STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

My last post, The Shadow Circuit, convinced me that interest in Don McLean was very high right now. His walk out of the NRA Convention. It is the 50th anniversary of his American Pie. His mental breakdown. His Starry, Starry Night/Vincent has surpassed American Pie in popularity today.

The Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience has taken major cities in the US and Europe by storm. Every time one of his paintings is auctioned off, it breaks fiscal records. To think the man died a pauper and only sold one of his works while he and his brother were living. His sister-in-law took control of his work and got him placed in the hierarchy of the Impressionists.

I thought this would be good time to re-post my blog Starry, Starry Night, from 2013. And last, but not least, it brings back fond memories of back-in-the-day, when I was a lot younger.

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House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.

In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.

The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.

Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.

Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly identified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will’.

            Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.

His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.

In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.

When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.

Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic,  Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair,  that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.

Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.

As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.

When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.

‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’

‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’

‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and he asked me to mention it to you. So you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of

“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.

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The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.

Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.

“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”

Eyes of China Blue

Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.

“Morning fields of amber grain”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where  Leonard was and the mood at the time,

“Colors changing hue”

Starry Night

Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.

I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.

But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.

At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!

I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie. And this union stagehand had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.

In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.

(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY  ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)

The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.

Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.

My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer foe the Guthrie.

When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.

Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by an unknown composer.

The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.

a bridge near arles

That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.

I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.

I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag. Don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.

As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of  IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so. I just sat there, not wanting to present my view that my lights would have transferred to the film.

The excuse was bogus. Basically, this was a case of the LA boys going to fly-over-country, filming a VCR as quick as possible, and then back to L.A.. Surf’s up!

Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.

Thirty plus years later:

The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now, he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.

What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.

And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.

don mclean

And that’s a wrap – for today.

THE SHADOW CIRCUIT

There is an area of show business that I call the Shadow Circuit. What it is people in the public eye, be it politics, arts, entertainment fields, who come to a city to appear before a closed audience at conventions, business meetings, private functions, employee thank you parties, etc. In and out and the public has no idea they were ever in town. Sometime the public is aware of the appearance, but unless they belong to the sponsoring organization, or are big donors, they can’t attend.

To work the Shadow Circuit, the person’s name must appear on a list bookers have which is available for potential clients.

I don’t recall ever seeing Bob Hope appearing before the general public in the Twin Cities in my lifetime, but he was in St. Paul on the Shadow Circuit in 1984. He cracked jokes at the dinner honoring the 80th birthday of Herb Carlson, founder of Radisson Hotel chain, among other ventures.

He talked with the stagehands for a long time, after he asked ‘Just who is this old fart I am suppose to be best friends with’? He ate the dinner, gave a funny spiel about his ‘old friend’, and left.

Before he got into the limo that replaced the Winnebago dressing room he stopped to say goodbye to the stagehands and praise us for doing an honest days work, not like what he had just done. Lying about knowing a total stranger, just for a couple bucks and something to do.

And sometimes it more than a couple bucks. Margaret Thatcher, after she retired as British Prime Minister, let it be known, through an agent, that she would be touring the US on a speaking tour. The Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce was only too glad to be included on her stops. I worked the Iron Lady’s talk.

When I handed in the stagehand bill, the Finance Officer laughed at the small amount compared to what was paid for Thatcher to appear, 70.000 plus expenses for a 45 minute talk.

While I worked Shadow Circuit gigs with the likes of Maya Angelo, Eisner the CEO of Disney, countless politicians, and advocates pro and con on the issues of the day, entertainers were the largest group on the Circuit. Many of these entertainers I had also worked in public concerts.

Recently the National Rifle Association, NRA, the largest gun lobby in the U.S. held their annual Convention. This homage to guns was a few days and a few miles from the latest massacre of school children by a shooter armed with legally purchased guns. Both the convention and the killings took place in Texas, a state where the politicians have made the purchase and carrying of guns of all ilks, almost mandatory.

The entertainment as always was booked via the Shadow Circuit.

But when the news of the killing broke, the entertainers began to cancel out of the gig in respect of the poor children. The first to exit was singer/songwriter Don McLean, followed by the others. Lee Greenwood was the last to walk.

Rudy Giuliani offered to sing ‘God Bless The USA’; but the NRA told him just to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ like all good GOP politicians do, and canceled Entertainment Night.

Now for entertainment they only had the stand-up comic, Donald Trump, who did his usual shtick but adding a litany of the names of the murdered children, followed by a dance, before breaking into his Big Lies routine.

