Thursday, March 25, 2010

John Jackson: The Chandler Renaissance, Part 2

Theater hands are prodigiously hardworking, and Richard Emerson was no exception. The former technical director of New York's Circle in the Square, he arrived on the Chandler scene in the early seventies, a crucial moment in the hall's rebirth. Long-haired and bearded (the photograph below could easily depict a rigger for Circus Kirk), Richard was one of many yeomen who went without sleep to prepare the hall for opening night. The weeks that led up to Pajama Game were fraught with nail-biting suspense. I was too young to appreciate the massive amount of work these guys did, but I do recall the excitement they generated. "An air not unlike the first warm wind of spring was blowing through that great old building," my friend Nat Frothingham wrote after reading part one of John's Chandler memoir. "It was an awakening—also a moment of lovely generosity and great promise." 


Pajama Game was an okay show, but it didn't approach Brigadoon as an artistic event. It had interesting sets designed by Bob Brady, an architecture professor at VTC, good singing leads from the Randolph Singers, and better than average choreography. What makes Pajama Game memorable is the constellation of important developments that took place behind the scenes and put Chandler Music Hall on its way to restoration.

I think it all began with the retirement of Mr. Alderfer, the longtime music director for the Randolph Singers. I recruited Bob Miner, a physics teacher at VTC, to handle the music. He wanted to have a real orchestra. Chandler had an orchestra pit, but many years ago, when the hall was used as an auditorium for the old high school across the street, the original orchestra pit was covered up with new flooring. We investigated and found the old floor of the orchestra pit under the new flooring. The trouble was that the old floor of the orchestra pit was only a foot or two below the added flooring. Even with the new flooring removed, there wasn't enough room in the pit for musicians to sit under the edge of the stage. Heaven knows why it had been built that way, since there was plenty of room for a deeper pit.

Enter Richard Emerson. Richard was Bob Miner's brother-in-law and, until a short time before, had been the technical director of the Circle in the Square, an important off-Broadway theater in New York City. He was taking time off from his hectic life in New York, relaxing in the woods at Bob Miner's house in the wilderness on the Rabbit Track off the Chelsea Road. He took one look at Chandler and fell in love with it. (He also fell in love with the Randolph girls who didn't look like fashion models.)

Bob and Richard rigged beams from the stage to the auditorium floor and attached hoists to each of the beams where they passed over the pit. Cables were run through holes in the pit floor so that the weight of the floor could be supported by the beams. Then a new system of joists was built under the old floor of the pit so that the final position of the pit floor would accommodate the proposed orchestra. The next step was to cut all of the joists supporting the pit floor. At that point all of the weight of the pit floor was being supported by the beams. Finally, step by step, the pit floor was lowered onto the prepared support joists. I had previously found the old pit railing under the balcony. After that was reinstalled, we had the really useful orchestra pit you see today.
When we were planning the staging of the play, we realized that the old rigging over the stage could not be depended on to support the loads we were contemplating. Bob and Richard spent several days climbing about the superstructure over the stage replacing all of the old rigging. It was pretty obvious that most of the old rigging had been in place since the hall had been built in 1907.

The stage curtains were hanging almost in tatters, and there was no front curtain at all. For Brigadoon, we had used the ancient asbestos safety curtain as a front curtain. ASBESTOS was printed across the middle of the curtain in large letters. We didn't think that was very comforting to the audience. Richard knew of a professor at Queens College in New York City who was a consultant to the Broadway Stage. Every time a new show opens in a Broadway theater, by union contract, all of the theater curtains have to be replaced. This professor often purchased the better used curtains and resold them to nonunion theaters. Richard called him and made an appointment to meet him at a warehouse in Brooklyn. I borrowed a town truck, and on a bitterly cold day, Richard and I drove to New York, picked out a set of curtains, payed $400 for them, and drove back to Randolph. They were beautiful brown curtains, and they had been used in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. Revivals have been quite successful, but that original production only ran for about two months. Incidentally, the old asbestos curtain still hangs over the proscenium ready to drop in case of a fire on stage. Richard rearranged the rigging and hung the new curtains.

At about this time, Norman Angell, who worked for Clifford Cable Company in Bethel, approached me during a break in rehearsal and asked me if we would be interested in heavy-duty copper cable for a new electrical service from the street. He said that the cable would be free but that we might have to pay for delivery. Wow! What a question! Obviously, we were very interested, and he said he would start the process. Installing a new electrical entrance would involve digging a trench from the pole in front of the hall to the foundation and drilling a hole through the foundation. I spoke to the town manager, and he agreed to have the town crew do the work. After all, it was a town building. He said to just let him know when we needed the crew.

