it would die again, but she stayed alive. I gave Morse the thumbs up and yelled into the headset, “House Lights Go.”