I worked McLean once in concert and one on the Shadow Circuit. Greenwood I worked numerous times on the Circuit.

I worked McLean at a Guthrie concert just prior to the start of the Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent tour. McLean’s recording of his song Vincent was used as background during a segment of Van Gogh’ paintings projected on the screen. The recording was also played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

I worked McLean also on the Shadow Circuit for the Dayton Department Store at their annual fashion show to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital. At that function, he sang his biggest hit, American Pie. When I suggested to Eric, the Event’s manager that McLean should also sing Vincent, Eric said he never heard it. I told him that another title for the song was Starry, Starry Night. Eric wasn’t familiar with that either. But a few years later, McLean’s recording of it was used in a segment of the fashion show.

That show also featured Brooks Shield, emceeing off the Circuit. I am happy to report, she is as beautiful in person as in the media. And her personality and warmth are genuine.

In praising the exit of McLean from the convention, one comment was why did he ever agree to sing there in the first place. Well, an appearance at a Shadow event in no way endorses the event’s purpose. Like stagehands, (I worked events at the NRA Convention when it was held in Mpls., and had to hold back my feelings throughout the event.), people working the Shadow Circuit do so to make a living and project their job.

Don McLean had recently suffered a mental break-down that resulted in domestic violence. I image the Shadow Circuit was his only source of work.

The Shadow Circuit was the main source of work for the last entertainer to pull out of the NRA Convention, Lee Greenwood, for a good many years. I worked his show numerous times. He is a favorite Shadow Circuit singer for conservative groups who pride themselves for their love of God and Country.

His show is about 45 minutes of C&W and then a black-out just long enough to trip the kabuki drop and the lights come back up to a backdrop of his gigantic US flag.

Lee busts loose with his biggest hit, ‘God Bless The USA. The crowd goes wild. At show’s end the audience is happy and Lee pockets easy bucks on the Shadow Circuit.

By walking out, Greenwood has the most to lose. An ultra right winger who is a main-stay at Trump rallies. An avid gun lover who said in his press conference on Fox News, ‘That weapon killed children’.

Pro gun advocates never forget that kind of talk. He’s going to have to do a lot of singing at Trump rallies to get back in their good graces.

Shadow Circuit bookers find entertainers people like to hear and see, singers who once were big and now…The one that I always enjoyed the most was Chubby Checkers. The audiences loved his singing and dancing and his getting everybody to join in on the Twist. Heck, he almost had me dancing several times.

Another favorite booking was Frankie Valli singing the Four Season’s hits. This was prior to the musical, ‘Jersey Boys’ opening on Broadway in 2005. The musical features the songs and lives of the Four Seasons. After the musical made it big, Frankie and his three cohorts were back on the concert circuit, too big for the Shadow Circuit.

PS: Frankie does not speak with a falsetto voice. His voice is gravely and has the gruff of New Jerseyites. He is also easy to work with.

Some entertainers use the Circuit to show off talents that are not evident to the public. Jim Belushi, actor and younger brother of the great comic actor, John Belushi, fronts his R&B, The Sacred Hearts. (I have no idea as to why he choose that title.) For years, it was a frequent booking on the Shadow Circuit.

Jim Belushi’s musical talent, like his acting talent, is in the so-so range. His biggest asset is his the fact he is John Belushi’s brother.

But show biz is in his rear view mirror thanks to his new vocation that pays better and not much hard work. He is a California State Sanctioned cannabis grower. John would be proud of his kid brother.

Not all Shadow Circuit acts are appreciated though. I worked Doug Krenshaw, the Cajun Fiddler at a closed event. He was big in Louisiana and some of his work was getting national air time. He got a big applause for his playing, but then he decided on a little comedy relief and told, what he thought were a few funny jokes. They might have been funny in the Mississippi Delta, but in the head waters of the river, they were way too raw for the audience. They booed him off the stage.

Backstage I could hear the booker shouting at Krenshaw for using that language. And all the while the booker was screaming in worse language than what Krenshaw had had used. I never worked him again and if he still managed to work the Shadow Circuit, it would have been events in Bayou country, where he just got honored in the Louisiana Hall Of Fame.

Another example of riling up the audience was Joan Rivers in a Shadow Circuit booking for Jewish Women’s Charity Drive. When she asked, ‘Can we talk’, she talked in some very unladylike language. She went so far as to think since both she and the audience were Jewish, she was free to revert to old Jewish stereotypes. She even tried to get humor out of the Holocaust. Raunchy, racist, and tasteless, she ignored the boos and kept on digging her hole deeper.

