In a previous post, I told of how stagehands are actually placed in potential danger by having to work a gig where the Secret Service is involved. I finished the post by promising I would tell a few stories about working when the Russian KGB had been involved.
After the Revolution, one of the first department that Lenin established was the Cheka, a system of spies, based on the Okhragna, the Tsars’ Secret Police. Over the years it underwent many refinements and various names; but the mission was always the same, spy on foreign governments, spy on the citizens of the Soviet Republic. The KGB was the Soviet Secret Police from 1954 to the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was not dissolved, just reorganized, broken down into several departments, the most prominent being the GRU.
In the days of the Cold War, a time when America did not trust a Russian dictator, let alone have a president who is a BBF with a Russian dictator, especially one who is an ex- KGB honcho, an attempt was made to lessen potential conflict by conducting a Cultural Exchange between the two countries.
Russia was known for it’s great classic ballets companies, and Americans were anxious to see these companies. There was one problem though, defections of the Russian ballet stars, especially the strong male leads like Nureyev, who defected in Paris, Baryshnikov, who defected in Toronto, Godunov, who defected in New York. All three became premier ballet stars in the United States. These three defections, plus the deflections of other prominent Soviets, were major embarrassments to the KGB, who had been responsible to see defections did not happen.
It was standard practice that KGB agents accompanied any one who might consider defecting. In the case of ballet companies, some agents posed as ‘translators’ or aides to help the performers in a strange country. Some were designated bodyguards to prevent the artists from harm. And more important to the Kremlin to prevent the artists from harming themselves by even thinking of defection. These agents were also helped by snitches such as another dancer or maybe stagehand or wardrobe person trying to gain favor.
In my story of Jimmy Mac and the KGB, the wardrobe mistress was a snitch.
Jimmy Mac was a full time University police who picked up extra money by working stagehand calls. Jimmy was a good worker, quick to learn, and fun to have around. If Jimmy had anything against him, it was his need to talk – and talk – and talk.
The story took place during the IN, (setup), of a Russian ballet at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. Jim was in props, one of three hands that carried wardrobe trunks to the dressing rooms. They were running late, not because they weren’t working hard; but because the trunks had to be carried up one or two flights of stairs to the dressing rooms. I tried to explain the difficulty right away in the morning to the production manager. I suggested adding another man to the crew, two teams doing the heavy work. But to no avail.
There was the right way, the wrong way, and the Russian way. We always earned our money the hard way, working with the comrades back in the day.
‘Nyet!’ Nyet!’ That was the Russian middle-management’s favorite word. Sadly, the blue-collar Russians’ favorite word was vodka, which was their substitute for water to quench their thirst.
Normally I would have also questioned having an odd man crew. Two humping the trunks, and what does the third man do, stand by and clap? In this case it worked out because the third man took the trunks on the landing and dragged them into the dressing rooms. Every half hour one of the carriers took over as the dragger.
Another drawback to the whole operation was the absence of castors on any trunks or boxes. Work was cheap in the USSR and casters were viewed by the bosses as capitalistic extravagances. It was several years of working Russian shows before casters made an appearance on boxes. Then when they did appear, the Russians were so proud of ‘having invented’ such a labor-saving device.
These difficulties we experienced working with the Soviets were not present working with the Red Chinese on their touring shows. The Chinese were actually fun to work with, always smiling, good stagehands, willing to take advice. If they did have any people comparable to the KGB, they were well hidden. For instance, the translators were translators, American citizens that were recruited out of Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York.
Anyway, back to Jimmy Mac. He was dragging the last of the trunks into a dressing room when a dancer, who had just arrived, thanked him in English. That was all Jim needed to set him talking. And the dancer was anxious to try out her English. He asked her questions about her life in Russia and her dancing career, and in turn told her about his life in Minneapolis. Harmless. Innocent. Just two people being friendly.
Until the wardrobe mistress stormed in the room. ‘Nyet! Nyet!’ She pointed her finger to show Jim the way out and then turned on the dancer. Jim said he could hear the old woman shouting and the dancer crying as he ran down the stairs. past one of the bodyguards who came running up the stairs.
It wasn’t much longer that I got called into Eddie Drake’s office. Eddie was the #2 man in the Concerts and Lectures Department. The office was crowded. There was Eddie and five of the ‘translators’ plus the wardrobe mistress. One of the translators was actually legit and he had been relaying the episode of what Jimmy Mac had done and the Russia demands to Eddie.
The translator spoke to me in a calm voice, unlike the loud voices of the other Russians in the room. Basically, we had been ordered not to talk to any of the dancers and Jimmy had broken that rule. The story was that the dancer was so upset by Jimmy trying to talk to her she would be unable to dance in the night’s performance. She must have really been upset, because she didn’t dance in any of the performances. She never came back into the theater. It wasn’t like she couldn’t be replaced. She was not a lead, just a member of the dance chorus. What mattered was the mere fact she talked with an American was a threat in the eyes of the KGB.
Eddie took over talking to me. He said that they had been demanding that Jimmy Mac be fired right away and not be allowed to work anymore on this ballet. Eddie asked if that would be a problem for me. He knew darn well that I would never fire a good hand for just doing what Jimmy had done. And I knew if I refused to fire Jim, Eddie would have backed me up. He didn’t like working with the Russians anymore than I did, and he wasn’t about to be ordered around by visitors to ‘his’ theater.
I assured him that there would be no problem. What I didn’t mention was Jim done working the ballet anyway. He didn’t have the seniority to work the performances, and he wasn’t able to work the Out; because he would be working his regular shift as a U cop the night of the Out. I said the big cut down to the performance crew would come in less than an hour, and I would give the news to Jim at that time.
‘Nyet! Nyet!’ the big guy who seemed to be in charge, demanded it be done right away.
‘Nyet, yourself,’ I told him. I said I woulparking lot afd dismiss Jim at the cut. Whew, if looks could kill! He gave a look, and I could tell he wasn’t used to being told ‘nyet’ by anyone he considered his inferior. I decided I better walk to the ter the show with my hammer in my hand.
‘Don said he would take care of it at the cut,’ Eddie said, ‘Now that we have taken care of this silly matter, please go. I have work to do!’
They left. The big guy made sure we heard his stomping as he left, and the wardrobe woman shot me a dirty look as she went out the door. I stayed. Eddie went to his cabinet and came back with two water glasses half filled with vodka. Eddie wasn’t drinking vodka because of the Russians being there. He always drank vodka, thinking nobody would smell it on his breath and suspect he drank on the job. Nobody suspected, everybody knew; but Eddie was the best at doing the tough job.
I explained to him why I didn’t argue about firing Jim. He replied he thought as much. I told him that I would tell Jim what happened and he should stay away from Northrop as much as possible until the show left.
Jim was shocked that something so harmless created such a fuss. I mentioned I bet the dancer wouldn’t be back to Northrop and maybe even be sent back to Russia in a day or so.
‘Nah,’ Jim disagreed. ‘It wasn’t that big a thing. I’ll go to the big muckey-muck and tell him what happened was all my fault. I’ll get her off the hook.’
‘Now you won’t!’, I ordered him, ‘Leave things as they are. You’ll never get them to listen and you’ll only do more harm than good.’
And I asked him not to let any of the Russians recognize him when he is on patrol. He promised to keep his cap on and not to get out of the car if possible. Besides, he pointed out, his shifts were all at night. The he asked in a low voice if causing this trouble would hurt him getting work with the union.
I just laughed. ‘Nyet. Where do you think we are, Jim? In Russia?’
And that’s a wrap for now.
Next up: THE KGB & THE CELLIST