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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Workers with International Alliance of the Theatrical Stage Employees Local 146 unload gear at Foellinger Theatre.

  • Bolting frames to the lights are, from left, Tom Sheppard, Jim McCray and Dan Hinen.

  • Darian Yeager, left, and Richard Clark unload a semi in preparation for last month's ZZ Top concert.

Thursday, June 22, 2017 1:00 am

Unknown workforce

Local union sets stage for multitude of performances

Cody Thompson | The Journal Gazette

They begin to unload the semitrailer at precisely 10 a.m. It's packed to the ceiling with lights, speakers, sound boards and wires.

Men bark orders as they start to wheel out the supplies – “Downstage center! Upstage right!”

But they barely need the directions. They've done this before. They've done this countless times.

They're the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 146, a union responsible for the setup and tear-down of hundreds of theatrical shows in Fort Wayne and a surrounding 65-mile radius every year. While the union is made up of mostly men, there are women members, as well.

Some places such as Embassy Theatre have to use the union because they're under contract. Other venues, like Grand Wayne Center or Memorial Coliseum, use them for all their rigging.

“It's extremely interesting,” says Ralph Graft, president of Local 146. “The people you meet, the shows you set up – it's all interesting.”

On this day in late May, they are at Foellinger Theatre setting up for the rock band ZZ Top. They are equipping massive trusses with lights and wires, cracking jokes sometimes with profane language, but still moving like clockwork.

It makes sense – the local chapter has been around for 109 years. But its business agent, Mike Barile, calls it the unknown workforce.

“It's an interesting industry,” Barile says. “A lot of people don't even know you exist.”

Barile, whose father also held the title of business agent, started at the job in 1974. For a while, it was only his part-time job to make some extra money, but it's been a full-time gig for a while now.

He's done shows for Special Olympics, Nickelback and the Rolling Stones to name a few. One eventually becomes jaded to the stars, he said.

As he gets older, he cares less who they are preparing the stage for.

“Just give me the check,” Barile says.

Graft still recalls one of his star-studded experiences fondly. It was his first show when he was just 17 years old.

He was setting up for Betty Grable, the actress, pin-up girl, dancer and singer. They were warned ahead of time that she was difficult to work with. But Graft found the opposite to be true. A fan wanted to give her a bouquet of flowers and was stopped by security. He called to Graft, asking if he could bring Grable out.

When Graft went to get Grable, she told him to bring the man into her room so he could give her the flowers. He said he was very surprised by it all.

That was back in the early 1970s.

The day of the ZZ Top show, it takes them nine minutes to unload the first semi. Men use chains on trusses with multicolored lights to raise them high above the stage. The trusses have wires and ropes tangled all around them.

“Truss goin' up,” Eric Perry calls out.

Perry, who appears much younger than the rest of the crew, is the production electrician at SLS Production Services, based in Portage, Michigan. ZZ Top rented out their stage equipment through SLS, so some of its employees were assisting IATSE.

He is one of the men calling orders to the others when they enter the stage from the loading door. The two groups work seamlessly together, often sharing stories and laughs while laboring.

IATSE has different departments. They have riggers, carpenters, electricians, props and wardrobe. SLS has similar positions. Graft points to one of the SLS employees. He has tattoos, long hair and silver hooped earrings that would go unnoticed by most.

Graft said they were miniature screw pin ankle shackles. The larger, real versions are used to rig up trusses and other objects. 

“That's how you know he's a rigger,” Graft says of the earrings.

Setting up Foellinger Theatre for this performance isn't difficult, Graft says. He expects it to take about four hours.

The setup is standard, unlike some shows whose set pieces can vary.

He recalled “Les Miserables” at Embassy Theatre. In the end, there were only a few inches of stage to spare on either side of a massive turntable. There wouldn't be room for a set larger than that on the stage.

Back at Foellinger, the crew is moving fast. Most of the members are between 45 and 50, Barile says, but they don't complain. Graft says several of them are retired.

One member, Jeffery Berndt, sits down on a chair for a quick break. He takes some deep breaths.

He says their organization is getting fewer jobs because vendors are more likely to hire workers they can pay at minimum wage. He says many vendors consider the union to be too expensive. 

Berndt says it should be about more than the dollar sign, because the union will get the job done faster and better than anyone a vendor tried to hire off the street. But, he says, vendors are opting for the cheaper option.

“We're a dying breed,” he says.

cthompson@jg.net