One of the committee members ran backstage and tried to turn off my lighting consul, thinking it it controlled the mic. When she walked off stage she gave the audience a middle finger salute.

Rivers got a lot of boos and I bet a lot of bucks for that Shadow Circuit event. And a big red warning flag to any bookers via the Shadow Circuit.

I worked her show in a theater venue…once. Her public concert made her Shadow concert seem tame; but since the audience bought tickets, they should have known what kind of show they were in for.

Big companies use the Circuit for various reasons. Target Stores had a yearly event where they brought in managers of their stores from all over. The event was rich with name singers, who were releasing new CD’s. Some of the biggest names like Tony Bennett or Celine Dion would release a CD, say with tens songs and also a CD sold only at Target stores with four additional songs on. Always a lot of talent appearing before a closed audience.

Best Buy, in the years of their orginal founder, used entertainers off the Circuit for parties. For non management employees Best Buy corporate campus was turned into a festival. Free food, soft drinks, bands for dancing, and several big names like Lennie Kravitz. The management had their party in the Convention Center with food and drinks and rows of arcade game and big time entertainment. One year, Elton John headlined. Elton John… and the public never knew he was in town.

In 2007, Tom Collins, of Champions on Ice fame, rented the Target Center for a birthday party for his wife, Jane. The biggest array of greatest figure skaters in the world came and performed before the closed audience of family and friends of Janie. Everyone present knew that it would be Janie’s last birthday. She died a few months after. After the death of his wife of 41 years, Tom Collins sold Champions On Ice.

I never thought I would ever write anything in my blog praising Cosby but I have to give the devil his due. Nobody worked the Shadow Circuit like he did. He mastered it.

When he was offered a Shadow Circuit event, he contacted Mystic Lake Casino, and arranged for a day or two of two performances per day. Next, a call to Minneapolis booker to get several days of two a day performances in a Minneapolis concert venue

He was an easy sell, did not need much advance publicity, sure sell out every performance, not many stagehands.

For stagehands it was apiece of cake to set up and take down. Even on spots it was a snap. Pick him up as he came on stage. Once he sat down, you could lock down the light because he never moved until the end. His show lasted about an hour and another started an hour later. Two performance pays in the time it usually takes for one regular show.

For Cosby, it was also a snap. Sit in an easy chair, smoke a big cigar and repeat some of the old stories he has told, recorded, written in books, for years.

A Shadow Event that generates another dozen or so performances! And for over a decade, he did this n in the Twin Cities three or four times a year; and he worked Shadow Events all over the country. Cosby ruled the Shadow Circuit…until!!!

The names and faces that were on the Circuit since I worked it may have changed, but it is alive and well yet today; and it remains a big source of income for entertainers, celebrities, and stagehands..

DAY(S) THE MUSIC DIED

The Day the Music Died

This is a Blog Posting from 2014

Gee, it’s been 56 years since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper finished a concert at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their next gig was in Moorhead, Minnesota. They never made it. Their plane crashed shortly after take-off. February 3, 1959 – ‘The day the music died’, as Don McLean proclaimed in his song/poem ‘AMERICAN PIE’.

Their deaths really didn’t affect me as much as it affected others my age. I was in the Army at the time. Although I kept up with popular music before I went into the Army, I pretty much lost track of the Top 40 hits during my Army stint.

At the time I was in Headquarters Company, 82 Airborne, Signal Battalion At Fort Bragg. Unlike the men in the two line companies, who lived in squad rooms, we in Headquarters Company had two-man rooms. My roommate, Patricio Menes, and I were into ‘cool’ jazz, Brubeck, Kenton, etc.. I had a small hi-fi phonograph and the two us had a number of LPs. Neither of us had a radio or a car with one . And I didn’t have one on my motorcycle. We heard some of the music of the day when we were shooting pool in the day room and American Bandstand was on TV. And we heard a lot of the music on juke boxes when we went to Fayetteville.

The first I heard of the plane crash was the next night when Patricio came in  the room and told me, ‘Richie was killed in a plane crash.’ I thought he was talking about some friend of his, but Pat put me straight. ‘Richie Valens! ‘ LA BAMBA!’

