Backstage Blackout: The Diary of a Stage Tyrant

Backstage Blackout: The Diary of a Stage Tyrant

by Philip Ronzone


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Backstage Blackout: The Diary of a Stage Tyrant by Philip Ronzone

The world’s famous Folies Bergere production show ran for forty five years. It was one of the longest running shows in US history.

Phil Ronzone worked backstage for twenty nine of those years. The book takes you backstage before, during and after the show. These are the true stories of its stage crew.

Perfect performance? Not when it’s a production show! What could possibly go wrong? This book could bring a smile to Hunter S. Thompson’s face.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781546202363
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 08/11/2017
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt



Every once in a while I like to get a sheet of paper, a couple of pencils, and just write down whatever pops into my head. I haven't done this for quite a while, so let's see what happens.

What immediately comes to mind is that this is a terrible time to do this. It's during a part of the show in which I could easily miss a very important cue. No one likes to miss any stage cue. Funny things happen when people miss cues.

For instance, many times we'll be training new people, so if someone who should know better misses a cue, he just blames it on the new guy. It's a beautiful thing; however, once in a great while, the new guy has been paying attention and right when you're talking to the big boss, Mr. "I'm a New Guy Who Happens to Be Paying Attention" will say, "Hey, I didn't make any mistake; it was that guy." And when he points at me, well, that just sucks. Okay, I did it, can't blame a guy for trying. Most of the time though, the new ones will say, "Sorry," or, "I thought I was doing the right thing," and some of the less bright ones are good for a lot of mileage. Do we feel bad? Of course not; we just wish we had been as smart as Mr. Paying Attention New Guy when the other guys had done it to us.

My old boss was a special piece of work. When I first met him he told me I was too pretty to be a stage carpenter or prop guy, so the next night I was instructed to start on "the rail." All those bastard's who just let me be sacrificed that night were burned into my mind forever, and one by one I hunted them down and got even.

Of course at the time I thought I had just hit the lottery. Dion, the boss, seemed like a cool cat, which he was — until you missed a cue.

Missing a cue or performing the wrong cue on Dion's crew was an event that you never forgot. After the mistake, Dion would let everyone know that you would answer to a new name, at least for a while. Let me see if I can remember some of my old stage names. My favorite: "Shit for Brains". First runner up: "Cock-Sucking Idiot". Let's not forget "Dumb Cock-Sucker." Some guys, myself included, were too dumb, too thick-skinned, or just too loaded to take it personally. Others were not so fortunate.

The trick was to shut up, make no excuses ... oh — and answer to your new name. There were the guys, however, who didn't know the trick. These poor bastard's would make the first mistake; then, either during their verbal reaming or shortly afterwards, would make a second or third mistake and do it all in a matter of minutes. You wouldn't think that Dion could reach new levels of nicknames for people, but that was the thing about Dion. He was always full of surprises.

Some men walked out, ruined; many vowed never to come back. Some were told politely that they shouldn't count on coming back; others were told not so politely.

Ah, but those who made it were a special breed. If you could make it here, you could make it anywhere. The odd thing is, Dion was a really good friend and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him or find myself letting out a little chuckle at some memory of my friend, "The Pineapple Princess".

There is one scenario of cue malfunction that should not be overlooked, and that is the "Maybe Nobody Saw It" cue mishap. Normally, nine times out of ten, a person gets lucky and nobody did see anything. But then something happens — perhaps because the person feels guilt or has a deep sense of truthfulness, although I believe it's because they are relieved to think they really got away with something. However, after they get away with this big mistake, which no one else knows about but them, they will turn around and tell the guy next to them all about it and in five minutes everyone, including the CEO of the hotel, knows about it.

It's strange what road a wandering mind can travel; maybe the saying about a mind being a terrible thing to waste is not all it's cracked up to be. Perhaps a few could be wasted and they would be none the worse for wear.

