Copyright 1998, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


Almost all of showbiz happens offstage. The actual performance is the tip of a very large iceberg of tryouts, phone calls, rehearsals, meetings, gripe sessions, and travel time. This is true for films, TV, radio, commericals, voice-over, and live stage. It's also true for those "casual" jobs entertainers get: corporate conventions, weddings, parties. No matter what part of the business you're in, you spend almost all your working hours doing something other than performing for an audience.

I once worked up a series of piano recitals and found I'd rehearsed ten hours for every hour onstage. I groused about this to a friend who'd spent years in live theatre, and she snorted, "Ten? More like fifty for a play." A model told me the average worker in her business must go to one hundred auditions, or "calls," for every commercial she gets. (Of course, a national TV ad can make your nut for the year, so maybe it's worth it.) A voice-over artist - who narrates books, industrial films, and the like - moved to Hollywood from New York. I asked her how many calls she went to, per job, in The Big Apple. "About five." And in Hollywood? "More like twenty-five."

Many shows require actors to spend hours each day putting on elaborate makeup. Most TV and film productions involve endless waiting while crews set up the next shot. Radio deejays have a rule of thumb: one to two hours of prep for every hour on the air (and most on-air time involves sitting while the CDs spin).

I perform with "Larry Wilson and his Hellhounds," a wacky illusion show that spoofs the conventions of magic. Instead of sultry mood music, you're blasted with Jimi Hendrix and The Who. In place of gorgeous, slinky female assistants, Larry has a couple of unshaven oafs dressed in moving-van jumpsuits, or surgical gowns, or gorilla suit and ballerina tutu. (It's that sort of show.) Rather than cut a beautiful woman in two, Larry slices a dorky nurse into six pieces. Instead of artfully executed effects, Larry allows the audience to see the hidden assistant behind the prop. The troupe plays often in the Southland, especially at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Recently we performed for a corporate audience in Orange County. The show itself took forty-five minutes; travel time, prop set-up, rehearsals, and waiting around took fourteen hours. (It's that sort of business.)

Larry and I loaded the heavy props into the rental van around noon. It had poured rain the previous days, but that day a gap opened in the weather, and we tooled down the San Diego Freeway under crystal-blue skies. After fifty miles we arrived in Irvine, found our way to the service dock behind the posh hotel, and laboriously unloaded and assembled the props backstage. The other players arrived and helped out. A quick lighting rehearsal, and we were ready. It was 5:45 p.m. The show was set for 8:30.

Our audience were the employees of a large software concern. Tonight was their big awards ceremony, and our grand task was to produce - surprise! - out of nowhere their CEO. For this we "set the story" by placing a gorgeous woman - okay, Larry DOES have one of those in the show - inside a waist-high wooden box. When the box opens again, out steps boss instead of babe. (So to speak.)

We waited in our hospitality suite, overeating from the large buffet spread. 8:30 came and went, then 9:00, then 9:30. Awards take longer to hand out than people expect. We took bets on whether they'd cancel our show. Finally 10:30 rolled around, and we went on.

The show was running smoothly despite the potential for miscues in a one-night gig. The audience laughed at the right spots, but we could tell they were exhausted from the night's festivities: things could turn ugly if we goofed up. Finally, the big moment: she goes into the box, boss pops out. And HE'S in DRAG. (Long story, doesn't bear repeating. Has to do with their software promotional campaign, and... never mind.) Wild applause.

We broke down the props in record time; the other players, schedules shot to hell, hurried to their car and disappeared into the night. Larry and I reloaded the props into the van. We escaped around 12:45 a.m.

As we turned onto the freeway, a funny whine erupted from the front wheels, or maybe from the engine. It went away; we relaxed. It came back; we got tense. Then it went away. Then it came back. Larry said, "The engine's heating up." I looked: the water gauge was edging toward the red. Outside, the air was in the fifties. That arrow was a bad sign.

I said, "Maybe you should turn the heater up full-blast. That might take some pressure off the engine." Larry flipped the settings, but only cool air issued. I put my hand against the engine cowling where it juts into the cab: it was cold. Hmm.

"I think we should pull off and check this out," I said. "Try Cherry Avenue. I remember some all-night gas stations there." Larry nodded.

The engine made a popping sound, then another. Larry said, "We're in the red." I glanced over: the idiot light was on.

"Better get off at Lakewood," I suggested.

"I can't do a thing. The engine's dead." The van was slowing. Larry pulled over toward the shoulder, which disappeared inconveniently at an overpass, so that the van came to a halt in the exit lane. Smoke issued from the engine, along with a bad smell.

"We better push the van back onto the shoulder," somebody said. We jumped out. The smoke was getting lively. Larry put one hand on the steering wheel, one on the door frame. He said, "Push!" I pushed. Larry said, "Ow!" I stopped pushing. Larry said, "You just ran over my foot!" I said, "What? Are you okay?" He said, "I can move my toes. Let's get this off the freeway before we get killed."

We backed the van up until it was fairly safe, then reached inside for our personal stuff. The engine was smoking merrily, and we figured it'd be really smart to have our bags outside should the van decide to go up in flames. Larry said, "I can't believe it. The tire went over my foot." I said, "You told me to push." He said, "Well... yeah. I didn't realize how close the wheel was." I said, "Did it go over your arch?" He said, "No, just over here," and pointed to his toes. I said, "I guess toes can take a lot of pressure."

Larry used the convenient yellow emergency phone to call AAA. I watched. He said, "Look behind for oncoming cars! There might be a drunk out there who thinks he should follow the van." I said, "Watching will only give us time to scream before we die." Larry said, "Maybe we'll have a chance to outrun the van if it gets hit from behind." I nodded, what the heck, and watched for cars.

Those freeway phones work just fine, but it takes time to process the call. I got bored of watching headlights and turned to check on Larry's progress. He said, "Hey! Watch for crazies!" Okay, okay. I went back to guard duty.

Finally the call was completed, and we walked well away from the van to await the tow truck. The van's engine kept smoking, but it was losing enthusiasm. Larry said, "I specifically asked the rental agency to give me a van in good running order." What, they're not all in good condition? "Lately they're getting worse. They tried to talk me into renting a more expensive one, but I said, 'Just give me one that works.' They said, 'These may look clunky, but they're all in good shape.'"

I said, "Apparently they were misinformed."

A gigantic tow truck arrived. The driver asked, "What's in the van?" Larry said, "Magic props. We just did a show in Orange County." The driver asked, "How much do you think it weighs?" I'm thinking, maybe a ton. Larry said, "Oh, not much." The driver quickly got the van ramped up and lashed to the giant flatbed, and we climbed into the truck's cab for the ride to the rental agency. I soon learned there were no passenger seatbelts. No belts for a guy who always wears them is a sudden adventure: as the big Freightliner accelerated onto the freeway, I achieved vertigo.

We made it safely to the agency by 2:30 a.m. The tow-truck driver rolled the van onto the parking lot. Larry left a note on its windshield. A night-owl friend arrived to give us a lift back to Larry's house. At his digs we drank tea and ate snacks and wondered how much worse the night would have been... had it rained.

So you see: most of showbiz takes place offstage.


If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you. jimhull@jimhull.com



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