Managing a House for 50,000 People
"Tiffany to Don."
The terrible analogue radio crackles in my left ear.
"This is Don. Go."
I'm on the southwest end of the park. It's hot. Really hot. Hot enough that one begins to question the sanity of standing out here, wearing all black, amidst 11,000 people listening to a world-class orchestra play Tchaikovsky. Tiffany is one of my 50 ushers. She has encountered an older couple who came out to the park to hear the music yet hadn't really thought through the difficulties of being post-70 years of age in heat that can only be described as Global Warming Hot as Balls HOT. The gentlemen is so overheated that he can no longer walk. They need a wheelchair.
"Copy that. I'm on my way."
I walk quickly to the Welcome Center on Randolph, check out a wheelchair, then navigate the unwieldy thing through throngs of casual walkers around to the east side of the the stage. It takes me around eight minutes and I'm sweating like I'd been in the volcano room at King Spa. The old man sits in the chair after navigating the fear of just falling on his ass while sitting down. They need to go to their car in the parking garage.
Tiffany shrugs. "I don't drive. I don't know the parking garage."
"I got it," I say with a forced smile.
I wheel the man and his wife through the bowels of the building. We get to the elevator and they can't quite remember what floor they parked on. They left their ticket in the car. We sit for a moment, as the garage is huge and the prospect of finding their vehicle with no concept of even what floor (of the seven levels) it is on is an impossible task.
"It's on three."
"How sure are you?"
"I'm pretty sure it's on three."
We go to three. No idea what section (3A? 3B? 3C? Jesus Christ…) they give me a description of the car and a license plate number and we set out through each aisle, each row, looking for the car. Thirty-five minutes later — with frequent radio calls for assistance that I direct while seeking an end to the labyrinthian journey I'm on — I spy their ride. They are relieved and thrilled. So am I.
The wife wants to tip me and offers me a dollar. I politely decline and send them on their way. I return just as the concert ends and just in time to set up the two recycling bins in the arcade for the ushers to dispose of the now outdated programs leftover from the weekend.
"So, what do you do?"
It's a frequent question as the term House Manager is like Events Consultant — amorphous and ever-changing based upon the needs of the room and the client.
When I worked as the House Manager for NPR's Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me! between 2007–2017, the job I inherited was vastly different than the one I left. The show was still sort of finding it's legs audience-wise and I came in on a standard taping. Rod, the senior producer at the time, told me, "Just watch how we're doing things and then make a list of things you could change to make it better experience for the audience."
I came in the next morning with five typed pages. I handed it to him, he handed it back without even looking up.
"Do this," he said.
So, for WWDTM, the House Management job developed into:
- Redesigning and ordering program booklets (a set up from the one-sheet being used in 2007)
- Redesigning and utilizing a more efficient ticketing program (I finally settled on Eventbrite and became so accomplished at gaming their system to accommodate our specific needs, Eventbrite flew me out to San Francisco to give a lecture on it.)
- Redesigning and creating a merchandise shop (the 2007 model involved radio producers jumping out of the booth with a few cardboard boxes of t-shirts and mugs after the show) and eventually working directly with NPR to make better and cooler merch to sell. In the decade I was there, the Carl Kasell Bowling Shirts were my favorite and I still have one that I wear.
- Working with Chase Bank to create a streamlined line-up process for ticket-holders and a fun way to get them from the streets to the seats and back again.
- Recruiting and organizing a staff of 20-60 volunteers to help staff each taping.
And then there were all the day-to-day details to contend with — helping audience members in distress (I recall at least three people having heart attacks during a taping and getting EMS to help without interrupting the show), assisting celebrity guests with their specific needs (a vegan dinner for Mobey, helping Denis Leary find a corner to smoke in without leaving the bank, ushering Tom Hanks through the belly of the bank to get him to his car and avoid the fan throngs), and making sure the cast and crew had everything they needed to get the show done without interference.