Actually, I've found that almost everyone and everything has a purpose, myself included. Who knew or would have ventured to guess what the future would bring? And about that future ... on second thought, the future looks a little scary. That leaves us two choices, the past or today. Perhaps there are more choices, but I probably wouldn't know about them anyway.

The past it is — and thank the good Lord I can remember parts if it. What's nice is talking to the old timers. Old timers are the people who have more than my 27 years in this business. Times change, everything changes, but I'd like to believe that there are memories and people and events that were not only funny but also downright hilarious. The people were no less than legends, some even icons, in the Hall of Fame of Stagehand. If there is no such institution, then there sure as hell should be.

Stagehand — you could ask ten people on the street, "What is a stagehand?" I'd bet they would all say about the same thing. But if you asked those same people what exactly is it that Stagehand do, the answers could be profoundly diverse.

It's no big secret that this business is often passed down from father to son; often aunts, uncles, nephews, and whole families can be involved. But like most things in my life, my introduction to the wonderful world of Stagehand did not take place in the usual way; in fact, I did not even know this business existed.

I had a job driving around town in an ambulance, smoking pot, taking all the acid I could shove in my mouth, and picking up drunks and dead babies. Actually, I was having a pretty good time.

One day I moved into a townhouse owned by my cousin, who had to follow her job to a different city. Less than a month later I met a gentleman who lived across the street. Ray was a spotlight operator at a small hotel on the strip; I'd seen him leave for work and it seemed that only a couple of hours later, he'd be back home.

I remember it was a Thursday night, Ray's birthday in fact, and he came over to invite me to come to work with him. What the hell, I had nothing better to do. Throughout the night as I watched Ray work I kept thinking, "Hey, this is really cool; I could do this." If he even hinted at the possibility of bringing me into this business, I'd jump at it.

No sooner had I run those thoughts through my mind when Ray said, "How would you like to run a spotlight?" Well Ray, I don't know, right now I'm working 48 hours on shift, 48 off, making a third of the money you do, and — holy shit, was that a naked girl I just saw? Okay, I'm in.

When I first started working at a showroom as a regular employee, I just couldn't believe that I was in the stage business. When family or friends would ask me about my new job I felt like a big shot. "Yes, I work backstage at the such-and-such show." It was so glamorous. Later, five or ten years down the road, I remember someone asking me about my job and I told him something like, "Well, I play cards, drink beer, and watch naked women." Finally I was expressing myself like a true stagehand.

So there I was at the Holiday Casino, training six or seven days a week. I did two shows a night and three shows on Fridays and Saturdays.

Little did I know how much Ray and his partner loved me. At first when Ray felt confident that I knew the cues he would tell me, "Phil, I'm gonna go down and grab a Coke." It turned out that he always talked in code. What he really meant was that he'd be right back after he did a huge line of cocaine. I was wondering how this guy stayed awake during the third show on the weekends, since I was sure having a hard time.

It didn't take me long to catch on. Clue number one: Ray never came back with a Coke. He always came back with a couple of double Cheval Reals. Clue number two: it's really hard to get the smell of weed off your clothes, especially when you still have half a joint in your pocket.

By the third week I was feeling a little bit upset. Hey, I wanna get a Coke too! Then one night I noticed that Ray had a handful of $25 poker chips in his hands. My mind was racing and panic ran through my veins. "Could he actually have been gambling while I was working the show?" I asked myself.

Now I don't know if I mentioned it or not, but because I was learning I wasn't getting paid. I reminded myself that here was a guy who picked me, out of all the people he knew, to do something really nice for. It was a great career change, and this particular line of work was hard to get into. "Just be thankful," I said to myself. But the fact of the matter was that I was feeling left out. There was some major partying going on and I wasn't included.

Then one night, when I thought Ray couldn't possibly pull any more shit, he did. He left me as usual right after the show began, only this time he was gone longer than normal. Shit, that's just great — here I'm working, the other guy gets the pay, gets totally whacked out and gets to gamble or whatever. Be grateful? Grateful really sucks.

