There's an old joke. The stagehand has a son. One day the son tells his father that when he grows up, he wants to be a stagehand, too. "Son, it's going to be one or the other. You can't do both." -- retold by Martin Blacker, head carpenter (foreman) for the traveling crew with Happy Days -- A New Musical.
Happy Days has come to Houston, its entire world -- sans actors -- arriving in four huge semis that parked at the docks at the Hobby Center, brought here by Theatre Under the Stars. It takes the crews that Blacker runs nine to ten hours to unload and really, what they're so happy about here in Houston is the size of the Hobby means they don't have to reload (another three hours) each night.
The atmosphere behind stage is purposeful, increasingly busy as it gets closer to show time, and playful. There's Blacker trying to give an interview and repeatedly co-workers come up to point out his new Mohawk. Nine years ago, Blacker, then an actor, came to the United States from Sydney, Australia and now he works very long days in a transient life that he says he enjoys to the max.
At the same time, he warns that "it's a very dangerous business that you can't take too lightly. We move this, do that, trying to make sure no one gets hurt." Furniture may be on stage five or ten minutes before it's moved off again. Sometimes heavy hanging signs head south at unexpected and undesirable moments.
Alan Coats is the production stage manager. He makes sure everything, including the laundry detergent, is onboard as they set out across the country and that all the costumes are packed and labeled. He and Blacker talk of "creating a machine" -- something that works so smoothly that no one notices how many people are working to support the actors onstage.
They travel with more than 250 lights. Coats came through here two years ago with Camelot, and at other times Jesus Christ, Superstar and Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan so he's no stranger to Houston.
Gary Domasin is the hair supervisor who redoes the wig for Sandra DeNise, who plays Pinky Tuscadero, every day. "Pinky does a lot of dancing and her hair tends to fall," Domasin says. A wig dryer rumbling behind him, Domasin has been traveling with the show since it hit the road last November. Not only does he have to manage her wig, but the two microphones that he wedges in underneath it. Since he has more than 20 wigs to manage, he gets local help for each show.
Every night cast members turn in their laundry and an involved grid keeps track of what is whose. Nearby, Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor Lorna Lombardo deals with the breakage. One character's dramatic slides across stage tend to wear out the fabric in his pants and she's stitched and restitched them.
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They're already working on how they could take the show out to other towns in the future, the ones that don't have the storage space or the stage that the Hobby boasts. What lights will have to be cut, what pieces of furniture could be left behind?
"It's all about time and space," Blacker says. "It's all about physics."
For more from behind the scenes at Happy Days, click here for a slideshow.