“Me and Jenny are going to the theatre on Saturday night Grandpa. We’re going to see a Beatles tribute band called The Penny Lanes.” My Granddaughter Vicky was so excited to tell me of her first trip to the local theatre without her parents during her weekly visit. “Did you ever see the real Beatles?”
“As a matter of fact, yes I did. Once.”
“Wow, that must have been great. When? Where? What were they like?”
“Well now, I don’t know if I have ever told you before, but did you know I used to work in a theatre as a Stage Manager?”
“No way! Really? That must have been way cool.”
“It was. I worked there in the late 50s, early 60s and saw a lot of up and coming singers and groups as well as all the plays and pantomimes. Let me tell you about some of them and their back stage secrets.”
My mind easily transported me back some 50 years as I began to recount those halcyon days.
After my National Service I had tried a few jobs before being accepted into a then-well-known theatre in Manchester. I learned all the aspects of sound, lighting and scenery setting and became Assistant to the Stage Manager. On his retirement I took over his role.
In those days Rock and Roll was morphing into what became known as Pop Music and a lot of acts were busy touring around local theatres. Many acts, more used to large stadiums in later years, were at that time creating their fan bases and promoting their records by touring round the many smaller venues and theatres. Including mine.
Over those early years I helped the likes of Freddy and The Dreamers, The Bachelors, Dusty Springfield, Helen Shapiro, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy Fury, Lonnie Donegan, Petula Clark and, yes, the Beatles. There were even some American groups but the home-growns tended to be more popular. It was the time of hair sprayed bouffants and sequined dresses for the ladies, suits and ties for the men. Image was as important as the sound.
I suppose I could have been star-struck but I was too busy rushing around and making sure that everything worked as it should. Microphone stands and large speakers had to be placed for maximum effect for the audience. Of course, there were no such things as remotes or cable-free mics in those days. There were wires everywhere, which had to be carefully placed so nobody would trip up.
Lighting was always difficult. A little less fraught than today’s computer controlled digital displays but, nevertheless, complex. The huge spotlights with coloured foils had to be strategically placed – different for every show of course – and the front of stage lights angled perfectly to make the performer look good.
Sometimes, I wondered if my efforts were really appreciated because, once the show started, all you could hear was a load of screaming kids who would drown out the words being sung. Ah well, at least they kept me in employment.
Most shows then had several performers, unlike today where there is just one act or, occasionally, a headliner and a support act. That meant moving of mics and stands between each act behind the closed curtains. It was not possible to keep changing the lighting apart from, maybe, a trailing spotlight which was operated manually.
It was amazing how some of the performers used to act up. I mean, most were very nice and easy to work with. But some were real divas exploiting their new-found fame. Demanding this, that and the other, treating the theatre staff despicably and, for some of the pop groups in particular, demanding that they had access to only the prettiest fans after the show.
As a stage manager, being located in the wings of every show, I was able to observe how different people psyched themselves up before their performance. The groups mostly talked amongst themselves. Some people would do little jumps up and down or flap their arms around. Individual singers would tend to pace back and forth, some reciting the words of the opening song quietly to themselves.
I’ll bet those screaming fans never knew what the smell of nervous adrenaline was like. With all that after-show air spray added to the pre-show hair spray I’m not surprised there was a hole in the ozone layer.
Some performers were very nervous. I mean, really nervous. I remember one guy in particular, an American I think, who was new into the country and still trying to make his mark. He came out from his dressing room to the side of the stage while the prior act was still singing and I could tell he was really anxious. He paced back and forth quickly and, despite the stage makeup, looked really pale.
I always kept a bucket handy just in case anyone needed to throw up. It was surprising how many did but who, minutes later, were singing and gyrating in front of screaming fans as if nothing had happened.
I pulled him over to me and offered him the bucket. He used it, being careful not to get anything onto his gold lame jacket. He also took a swig of water from the glass that I passed to him.
I said to him, “You know, there are many performers like you who get really nervous and physically sick before they go on stage. It is quite normal. They call it stage fright.”
He looked at me and nodded.
“Fright is a negative word, of course,” I continued. One which suggests that there is something to fear. I prefer to think of it as stage excitement. It involves the same amount of adrenaline flowing round the body but has a positive spin to it. There really is nothing to fear. You have made records, the fans love those songs and they want to hear you sing and watch you perform. Don’t be afraid of meeting your fans, be excited.
“Everything has been checked and double checked and it’s all working perfectly. You look great and you know all your songs. Now, take a big deep breath and go do your thing.”
He looked at me, smiled and pretended to smooth his slick, black, gelled hair. “You’re absolutely right, my friend. Thank you very much.”
With that, he straightened up, took a couple of deep breaths and walked to his spot behind the curtain while the MC introduced him.
The curtains opened and he burst forth with the opening words to his first song.
“You aint nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time….”