The death of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, reminded me of the time I worked a speech she gave in Minneapolis for the Chamber of Commerce. She was on an American tour, giving a 45 minute speech to any group that would pay her 70 thou and expenses. In addition to her private bodyguards, she was assigned a Secret Service agent to coordinate with the local police.
I was the crew chief for the set up and one of the spot operators on the show. When I left for supper, the Secret Service asked me who would be running the spot lights. I told him myself and Paddy Ryan. Ryan met me in the lobby at half hour and rather than going to the main floor, we just went straight to the grid work where the spot lights were located.
We had just started up the instruments, put on the headsets, and were sitting on the stools, when the Secret Service agent came up behind me, and two plain clothes cops were walking the catwalk toward Pat Ryan.
“What gives?’ the agent asked me. “You told me the other operator was going to be a woman named Patty.”
I raised my hands and tried to explain to him that I had said the name was Paddy, not Patty, d’s not t’s. He asked what kind of stupid name was Paddy. I told him it was a common nickname for an Irishman named Patric.
When I mentioned Irish, he got excited. He asked if Pat could be an I.R.A. gunman. I told him Pat was of Irish blood and was born and lived in Minneapolis, never traveled further than the race track, that I never heard Pat talk politics, and I doubted if he ever held a gun, let alone, fired one. “Heck,” I mouthed off, “I don’t think he could even spell, I.R.A..”
“Smart ass,” he muttered. Then he got on his radio and told the two cops he thought everything was okay, but he told them that one should stay close to Ryan and the other come back and stay close to me. Then he stomped off. When the affair was over and Pat and I went down to the stage, Thatcher, the cops, and thank goodness, the Secret Service agent had already left the building.
One of the dangers of being a stagehand is having to work around rent-a-cops, rock and roll bodyguards, local cops, and the Secret Service agents. A Secret Service agent is dynamite in a nice suit. Be they be big or small, they are tough and know some mean martial arts. They all carry guns and know how to shoot them. They take their jobs very seriously and most have no sense of humor. In short, if I had to work with the Secret Service around, I wanted them on my side.
A sad example of this potential danger happened to Dusty, a hand from Madison. Dusty was in the Dallas convention hall helping set up lighting for Gil Hemsley, a well known lighting designer. When they finished for the day, somebody mentioned that President Nixon was in the next hall giving a speech. Dusty had never seen a president and decided to go into the next hall.
It was in the 70’s. A time when long hair was in fashion for young men, and was often associated with the anti-war movement. Dusty had a very long pony tail, and was also wearing shorts and a rock and roll tee shirt. He stepped out the side door in the hall he was working, All he had to do was walk across the nonpublic hallway and open the side door the hall where the president was about to give a speech. He never made it.
Two Secret Service agents got him before he could open the door to the next hall. Dusty was carrying a crescent wrench that Gil had given him for Christmas. The wrench was bad enough, but it had a knife that swung out of the handle. After the two agents were done with Dusty, they turned him over to the Dallas police, who were still smarting from the JFK assassination. He spent a night in jail, and then was taken to the hospital for among other things, a broken arm. A public defender convinced a judge that Dusty meant no harm, and there would be nothing said about possible police brutality. He was on next plane back to Madison, minus his pony tail and his crescent wrench, and he vowed he would never vote for Nixon again.
Cliff, a Minneapolis stagehand, tells the story that could have resulted in a bad situation, but didn’t. He had just returned from hunting and he got a phone call from the BA asking him if he could get right down to the Auditorium and run a spotlight. He didn’t tell Cliff anything about the ‘show’, just to get there as fast as possible. Cliff said he drove his car right down the basement of the Auditorium, parked, and ran to the elevator. He said he saw two men, one short, the other tall, wearing suits were standing by the elevator. He went to push the button when the little one grabbed him and pinned him against the wall. He wanted to know where Cliff thought he was going. Cliff tried to explain.
The two men told Cliff they were Secret Service, and that Vice President Humphrey was about to speak upstairs. And, if Cliff was suppose to be on spotlight, they wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing a pin. [Sometimes, when you work where the Secret Service is involved, you are giving a straight pin with the head painted the color of the day that you stick on your shirt.) Cliff explained about getting the hurry-up call, and finally, after a radio call to the stagehand’s room upstairs, the agents believed Cliff, gave him a pin and let him go upstairs. But another agent met Cliff when he got off the elevator and went with him to the spot booth.