I knew the song because Pat played it often on juke boxes. Valens came from L.A. just like Patricio. Pat and the other Latinos from the L.A. barrio thought Valens was one of their own, and liked to sing the Mexican folk song, LA BAMBA, which Valens, not only made a hit out of it, but sang it in Spanish. I often wondered how Pat and his friends felt when they found out that Valens didn’t come from the barrio, but from a suburb of L.A., and his Spanish was limited to ordering from a menu and reading the lyrics of his hit from a cue card.

And it was several days after I heard Valens was killed in a crash that I learned Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were also killed in that crash.

Over the years I learned the back stories like Waylon Jennings, a member of The Crickets, gave up his seat in the plane to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and went by bus with the other Crickets as well as Dion and the Belmonts. Waylon took off on his own shortly afterwards and went ‘outlaw’.

Then there the story of how the concert promoter in Moorhead filled out the bill as best he could and brought in a local boy, Bobby Vee, as one of the acts. Vee followed up that appearance with several hit singles, and when the time came for Vee to record his first album, he hired a young Bobby Dylan to play guitar on the album.

And over the years, I began to appreciate the talent  of Buddy Holly.

Since that crash took place before I became a stage hand, I never had the pleasure of working those three. I saw the movies based on the lives of Holly and Valens. And I worked BUDDY THE MUSICAL several times. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person.

As far as the others in the back story, I had the pleasure of working them all many times. The name of Bobby Vee may not be familiar to most people but he was very talented and fun to work, especially in the later years when he and his sons put on their shows. Sadly, I read the other day that Bobby Vee has Alzheimer’s.

A few years later, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a small plane crash. And the list of musicians killed in light plane crashes goes on and on. The two that hit me the hardest was Ricky Nelson and Jim Croce.

Although he is largely ignored today, Ricky Nelson was big, big, big in the early days of rock and roll. For several years, only Elvis outsold him. And then he let his addictions grand his career to a screaming halt.

I had just worked Nelson shortly before his death. He was so excited. His concerts were selling better than he had hoped; his all time hits album had just been remastered, and he felt maybe his career would take off again. He was also high. They figured out that fire from cocaine freebasing on the plane caused the ‘Travelin Man’ to have his ticket punched.

The two favorite front acts of Sue Wiel, promoter at the Guthrie, were James Taylor and later, Jim Croce. Taylor was so thankful for Sue’s faith in him when he was trying to bust the big time, that he promised to come back and play two shows at the G when he did make it. And what shows they were! He also brought along his wife at the time, Carly Simon, who sang some duets with James and a few solos. Two big acts for the price of one. At that time, he was so big he could have easily sold out an arena show, but he had made Sue a promise.

I got to know Jim Croce during his front act performances at the Guthrie. After he finished his act, he would come up to the lighting booth and sit next to me to watch the main act. He was interesting, a good story teller, and he made no bones about loving his wife and his newborn baby. A nice person and a great talent.

Like James Taylor before him, Jim also planned to do a couple thank you shows for Sue, when he made it big. And like James Taylor, he was good to his promise. He was booked to play the Guthrie, even though he was hot enough to play a much larger venue in the Twin Cities, on the tour that took his life. Killed in a small-plane crash. What a loss!

So many, many musicians had their careers cut short because of small-plane crashes. So many, many days that ‘music died’.

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

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House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.

In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.

The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.

Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.

Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly indentified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still    Perhaps they never will’.

            Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.

His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.

In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.

When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.

Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic,  Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair,  that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.

Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.

As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.

When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.

‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’

‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’

‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and asked me to mention it to you so you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of

“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.

500px-Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_Wheat_Field_with_Crows_(1890)

The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.

Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.

“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”

Eyes of China Blue

Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.

“Morning fields of amber grain”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where  Leonard was and the mood at the time,

“Colors changing hue”

Starry Night

Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.

I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.

But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.

At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!

I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie, and had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.

In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.

(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY  ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)

The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.

Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.

My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer.

When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.

Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by a largely unknown composer.

The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.

a bridge near arles

That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.

I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.

I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag, don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.

As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of  IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so.

I didn’t argue although I knew the excuse was bogus. Basically this was a case of go to town, film it as quick as possible, and  go back to L.A.. Surf’s up! Besides, what was important was the play and especially Leonard’s acting. Nobody would ever buy a copy because of my lighting.

Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.

 

Thirty plus years later:

The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.

What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.

And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.

don mclean

 

And that’s a wrap – for today.

DAY(S) THE MUSIC DIED

The Day the Music Died

This is a Blog Posting from 2014

Gee, it’s been 56 years since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper finished a concert at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their next gig was in Moorhead, Minnesota. They never made it. Their plane crashed shortly after take-off. February 3, 1959 – ‘The day the music died’, as Don McLean proclaimed in his song/poem ‘AMERICAN PIE’.

