BITS and PIECES # 44

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March 7, 2014 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 44

Hello again from Luquillo,
I know, I know — weeks passed by without a new story and now another one so quickly after the last one appeared last week — I confess to having had a nice memory suddenly tickle my synapses, along with a sudden urge to write it down before it faded away — writing is like that sometimes (at least for me)…

At any rate, here’s a story about my ‘backstage’ experiences as a young fellow, and how an unlikely ‘mentor’ taught me some nifty tricks of his trade — and a few life-lessons along the way…

Enjoy!

BACKSTAGE!

Ralph Gallagher calls into question the accepted characteristics of a role model for a nine year old boy — and yet, he was firmly emplaced on my short-list of such mentors…

Mr. Gallagher was a retired ‘Head Gaffer’ — a chief electrician responsible for the design and execution of the lighting plans for motion picture productions. After over thirty years of devoted labor, facilitating the production of hundreds of memorable films for top studios such as RKO, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MGM, Mr. Gallagher retired with what money he had managed to save over the years, augmented by a minimal pension from his labor union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He became an associate life member of the Masquers, a Hollywood film actor’s club that occupied a former mansion on Sycamore Avenue two blocks above Hollywood boulevard near the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater…

A confirmed bachelor, he spent many mornings at the club’s downstairs bar, downing boilermakers (a shot of rye whiskey with a beer chaser), while studying the racing form…

His essential skills were regularly resurrected whenever he was asked to function as the Masquers de-facto stage manager/lighting director/electrician — in other words, as good luck would have it, he managed to re-establish his hard-earned ‘Head Gaffer’ credentials, putting them to good use once again backstage at the club’s theater…

His deeply lined face, wispy brown hair, ruddy complexion whose centerpiece was a bulbous, red-veined nose, gave Mr. Gallagher an inebriate, slightly melancholy demeanor resembling that of comedian W.C. Fields in his declining years. Mr. Gallagher was characteristically clad in a soiled and wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, worn over an equally work-stained pair of chino pants, and black leather, crepe-soled work shoes…

Doesn’t’ sound like typical ‘role model’ material so far, does he? Allow me to continue…

In those bygone days, the Masquers Club had a moderately sized proscenium stage at the front of a large room that could be alternately set-up as a dinner theater (with tables and chairs) or as an auditorium seating around 200 theatergoers…

My father, a charter member of the club, (he served two terms as ‘Harlequin’, the Masquers equivalent of club president) was often involved in the club’s stage productions as playwright, director, and occasional performer, I enthusiastically accompanied him to afternoon rehearsals on weekends. Fascinated by the mystic sphere of play production, I gravitated backstage, the better to see for myself how it was all done — and thus I stumbled into Mr. Gallagher’s world, becoming his ‘shadow’, dogging his heels while he concocted and arranged the rigging and lighting schemes for each production — tenaciously clambering-up behind him on the lofty (and very rickety) stepladder he used to climb into the ‘fly gallery’ (more about that presently)…

The proscenium platform was not large, but it contained all the arcane mechanical devices necessary for successful stagecraft; a sort of bridge over the stage (out of sight of the audience) made of metal tubing and wooden laths (called a ‘fly loft’, upon which were attached vital rigging components such as lines (both hemp and wire ropes), blocks (pulleys), hoisting winches, battens, belaying pins, counterweights and so on, that enable the stage crew (Mr. Gallagher, and later-on me, when I had ‘learned the ropes, so to speak) to quickly and safely ‘fly’ (hoist) the lights, scenery, special effects and, of course, the stage curtain…

Once Mr. Gallagher had gotten past his initial impatience at my hovering presence, he capitulated totally — he turned out to be an exceptional ‘over the shoulder’ lecturer – as his ‘pupil’, I slowly picked-up the language (and even a few of the skills) of his esoteric profession, enjoying myself immensely.
I only incurred a few minor catastrophes — once, I failed to properly secure a counterweighted hemp line, causing the curtain to fall in the middle of a scene — fortunately this mishap occurred during a rehearsal!

Mr. Gallagher seldom lost his equanimity when I faltered, never admonishing me, instead patiently reviewing his inviolable ‘rigging rules’ until they became second nature to me…

Fortuitously, my newly acquired knowledge of lines, blocks, winches, belaying pins and so forth, gave me a ‘leg-up’ in later years when I began to work on sailing vessels, at first as a hobby and later as a professional…

My backstage activities also gave me the opportunity to watch from a very special vantage point as famous players performed on the Masquers stage — for example, in 1949, when I had just turned fourteen, I returned backstage to help Mr. Gallagher once more — this time for the Masquers production of ‘What Price Glory?’ with a star-studded cast including John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Hara, Oliver Hardy, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Rod Cameron, and Forrest Tucker. It was mesmerizing to watch them deliver their lines a few feet from where I stood, transfixed, and then to be able to overhear their (often ribald) comments when they stepped off-stage…

Alas, my blossoming ‘career’ as a ‘gaffer’ came to an end when I discovered girls and a few other intervening distractions, but the respect and affection I developed for Mr. Gallagher and his unconditional acceptance of me as his stage crew apprentice, and the important lessons he taught me about striving for excellence in a difficult craft have remained with me ever since…

In later years, I had some more exciting ‘backstage’ adventures, but that’s another story for another day…

© 2014 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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