Cliff said it was a good thing he never mentioned that he just came from hunting, or that the agents didn’t get around to searching his car. In the rush to get to the call, he hadn’t bothered to take the guns and ammo out of his truck.
In the late 60’s, early 70’s, the Secret Service was hard pressed because of the decade of assassinations, remnants of the Civil Rights Movements, and the division of the country over the Viet Nam War. In 1972, the VFW held their national convention at the Minneapolis Auditorium. The first day, the main speaker was the strongest voice against the war, and the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Senator George McGovern. The second day, the main speaker was the Vice President Spiro Agnew. Both men were highly decorated WWII veterans which was favorable to the VFW. But both men were lighting rods to protestors, a fact that was not appreciated by the VFW. The security was as tight as it could possibly be, both inside and outside the Auditorium. The Republicans were so paranoid about the safety of Spiro Agnew, they even enlisted volunteers from CREEP, which didn’t go well with the professionals like the Secret Service. And I got the gig of being the sound man for the convention!
Like I said, it was the 70’s, and men’s hair was longer than usual and facial hair was common. I had a beard and stash for a short time, and it during this time that I worked the VFW Convention. When one of the officers of the VFW saw that I was going to be the sound man, he went to Mark, the head stagehand of the Auditorium, and demanded that that damn ‘hippie draft dodger’ be sent home and another man found to be the sound operator. Mark assured him that I was a vet with an honorable discharge, and not a ‘hippie draft dodger’.
The sound board was set up in a vomatorium about center of the house. When I went out to the board the first day, there were two Minneapolis policemen and two young men, in expensive suits and red, white, and blue ties, CREEP volunteers, standing in the audience entrance of the vom,. The CREEP boys tried to keep me out; but I was wearing a pass, and the policemen told them I could enter. I had no more than sat down at the board when a well dressed man came into the vom. He introduced himself as a Secret Service agent. His first order was to tell the two CREEP’s to take a position at the door outside of the hall. He then asked if one policeman could stand outside the door and the other inside the door. He looked at my badge, smiled, and asked kiddingly if I had a dangerous weapon hidden in my beard.
There were many speeches before the day’s main speaker, Senator McGovern. All the speeches were welcomed with a lot of loud applause, except the Senator’s. At the end, there was a soft response, in spite of the fact that this man had volunteered for WWII, flew 35 missions over German occupied Europe and had many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. They just didn’t like his political stance. He was led down the center aisle while the band was playing, INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER. The party took a left and eventually came into the vom where I was stationed. By now there were many others in the vom, some with mics, some with cameras.
As the Senator passed by, I stood and held out my hand. He shook it and smiled when I told him I liked his speech. He went out the doors and I turned to sit back at the sound console. A man with a camera was standing on my chair. I gave him a slap on his leg and told him to get off my chair. As he got off, his legs got tangled and he ended up laying on his back on the floor. I looked down at him and asked if he was allowed to stand on the furniture at home. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Secret Service Agent looking at me. After the show, when I went to check out in the stagehands’ room, I kind expected that something would be said about the incident. But nobody said a word about it.
The next day was like the first, except that the main speaker, Spiro Agnew, was received with great applause. I had a terrible time trying to get him heard. He was speaking very low, and I had the volume cranked up as much as I could without causing feedback. Suddenly a man, shouting he was Agnew’s press agent, came at me. He accused me of deliberately sabotaging the speech. I told him to back off and watch. I turned the volume knob up just a hair and feedback went through the house. I backed it off and shouted at the man, “See! Tell your boy to speak up if he wants to be heard! Now get the hell out of here!” He took the hint and left.
The Secret Service agent laid his hand on my shoulder. I turned my head expecting something bad to happened. But he just stood there and shook his head. “Well,” he said, “At least you didn’t knock that guy on his ass like you did to the one yesterday.”
Believe me, I was very happy the agent was one with a sense of humor.
PS: I purposely avoided the spookiest bodyguards of all time, namely the Cold War KGB. They will have their own post at some time.