There is nothing quite like a grand old proscenium theater.
For those of you who missed high school or college theater classes, "proscenium" is the word for the arch over the opening to the stage. It is where the grand curtain (also called an "act curtain") reveals the stage.
A stage of this sort has certain attributes that set it apart from other types, such as a thrust or a round stage. The goal of setting a proscenium stage is similar to painting a picture: composition of elements takes place in complete abstraction, beginning with nothing. A properly equipped proscenium stage is able to set a "black box" in which the action takes place. This happens with the aid of heavy black curtains, often of velour or even velvet, drawn in layers all around the stage. The curtains which run vertically at the sides of the stage are called "legs". The ones which run horizontally across the top are called "borders".
Within this black box, light is introduced under designed control so that action can be seen...in its "best light". (I couldn't resist that...)
A properly designed proscenium house is very good at directing the attention of the viewer toward the stage. Once this has happened, people like Lighting Designers, Lighting Directors, and technicians, can make (until recent times) extravagant money trying to help keep it there. All of this is beside the point of my little jot today...
I'm sitting in the house of the Fox Theater, in St. Louis. This place is a marvelous example of the classic American vaudeville proscenium house. It is lavishly decorated in East Indian motif from top to bottom. Large plaster statuary of Hindu goddesses, elephants, and lions are abundant, in gold paint. Back pools of turquoise light set in coves behind reliefs and statues lend an aura of mystery to the air as the audience enters. The grand curtain is done in red, as are the seats...a deep ruby, calling to mind opulence of Victorian scale.
The entrance hall is at least 45 feet high, and 100 or so feet long... a giant, heavy box of space, with columns 4 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall resting on marble galleries on each side. There is intricate gold plaster work over every other square foot, towering arches, and every sort of architectural extravagance and indulgence that might be stolen from a particular period or culture.
The place really is over-done...but it is so very well overdone.
I can't say for sure, but I would bet that the place was built no earlier than 1900. There was a boom in building of these places in the first two decades of this century. Many of them were torn down in the years from 1940 to the late '60's. Together, the impact of motion pictures on the vaudeville circuit, and a trend to modernism in theater design took their toll. The '70's saw a revival of interest in the grand old houses, and there were many local movements to save the theaters. Thus, some of the best examples of the genre were saved.
This Fox holds about 4000 people. It is identical to the Fox in Detroit, and they are perhaps the favorite proscenium houses among touring crews for their, uh...grandiosity. They are, really, nice places to look at.
These places are wonderful for Big Rock Shows, in compact packages. When the intimacy and atmosphere of a classic proscenium design are combined with a rampant rock spirit (of any melodic or rhythmic structure) and technology applied with a vision, the results can be very pleasing and memorable. An arena show can be a spectacular knockout in a steroid-scalar sort of way. Pink Floyd in '88 seemed like the biggest thing in the world. (I didn't see the Stones.) They played it in NFL stadiums, and it was an extremely effective, uh...production.
However, a 2500 to 4500 seat proscenium joint can deliver a production punch disproportionate to its size. Most wonderfully, it can also deliver an "up close" contact with the performers that few arenas can, and that no stadium can.
I never get tired of playing in them, and admiring them for several quiet minutes, from different angles of the house.
There were five of the local union stage hands clumped around the heavy square case at the bottom of the ramp. The case was full of #0000 gauge wire. A single conductor of this wire is the diameter of a broomstick. We use it to deliver 400-600 amps per leg (3 phase) to our own 800 amp distribution disconnect which, in turn, serves 3 phase mains to the dimmer racks. We carry three 50 ft. sets.
The box weighs about 375 lbs. The floor height of the semi-trailor is about 38 inches. The ramp length is 14 feet.
If you figure it out, it is a bit of a push. But it's nothing bone crushing. Certainly not if your out has been dancing along the way it should. In any case, we do it at the shop all the time; we don't sit at the bottom of the ramp and moan about it. We just do it.
There were five of them at the bottom of that ramp. Their number included one of the old guys who'd smelled of Cutty Sark as the first motor chains were launching, that morning.
I watched as they, sort of, limped that case up against the bottom of the ramp, and let it settle there as they groaned and flapped and sniveled...
A standard move and address to the situation. The banter and repartee had been brisk throughout the out...even if the out hadn't...
"If we spin that box 90 degrees at the bottom of the ramp, we notice (`What!?'): Handles!! This means that, instead of ganging up on it at the bottom, we can triple-team it: up both sides together with the bottom..."
By this time, I had a grip on one of the handles. The corner behind which it had hidden orbited slowly around to reveal (groan) the handle, as they tugged and pushed the damned box around... I made the handle, first grab, and completed the move. I could not understand why they couldn't see the sense in it.
"C'mon fellas...think about it...."
Amidst the general blare of new grumbling, some of it in good natured routine, I heard the old guy above the others: "Arghh! You don't know what you're talking about, boy."
I went around to the back of the case. Before they could mount another attempt at that silly box, I tapped the old drunk on the shoulder. "Get out of the way, old man."
He came up and around with wild eyes and screamed, "Old man!?!"
I backed up a step to give his wiring (not yet wiry) frame room to flail. A couple of his mates made a feeble, symbolic move to stop him.
When he steadied, he looked me as right in the eye as he could and shouted again, "Old man!!?
I looked him as right in the eye as I could.
"That's right. It goes both ways."
He knew I'd busted him and so did about half of his brothers. Actually, they all knew. Some of them saw it as a righteous bust; some of them didn't want to see it.
I wasn't proud of it. I'm sure I hurt him more than he hurt me. Is that any worthy sort of a goal? I don't think so. Later, I thought that perhaps I should prepare myself: the "old man" crack was out there, going around. I figured I should keep an eye out for its return, someday.
In the end, however, I've concluded that if I ever turn up at any gig of any sort, and perform like that reeking old drunk, coddled in the bosom of his rancid "brotherhood"...
I will absolutely deserve it.
September 24, 1992
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