Stagehands the foundation of Made in America

Jonathan Tortorice was the top official of Local 8 of the stagehands' union on the job.
Jonathan Tortorice was the top official of Local 8 of the stagehands' union on the job. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: September 02, 2014

Nothing stopped stagehand James Pisano, 25, from reporting for work at Made in America for a 5 a.m. call Sunday.

Not his Saturday shift, which ended at 3 a.m. Sunday, just two hours before his start time. Not the 90 minutes of a break that he spent in the hospital with not much of an injured wrist.

"Stagehands heal fast," he joked, waiting backstage to unload one of seven two-ton tractor trailers packed with gear for Sunday night's headliner, Kings of Leon.

Everything about Made in America is big - lots of bands, lots of land, a big crowd, tents, miles of barricades, miles of cable, swarms of workers, many in the trademark black T-shirts and pants that are the mark of the behind-the-scenes crew.

By 6 a.m., Pisano and about 25 other stagehands were trading jokes, lined up on the right side of the main stage single file on a ramp that led to a platform built as high as a warehouse loading dock.

Backed up to the platform were the first three tractor-trailers loaded with gear for Kings of Leon.

The band's production crew worked the insides of the trucks, rolling dollies of refrigerator-size boxes onto the platform, where the stagehands, working in groups of two to four depending on the size of equipment, pushed the dollies up to the stage.

By Sunday morning, hundreds of union stagehands, members of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 8, had been working for more than 10 days, 10 hour shifts lengthening to 12, then to 14 hours, and longer.

As hard as they were working Sunday morning, the big push was over, said Jonathan Tortorice, IATSE Local 8's secretary/treasurer and the top union official on the job.

Under the direction of a production company, union crews started working Aug. 21, on what's called the steel build - the stages and barricades, the tent city. Once that's up, the focus turns to "production" - all the sound and other equipment that makes a concert.

By Sunday morning, the biggest fear was lightning, but the biggest hurdles were heat and fatigue.

Stagehand Eric Lavalley showed up with a backpack at 7 a.m. prepared to work well past midnight. He packed a towel, a complete change of clothing, baby powder, Advil, a raincoat, and a couple extra pairs of socks.

During breaks, some grabbed naps in their cars. Others strung up hammocks under the stage - it didn't matter how loud it was above them.

"It was like a war zone, but I slept right through it," said Nunzio "Butch" Gallo, IATSE stage crew leader at the main Rocky Stage.

Drinking his first Red Bull of the day, Gallo was still smarting from an incident Saturday night with the security staff working for the National and Kanye West. All day, Gallo's stagehands had been working the stage, moving bands in and out and, in between, watching the shows in a spot off to the side in front of the stage - nearby in case they were needed.

But the musicians' security guards told Gallo they didn't want his workers there, and they didn't say it nicely.

"It's atrocious," Gallo said. "We built that stage all day long."

Tempers flared for a moment, but Gallo moved his crew away from the stage as requested. "No matter what," he said, "the show must go on."

By the time the concert was over, the stagehands were back at work, loading out Kanye West's equipment - no hard feelings between Gallo's crew and West's roadies. "It was the smoothest job I've ever been on," Gallo said.

By noon Sunday, nearly everything was done on two stages. Union Teamsters driving forklifts hoisted 8-foot-by-8-foot platforms - already arrayed with drums or keyboards - to a backstage area, ready to be moved to the front at the right time.

"It's showtime," Tortorice said.

For many, exhaustion had settled in like a blanket - the early-afternoon sun hot and relentless, the humidity smothering a breeze hinting at a thunderstorm.

On stage Sunday, Vacationer revved up the crowd, the first big act to perform – loud, raucous, enthusiastic.

Backstage, it was as though all the noise had dropped away - still loud, but irrelevant for Chris "Ice" O'Neill, 38, another stagehand crew leader, and Christine Forbes, 29, a union stagehand, as they held hands for a few minutes and talked, alone in a crowd.

"A year ago today, I asked her to be my girlfriend," O'Neill said. The two still wear the red rubber bracelets issued at last year's Made in America concert, although Forbes has to use safety pins to keep hers on.

"I think it's pretty romantic," she said, but their celebration will have to wait.


BY THE NUMBERS

200

Stagehands.

$479.9

Last year's stagehand payroll in thousands.

9,000

Stagehand and Teamster hours from Aug. 21 to 5 a.m. Sunday.

11

Days to set up.

2

Days to dismantle.


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

www.inquirer.com/jobbing

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