With the prospect of lots of new electricity, our ambitions for lighting the show ballooned. I found a six-pack of electrical dimmers for sale at an arts facility in New Hampshire. It consisted of six heavy-duty dimmers in a box about three feet long with multiple outlets on the back for connecting lighting cables. I bought rolls of electrical cable and plugs. Richard rigged two heavy steel pipes from the ceiling of the hall to which we could attach spotlights and such. My son Chris used a hammer and chisel to dig a hole through the upper right corner of the proscenium to run cables to the dimmers, which were located on the balcony overlooking the stage behind the proscenium. I arranged to borrow stage lights from the theater group in Rochester. I spoke to our friendly electrician, who lived in Williamstown and who gave us very good prices for his work. We were ready for our new electricity.

The waiting game commenced. Every week or so, I would ask Norman where our shipment was. First it was in Chicago. Then, it might be in Boston. Then in Albany. Finally, when it got to be a week before the first performance and we were getting truly panicky, we got word that it would arrive tomorrow. I called the town manager and told him we needed the crew tomorrow. He said, “Maybe in a couple of weeks.” Damn! What to do? I learned somehow, probably from Bob Miner, that VTC had a diamond drill rig that could make the needed hole in the foundation. I called them, and they were extremely accommodating. They told me how much room they would need to set up their rig. It would make a hole about four inches in diameter, perfect for our needs. After a few phone calls, we organized a pick-and-shovel crew made up of cast members and backstage people for first thing in the morning. Finally, I called the electrician and told him that he would be needed around noon. Bright and early the next day, we commenced digging a trench about twelve feet long, from the bottom of the telephone pole, under the sidewalk and to the foundation. The trench had to be about three feet wide and four feet deep. We finished pretty well on time, and the electrician ran the cables (they were about an inch in diameter), set up the new entry panel in the basement, and ran a large line through the cellar to a new breaker box back stage. I'm sure Richard and his crew spent some nearly sleepless nights hanging lights, running cables, setting up dimmers, and focusing lights. Focusing the lights over the auditorium involved working at the top of a forty-foot ladder, coming down moving the ladder after doing each light, and going back up again. Somehow, it all got done before dress rehearsal.

Meanwhile, the program for the show was well under way. During the previous year, my wife, Cynthia, had attended a theater workshop in St. Johnsbury. While there, she met a young man who ran the theater program for Hanover High School. He had lots of good ideas about promoting theater, and after a while we invited him over for dinner. One of his successful ideas was the Friends of Hanover Theater. It seemed to me that had possibilities for us, and I placed an ad in the Herald that there would be an organizational meeting for “the Friends of Chandler Music Hall” the following week. At the appointed time and place, four people showed up. We sat around wondering what we could do, and an idea for a program with paid advertisements came up. Working on stage as we talked was Paul Bouche, a professional theater scenery painter (a friend of Richard's) and part-time editor. He had edited a book on Lake George steamboats sometime before. We offered him the job of editor of the program for Pajama Game, his pay to be 10 percent of the advertising revenue. He was delighted since he had been working for free for us. One of the four “friends” was Red Hartigan. Red is a terrific salesman. He immediately started selling ads. There happened to be a wonderful young art teacher at the high school named Connie Little. She agreed to have her students do the art work for the ads if the advertisers would agree. They did and we produced what I think was the first Chandler program with advertising. In the end, we realized a net profit of $1,800 on the program. That small beginning eventually led to the founding of the Chandler Cultural Foundation and the enormous work they have accomplished over the past thirty years.

One more small event that had far-reaching results was a call from the town manager announcing that the entire Board of Trustees of the music hall had resigned! I have no idea what was behind that decision, but I suspect that the janitor had been complaining to the board about the pot-smoking hippies overrunning the hall and they didn't want to deal with it. On the other hand, they might have just decided that it was time for a change. In any event, the manager wanted suggestions from me for new board members. We soon had a board comprised of Randolph Singers and other supporters. Its hard to realize how much easier life became. The janitor was still in charge of the Parish House, which still belonged to Bethany Church, but he was out of our hair in the music hall.

The actual production of The Pajama Game was something of an anti-climax.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Nice to learn about the beginnings of making Chandler Music Hall a better theater and the behind-the-scenes hard work! Dick Emerson and Connie Little are people I remember fondly! I was in that production of "Pajama Game"...along with George Woodard, who was a VTC student at the time. He has just premiered his independent movie, "The Summer of Walter Hacks" with the Green Mountain Film Festival....a must see! I was fortunate enough to have a small role, playing piano in the Fiddle Contest scene. I also sang with 5 other VT musicians on the soundtrack. Keeping it local!!