Finally Ray returned and with him was one of the prettiest blonde ladies that I have ever seen. Now that's more like it! I was really taking a good look at this lady. Meanwhile, the comedian who was on stage at the time was saying, "Hey buddy, do you think I can have some light down here?" What was that? Did somebody say something? It doesn't matter.

Pam (this was the blonde's name) was just about to undo the last of the buttons on her cute little cotton blouse. This was great; this was fantastic!

"Come on guys, I need a little light down here."

Pam had a really nice set of tits, really shaped nice, full and natural, as best as I could tell. And the nipples ... this time I was sure I heard something. Someone was talking ... I tuned in.

"... Some goddamn ..." Wow, it sounded like somebody was really pissed. "... LIGHT!"

HO FUCK, it's the comic, and right about now nobody is laughing. The light coming out of my follow spot was not on the comic in a full body position. My light was not even on the stage. In fact, in the heat of passion, my light somehow ended up — or should I say down — in about, oh, the fourth or fifth row of the audience, where the new stars of the show turned out to be an elderly couple of about eighty.

This could only be described as a major fuck-up, and not used to being in such a situation, I had to take quick and decisive action. Above all I needed to keep a cool head.

What actually happened is that, under my control, the light jerked up from the audience, traveled all over the downstage area, lit up part of the upstage area, continued all the way up to the ceiling, dropped back down to the stage deck once again, and finally settled on the comedian.

The whole thing took maybe twenty seconds, but sometimes that seems like a lifetime. I'll never forget what Ray said to me. "Phil, I think you're ready to move on." I panicked because I thought he meant I wasn't going to be in the entertainment business any more. But that wasn't the case. Ray took me over to the lounge at the International Hilton where I "broke in" (worked for free) for another month, and then got my first call out of the Union.



My first official call out of the Union was to report to the main showroom at the Hilton Hotel. I was to replace someone who was taking some time off.

Actually, two of us were out of the "Hall" that night. The other guy was an old timer who seemed to know everyone, while I knew no one. This place was huge; in fact, it's no lie, I got lost twice just trying to find the light booth.

When I did find the booth, the Head Electrician introduced himself and showed me the spotlight I was to operate that night. That's the first time the phrase "take my breath away" had meaning for me. Where's the stage? I wondered.

"Did you say something?" asked Kenny, the head electrician.

"No," I answered. I was starting to feel a little sick. Looking down over the edge of that light booth gave me the feeling that I could fall right through the window and into the audience. In the end everything worked out, but I did hear a funny story while I was there. I don't know if it's true, but here goes.

Evidently, a couple of weeks before I showed up at the Hilton, some person was dispatched from the Hall to run a spotlight for a couple of nights. The first night he showed up, but by the time he did his paperwork, attended to his light and all, he had no time left to eat. As he was sitting there at the spotlight a couple of minutes before the show started, he noticed a bowl of peanuts.

This was too good to be true; it was like a starving man on a desert island finding a coconut. These were the best tasting peanuts he had ever eaten, far better than any ballpark peanuts. It wasn't too long before the bowl was almost empty. He thought, "I really should leave a few." But in the end, he gobbled them all down.

The next night he brought in a big bag of peanuts and as he walked up to the spotlight, he saw an old man sitting there.

"Excuse me," the young man said. "I brought you a bag of peanuts to replace what I ate last night. It's just that I was so hungry I couldn't help myself."

There was a strange glint on the old man's eyes. Then a big smile broke out and the old man said, "Well, that's quite all right. Don't think I'm not grateful, but I only buy chocolate-covered peanuts, because with my bad gums and all, I don't actually eat the peanuts. I just suck the chocolate off of them and put them back in the bowl."

Well, that was the story.

I was "on the bounce", the term used for someone who doesn't have a steady job but works just about anywhere there is work. It was a lot of fun back then, and I met a lot of people. Some are still good friends today.

