Trucks are as much a staple of today’s show business as computers and exorbitant ticket prices.
The first use of a truck as the sole transportation of a Broadway show was in 1949 when the hit show, Mr. Roberts., went on a national tour. But the transformation of trucks as the prime mover in show business didn’t happen overnight.
The standard method for the moving of scenery and equipment centered around railroads. The traveling shows used horse and wagons and then graduated to trucks to get everything from the theater to the boxcars and from the boxcars to the next theater. Railroads had a made big investments in spurs, side tracks where boxcars could be taken off the main rails and left to sit while they were loaded and unloaded, building them convenient to theater districts in the large cities.
For the most part the system worked, and producers were reluctant to change even though trucks as sole transportation eliminated the cost of double handling and having to book trucks in two cities. It served the major cities of the east and even extended as far west as Chicago. The consensus was they could not sell many tickets in the ‘lesser’ cities, like ‘Peoria’, cities that had no railroad spurs for show business.
The interstate highway system we take for granted today did not begin in earnest in 1956. People might have ‘got their kicks on Route 66’, the main road to the west coast, but their kicks involved a lot of driving on narrow unpaved sections of road and found that gas stations and diners far far apart. Taxing the people for good highways was out of the question, a socialist idea.. Therefore, the winning reason for our interstate highway system was we needed good roads to transport missiles needed to fight the Cold War. And the highway system that changed the face of America was begun… even though the overpasses were too low to allow missiles in transport to pass under.
Also the modern diesel engine that is the standard in the trucking industry wasn’t introduced until 1964. It rapidly replaced the fleets of gasoline straight-trucks with 18 wheelers tractor-trailers which hauled much more freight and cut back on the cost of fuel and drivers.
Clark Transfer, the company that took Mr. Roberts on that first tour, was well established around the Philadelphia area as it had trucked theatrical posters and such for years. TV Guide started in the Philadelphia area and Clark was it’s trucking company to carry the increasingly popular magazine to major cities in the northeast.
The company, after the success of the Mr. Roberts’ tour continued to press the idea of live shows being trucked across the country. In 1954 they had eleven shows on the road. Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls were the big musicals of the day and Clark brought them to cities that would never get them because of the lack of a railroad spur. These tours proved that even the ‘lesser’ cities, like Peoria, were well worth stopping at. Clark also hauled some legit shows, several large ballet companies, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Up to the early 60’s, these tours were basically one truck and one bus. Then there was a big mistake made in the Met Opera Spring Tour. The railroad took the opera sets for Norma to Memphis instead for Atlanta. Clark had trucks with the tour that were used to get the sets to and from the theater to the trains, and Clark came to the rescue. Charlie Hackett, Clark’s main teamster, took a truck to Memphis and brought Norma to the theater in Atlanta and the show opened just a half hour late, a feat that impressed Sir Rudolph Bing, the artistic head of the Met Opera, and Joe Volpe, the head carpenter of the Met, who would go on to replace Rudolph Bing as the Met’s artistic head.
Volpe took two major steps prior to the next tour. He told the railroad ‘forget it’ and hired Clark Transfer to do all the moving from city to city for the Spring Tour. Charlie Hackett was in charge of the forty to seventy truckloads needed to put on the seven different operas in a six day period. That masterful juggling of trucks foreshadowed the multi- trucks extravaganzas of today’s overproduced and overpriced shows like Phantom, Les Miz, and the many modern ‘operas’ of Andrew Lloyd Weber and others that are so popular today.
Northrop Auditorium of the U of Minnesota was the keystone of the Met’s spring tour since the inception in 1945. It’s almost 5,000 seat were sold out for each of the operas into the mid 1980’s. It is also where I first began my show business career. I came the second year of the change to trucks so I never worked the rail travel of the Met or any other traveling shows…except one, which I will write about in coming posts.
And just as a mistake with the Met Opera that changed the way a segment of show business traveled, a mistake in the Beatles first tour of the U.S. opened the door to the overproduced and overpriced rock/pop/country concerts and festivals with their multitude of semis trucking them to major cities, ballparks, farm pastures and the like… semis that carry staging, lights, sound and more sound, even musical instruments, and of course the swag, overpriced tee shirts etc..
In 1964 the Beatles came to the US with performances at Carnegie Hall, Washington D.C. ballpark and on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their fans demanded more. In 1965 the Fab Four performed 32 sold-out shows in 26 venues in just 33 days all across the U.S.. While their screaming fans, from teeny- boppers to housewives, didn’t care if the shows were for the most part technical disasters, the industry noticed both the vast potential of this expansion of the music industry and the fact that the technical atrocities of the tour had to be addressed if it would succeed without the need of the tsunami of Beatlemania.
The tour had been organized by a New York corporation; but the local promoters in each venue were responsible for the stages, lights, and sound, which were handled by local companies that had no experience in large venues. Some outdoor venues, like Minneapolis, put stages put in the center of the field with the audience surrounding the performers who moved their sets four times each performance to face another segment of the audience. Lighting was weak.. often relying on a couple of carbon-arc spots lights too far away to do a decent job.
And the sound!!! Forget it! The squeals of the audience mixed with the feedback of the speakers drowned out the weak sound systems. The audience knew all the songs by heart and sang along. Nobody demanded their money back… but not all concerts would feature an act like the Beatles.
The logical solution was to supply the right staging, lighting, sound and experienced technicians and the idea of trucks to move everything from venue to venue. Now even small town America, like Peoria, could pay outlandish prices to see the same live music as large city audiences enjoyed.
Trucks brought much needed work to stagehand locals that had lost so much when vaudeville died.
Clark Transfer took a stab at getting into the rock and roll trucking; but the pop music industry had always been a cut-throat business, singers, musicians, composers were cheated out of their rightful dues, and the eruption of this music in the 50’ and 60’s amplified the no-holds-barred way of business. Clark backed off and stuck with the stable business methods of the ‘fine arts’, leaving rock and roll trucking to small, often one- owner-one-truck, outfits. These were soon gobbled up by large corporations that also got into other aspects of the business, like promoting, oversupplying equipment, providing roadies at cheap wages, tying up artists and their works, selling expensive tickets and adding surcharges, etc.. But the music public must not mind it because…
And these corporations, for the most part, no longer own their own fleet of trucks. Now most of the show business trucking is done by owner-operators with the companies acting as an agent to give work to the least expensive truckers. This gives the blue collar the romantic aura of ‘independence’, he desires, and the white collar still has control and greater profits, he desires. But the music truckers must not mind because…
Another growth aspect is husband and wife owner-operators. One drives while the other sleeps. The shows gets to the next venue in time without the practice of keeping two log books, one to show the boss, one to show the highway cops. And the only losers are the prostitutes working the truck stops.
And now that I have bitten the hand that fed me and my family for so long, I would add that show biz trucking has given me a lot to laugh about. Stay tuned for some of the laughs.
And Stay Safe.