According to the folks who worked it last year, the Mariachi Fest was a shitshow. The organizer is a great guy but sees the festival as a big party rather than an event and his process is less administrative than something that brings out 20,000 patrons can handle. The story goes that last year, he gave out more VIP seats than exist in the park (there are 4,000 seats in the Seating Bowl) and the scene even prior to the music starting was chaotic. So chaotic that the House Manager last pulled all of the ushers out of the Seating Bowl for their safety.
I spent hours asking those who worked it questions. From the backstage crew to the ushers to security guards to performers. My task was how to help the organizer be more organized with (or, as was the case, without) his buy-in.
At it's core, the job is to make sure that the preponderance of attendees to each park event has a good experience. Recognizing that no one comes to a Blues Fest or a Gospel Fest with the intent of having a shitty time and fucking with the staff. Creating a platform that is both highly organized yet seems effortless from their vantage.
Folded into my work on the Mariachi Fest included craftily limiting the VIP seat availability, staffing willing ushers (many who worked it last year refused to work it this year) in that section to ensure that VIP felt like VIP, going online to the festival Faceborg page and correcting the almost non-stop steam of misinformation, and working with all parties in the park to make sure we were all on the same page. Luckily, there are some terribly smart cookies on the DCASE staff to collaborate with, a fact that gave us a focused team vibe.
All of the behind the scenes work paid of. In the end, 18,000 people spent the day and night in the park enjoying, dancing to, and singing along with the fun, exciting strains of mariachi trumpets, violins, drums and singers. The organizer even thanked me for being such a pain in his ass and commented that it was the smoothest it had ever gone.
"Congrats on working security at festivals."
It was designed to be a dig from a toxic asshole who makes a living as a babysitter. The thing that was funny was that the folks who work security at Millennium Park work hard and have one of the most thankless jobs I've ever witnessed. By comparison, my gig is far more rewarding. I have nothing but respect for the security in the park, especially this year as the CPD and the City has finally enforced a heightened security presence due to the increase in societal polarity, which has manifested in assholes with guns and a desire for posthumous glory.
All that aside [places respect for the security team I've worked with all summer over here on a chair], the role of House Manager is not one of policing the audience (although some revel in the power). It is more like the party host or the maître d' of the night. On the smaller scale of WWDTM, I often saw my role as the buffer between the talent and the fans, the show and those there to appreciate it. Protect the cast, help the crew, assist the patrons in their pursuit of a grand night out.
When it comes to the GPMF and DCASE, there are far too many balls in the air for even me to keep track of which is why this gig is as much about the managing of the house and staff as it is about constant and clear communication across multiple departments. A park the size of Millennium and a stage as utilized as the Pritzker requires a lot of people to make the damn place run.
It's about 45 minutes until the orchestra starts and I'm walking around (this particular job requires a lot of walking at least the way I go about it) checking in with the 28 ushers on staff for the night, making sure the collateral for the event is displayed correctly and keeping an eye on the flow of audience when I spy a woman breastfeeding behind the stage.
She is doing it out of sight and is surrounded by garbage tubs.
"Excuse me. Would you like to breastfeed your kid in a place that isn't full of trash cans? I'm happy to put you backstage where it's air conditioned, private and not so gross."
She smiles and tells me that would be great. So I take her backstage, get her a chair and tell the security guard on duty that she has permission to be there. Then I make sure she's good and head back out into the park.
I like this kind of work. It's physically demanding, there's always something to do or a problem to solve. I'm exhausted by the end of a typical 12-hour shift and I've earned my sleep each time. I get to talk to hundreds of random people each night from all walks of life as they come to a place of community and beauty and cultural magnitude.
I get paid to listen to unbelievably talented musicians of every type of music and, while it can be difficult at times, I'm tremendously happy to be doing it. I work with 50 ushers I've hired, do their payroll every two weeks, schedule them and watch some of them flourish in the experience.
Will I always be doing this work? I dunno but I'm satisfied to be doing it right now, in Chicago, the Summer of 2018.