By the time I walked into the Tropicana I had already been at quite a few places: Union Plaza, Caesar's Palace, the Dunes, Holiday Casino, the International Hilton, the Flamingo Hilton, the Sahara, the Hacienda, and a few others I've probably forgotten about.

It was the Tropicana that would be my home for the next 25 years. It was also at the Trop that I would experience life, death, and the adventures and situations that prompted me to write this. It wasn't really my idea; over the years, I've been told time and time again that I should write these things down. Imagine my surprise to find out that this writing shit is not all that easy.

Let me first say that there were a few funny things that did happen before I adopted the Trop.

One not-so-funny thing that happened was an electric-work call I took at Caesar's. I was very new to stagehand work, and on this particular day I was told to go to the grid (a very high ceiling) and assist another fellow who was repairing some cable. Specifically, he was replacing some burnt pin connectors.

I had left most of my tools on the deck and was carrying just a crescent wrench and a couple of screwdrivers in my pocket. We had been working for about fifteen minutes or so when I stood up and a piece of wire or something snagged the Phillips head screwdriver in my back pocket. Before I could grab it, down it went through the ribbon steel of the grid floor, seventy or eighty feet to the deck below. I didn't do one right thing — no "Heads up on the deck!" No warning. Nothing.

Still, I was not done being stupid yet. Right after I heard it hit I started to yell, "Hey, would somebody grab that ..."

The next thing I heard was "Shut the fuck UP. NOW!" I thought, how dare he talk to me like that? What was the big deal?

After five minutes of guidance and a severe lecture, I knew what was wrong. We finished our job and went back down to the deck. I took a couple of minutes to walk over to the part of the deck we had been working over, to see if I could find the screwdriver. There were a bunch of road boxes and piles of cable all around. Finally I found it. The screwdriver had pierced a section of 50-amp cable; its tip was buried in the wooden deck, three quarters of an inch to one inch deep. No doubt it could have killed somebody. I just left it there. To this day, I know I should probably be more cautious when working high. Well, some of us are slow learners.


Excerpted from "Backstage Blackout"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Philip Ronzone.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, vii,
Chapter 1: Where Did This Book Come From?, 1,
Chapter 2: The Real Deal, 7,
Chapter 3: Assault On The Zoo, 12,
Chapter 4: Kids — Play Nice!, 18,
Chapter 5: So You Want To Party?, 29,
Chapter 6: Water World, 34,
Chapter 7: Animal House, 39,
Chapter 8: Broken Bones And Blood, 45,
Chapter 9: Hey, That Could Have Been A Disaster, 88,
Chapter 10: Rob's Roach Circus And Phantom Penis Exhibition, 106,
Chapter 11: Now You See Him, Now You Don't, 110,
Chapter 12: That's No Bull, That's A Pinata, 113,
Chapter 13: A Rough Night In Jail, 117,
Chapter 14: It's God — No, It's The Drunken Cue Caller, 122,
Chapter 15: And The Lucky Winner Is ..., 127,
Chapter 16: Rock-A-Bye-Baby, 131,
Chapter 17: Accused Of Murder, 135,
Chapter 18: Stranded, 140,
Chapter 19: The Shrinking Door, 144,
Chapter 20: Caution: This Medication May Make You Drowsy. Do Not Mix With Alcohol Or Operate Heavy Equipment, 146,
Chapter 21: Race For The Coke, 149,
Chapter 22: Feeding Frenzy, 157,
Chapter 23: The Party, 162,
Chapter 24: Big Shots, 170,
Chapter 25: Curtain Call, 177,
Chapter 26: It's Who You Know, 181,
Chapter 27: That's One Butt-Ugly Picture, 186,
Chapter 28: My African Prince, 190,
Chapter 29: Just Say "No", 195,
Chapter 30: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, 201,
Prologue, 219,

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