by Ric Teller
In his poem “Locksley Hall,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of working on award shows.” OK, as most of you know, Alfred didn’t do the Oscars, Grammys, or any other television specials. The gentle poet within him wasn’t ready for the chaos that comes with that territory. I looked up Locksley Hall, thinking it might have been the location for one of the long-forgotten award shows from the past like The CableAce Awards, The Jim Thorpe Pro Sports Awards, TV Land Awards, Guys Choice, The Blockbuster Entertainment Awards (Sidenote: There is still a Blockbuster store open in Bend, Oregon—be kind, rewind), The Soap Awards, The American Comedy Awards, or The Golden Globes. Upon further review, The Golden Globes has returned after a year’s absence. My research found that none of the events listed here took place at Locksley, but the way venues change names, who can tell. I checked for new naming rights and even tried Everything Bagel and Locksley Hall. No luck. In addition, I found no relationship between Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the famously talented audio mixer, Tom Lord-Alge, although there is a possibility that both crossed paths with Keith Richards.
In the ’50s and ’60s, our dad owned and managed a couple of movie theatres in Hastings, Nebraska. There was another theatre (and another owner) in town and the two theatres had to bid against each other to book movies. For that reason, The Academy Awards was a big deal. If one of the pictures that dad booked won Oscars, especially the big five, Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Best Director, and Best Sound, more patrons bought tickets and more popcorn was consumed.
The popcorn digression: When you go to see a movie, popcorn is often the snack food of choice. That was not always the case. In Iowa, where they grow lots of corn, a man named Myron “Mike” Blank, who was in the movie theatre business, figured out a way to sell popcorn. That was a pretty good idea. It was readily available, inexpensive, and irresistibly aromatic. Pairing movies and popcorn caught on. Soon everyone was doing it. They still do. Myron was dad’s first cousin.
The first time I worked on the show, some thirty years ago, the personal history of the moment did not escape me. I was backstage at The Academy Awards, wearing a tuxedo (yes, a rented one). I sent dad a sweatshirt and a program. A few years later, I sent him an Oscar jacket. He could occasionally be seen wearing it while walking down Second Street, no doubt, the only person in Hastings to do so. In those days, the show was still crewed by ABC, and it was NABET. I was neither. They did things a little differently than we did, but our end goals were the same. The NABET folks were very interested in having me join, but the initiation fee was sky high, and the prospect of doing any other work for them was slim. The first year, I didn’t join, but in my second year, they were insistent. I still believed the initiation fee was far too expensive, so as a compromise, I brought $2K in cash and offered that. It was unsatisfactory. I ducked the “donation” again and the third year, I did the show, it became IATSE. Whew.
I’ve worn many A2 hats at the Oscars, including guest musician setup, patch guy, putting lavs on talent, and taking care of host mic needs—one gentleman had several wardrobe changes in the show, each one a different, beautiful black tuxedo. I inquired why change from one suit to the next when they were so similar. Because if he wore it on TV, he got to take it home. Cabela’s turned me down on that same deal. By far, my favorite assignment has been working with the terrific Oscar Orchestra. For many years, under the direction of Bill Conti, nearly all the music was performed live. Not so anymore. It has been my honor to meet and get to know so many of the finest players anywhere, none finer than Gene Cipriano, who passed last year at the age of 94. Cip was probably the most recorded woodwind player in history. I think the “probably” is an unnecessary qualifier. His professional career began in the 1940s and in 1958, Gene was asked to join the orchestra at the Oscars for the first time. That year, they accompanied Debbie Reynolds who sang “Tammy,” Dean Martin performed “All the Way,” and (find it on YouTube) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Rock Hudson and Mae West. Cip was an important part of the Academy Awards Orchestra in the neighborhood of sixty times. Let that settle in for a minute. He was a kind, funny, engaging talent who will be missed by everyone who knew him. Yo!
One final note about the 1958 Academy Awards, the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai was presented to Pierre Boulle, a Frenchman who had written the source novel but had no hand in writing the script, and in fact, could not speak English. The two men who wrote the script, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted and given no credit. The film also won Best Picture and played at dad’s Strand Theatre in Hastings.
Working a live show like the Oscars can be terrifyingly fun. The first time I was part of a crew when something big really went wrong (for the record, not the Oscars), I learned that reaction time, troubleshooting, and remaining calm, are the key to recovery and moving on. That first goof was about forty-five seconds into a three-hour program with lots of moving parts. Deal with the problem efficiently, you still have a lot of show to manage. Don’t get bogged down with whatever happened, once it hits the outbound satellite dish, it is out of your control. As I’ve mentioned before, this kind of show is not for everyone. I had great mentors. Alphabetically by height: Mark Weber, Jeffrey Fecteau, Murray Siegel, and Joe Kendall. Sure, television had been done before they came on the scene, but many of the methods still used to put on a large-scale live show are drawn from their experience and guidance. As one of the small group of A2’s.
(Sidebar: I think we need to adopt a collective noun for A2’s, akin to A Murder of Crows, A Huddle of Walruses, A Parliament of Owls, and A Confusion of Stage Managers. I suggest, A Patch of A2’s.)
So, as one of the patch of A2’s that do these shows today, I can tell you that we still take from the knowledge and influence of those before us and continue the tradition of creating and reinventing to fit the new challenges. One of the great joys of working on specials and award shows has been my introduction to fine audio people from all over the country. If you want to do an entertainment TV show in LA, Las Vegas, Chicago, Nashville, Orlando, Miami, Baltimore, Washington, DC, or New York City, there are wonderful people with broad skill sets available. Some of my favorite shows, The Academy of Country Music Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, and The Latin Grammys, each bring together a talented crew from multiple locations. What a treat! I feel very fortunate to have become friends with many of them. These friendships are high on the list of items I like best about my job and one of the things I’ll miss most when I hang up my Q-box.
Surprisingly, as much as I talk about retirement, I haven’t done it yet. I still use my Q-box quite a bit and have adopted the new Sound Bullet as a go-to. The question is when to stop. Some would say it is past time. Others, you kind people, encourage me to stay around. I thought maybe 2022 would be a slow-down year but ended up a mere twenty workdays fewer than in 2021. To extend my tenure, I have made some sartorial compromises comfort-wise. Most of my sox come from Smartwool and the Oboz Low Sawtooth hiking shoe has become my regular for busy shows. Both are available at REI. I carry my own dress shirt and tie for dress-up jobs like the Oscars, and the rest of the time much of my wardrobe comes from Cabela’s and Forever 58. When I’m hiding behind the Yamaha CL5 at Wheel and Jeopardy!, I often kick off the Merrell Jungle Mocs a la Ed Greene. Friends keep telling me that I’ll know when it’s time. I’m not sure I believe them, but if that is true, I’m not ready to go quite yet. Of course, the big question is how to replace the considerable amount of time one spends commuting and working in ways that aren’t sedentary. Some friends take to the outdoors for hiking, fishing, and camping. Others spend time volunteering in their community. Playing, mixing, and recording music occupies many. I look forward to exploring options such as bike riding, gardening, maybe music, and possibly an outlet for writing.
History tells us that Tennyson, though his heart belonged to audio, wrote one of his best known poems about the Light Brigade, which includes this slightly altered quote, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and complain about it on the Audio Iso PL.” His long, admired career began at the young age of twenty with a poem called “Timbuktu.”
Me and Tim a-huntin’ went.
Met three girls in a pop-up tent.
Aww, that’s enough.