Their deaths really didn’t affect me as much as it affected others my age. I was in the Army at the time. Although I kept up with popular music before I went into the Army, I pretty much lost track of the Top 40 hits during my Army stint.

At the time I was in Headquarters Company, 82 Airborne, Signal Battalion At Fort Bragg. Unlike the men in the two line companies, who lived in squad rooms, we in Headquarters Company had two-man rooms. My roommate, Patricio Menes, and I were into ‘cool’ jazz, Brubeck, Kenton, etc.. I had a small hi-fi phonograph and the two us had a number of LPs. Neither of us had a radio or a car with one . And I didn’t have one on my motorcycle. We heard some of the music of the day when we were shooting pool in the day room and American Bandstand was on TV. And we heard a lot of the music on juke boxes when we went to Fayetteville.

The first I heard of the plane crash was the next night when Patricio came in  the room and told me, ‘Richie was killed in a plane crash.’ I thought he was talking about some friend of his, but Pat put me straight. ‘Richie Valens! ‘ LA BAMBA!’

I knew the song because Pat played it often on juke boxes. Valens came from L.A. just like Patricio. Pat and the other Latinos from the L.A. barrio thought Valens was one of their own, and liked to sing the Mexican folk song, LA BAMBA, which Valens, not only made a hit out of it, but sang it in Spanish. I often wondered how Pat and his friends felt when they found out that Valens didn’t come from the barrio, but from a suburb of L.A., and his Spanish was limited to ordering from a menu and reading the lyrics of his hit from a cue card.

And it was several days after I heard Valens was killed in a crash that I learned Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were also killed in that crash.

Over the years I learned the back stories like Waylon Jennings, a member of The Crickets, gave up his seat in the plane to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and went by bus with the other Crickets as well as Dion and the Belmonts. Waylon took off on his own shortly afterwards and went ‘outlaw’.

Then there the story of how the concert promoter in Moorhead filled out the bill as best he could and brought in a local boy, Bobby Vee, as one of the acts. Vee followed up that appearance with several hit singles, and when the time came for Vee to record his first album, he hired a young Bobby Dylan to play guitar on the album.

And over the years, I began to appreciate the talent  of Buddy Holly.

Since that crash took place before I became a stage hand, I never had the pleasure of working those three. I saw the movies based on the lives of Holly and Valens. And I worked BUDDY THE MUSICAL several times. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person.

As far as the others in the back story, I had the pleasure of working them all many times. The name of Bobby Vee may not be familiar to most people but he was very talented and fun to work, especially in the later years when he and his sons put on their shows. Sadly, I read the other day that Bobby Vee has Alzheimer’s.

A few years later, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a small plane crash. And the list of musicians killed in light plane crashes goes on and on. The two that hit me the hardest was Ricky Nelson and Jim Croce.

Although he is largely ignored today, Ricky Nelson was big, big, big in the early days of rock and roll. For several years, only Elvis outsold him. And then he let his addictions grand his career to a screaming halt.

I had just worked Nelson shortly before his death. He was so excited. His concerts were selling better than he had hoped; his all time hits album had just been remastered, and he felt maybe his career would take off again. He was also high. They figured out that fire from cocaine freebasing on the plane caused the ‘Travelin Man’ to have his ticket punched.

The two favorite front acts of Sue Wiel, promoter at the Guthrie, were James Taylor and later, Jim Croce. Taylor was so thankful for Sue’s faith in him when he was trying to bust the big time, that he promised to come back and play two shows at the G when he did make it. And what shows they were! He also brought along his wife at the time, Carly Simon, who sang some duets with James and a few solos. Two big acts for the price of one. At that time, he was so big he could have easily sold out an arena show, but he had made Sue a promise.

I got to know Jim Croce during his front act performances at the Guthrie. After he finished his act, he would come up to the lighting booth and sit next to me to watch the main act. He was interesting, a good story teller, and he made no bones about loving his wife and his newborn baby. A nice person and a great talent.

Like James Taylor before him, Jim also planned to do a couple thank you shows for Sue, when he made it big. And like James Taylor, he was good to his promise. He was booked to play the Guthrie, even though he was hot enough to play a much larger venue in the Twin Cities, on the tour that took his life. Killed in a small-plane crash. What a loss!

So many, many musicians had their careers cut short because of small-plane crashes. So many, many days that ‘music died’.