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06 Nov

Andy and the Branson Days

Woke up this morning with the news that my former boss, Andy Williams, has bladder cancer. He announced it at his theatre in Branson last night. It is such sad news, however he has always been a fighter so my belief is that he has a great chance to kick the cancer and recover. The news made me all nostalgic for the days when I worked at his Moon River Theatre. I spent 8 years there and it truly was the best work experience I have ever had, and most likely will ever have. Here are a few of my favorite memories from those days:

The Show – At its peak, Andy’s show could easily rival any in Vegas or anywhere. It was a solid 2 hours, twice a day, 6 days a week. The show was structured in segments that flowed seamlessly from his early hits medley through to a full production salute to great movie themes – which included several of Andy’s hits. The sets, costumes, orchestra and dancers were first-class and Andy never disappointed. There were some truly great moments in each year’s show (new segments would be developed for each season), but my personal favorite was Andy singing “Moon River.” It was always a magical moment.

The People – Having a set of co-workers that you actually like these days can be rare. Having co-workers that you like to refer to as “family” is practically impossible. But that existed at the theatre. From Andy to the performers to the office staff to the box office, we all worked together as a unit and spent a lot of time together outside of work. The folks I worked with are truly unforgettable.

The Surreal – I look back at the time now and am really amazed by some of the experiences I was fortunate enough to have. Things like cooking for Andy’s family or catering at his house for a celeb-filled house party seem so unbelievable now. We had Shari Lewis in for some summer kids shows one year and I remember taking her for a promo appearance at Silver Dollar City. The appearance was just for Lamb Chop, so I stood behind a giant curtain with Shari with a theater full of people on the other side, and I held her purse while she reached in and grabbed Lamb Chop, put him on, stuck him through the part in the curtain and started the promo. I’m standing there, watching Shari do the voice with her arm through a curtain and me holding her purse open. Now that is odd – but fun. I also remember when Robert Goulet came in with his wife Vera. I was basically her “driver” when they were in Branson and Robert was working the shows. I had a purple Nissan pick-up truck at the time and that is what I drove her around in. But hey – it’s Branson! I was really embarrassed picking up this elegant woman in my truck, but she told me she loved it. Not often you see a lady in furs getting out of a purple truck.

The After-Parties – Andy often asked me to tend bar in his dressing room when he had gatherings or special parties. I have to say that these were some of my favorite times. It was fun to work the parties and many times the guests were celebs either performing in Branson or visiting. But the best part is when the party dwindled and usually near the end it was Andy and his wife Debbie, his brother Don, and a couple of the party guests that were the ones Andy really wanted to spend time with. It was always this time that Andy and Don would start telling stories, typically of their early days in the business. It was always fascinating. When Andy wrote his autobiography, a lot of the stories that I heard in his dressing room made it into the book. Each time I read something I knew, it brought a smile to my face and provided me with great memories of those evenings.

I truly appreciated the time I had there and I thank Andy and everyone who I was fortunate enough to meet and work with for providing me with and incredible experience. My best goes out to Andy for a complete recovery and I hope he is back on stage where he belongs next year. Here are a few of my favorite photos from those days:

One of my fave photos from when I cooked for his family.

 

Me with Debby Boone and Robert Goulet at our annual theatre Christmas party.

 

Me in my office - with Andy always looking over my shoulder.

08 Sep

I think Fang would approve…

I was looking through my old music briefcase and stumbled upon this photo given to me by Phyllis Diller. She was the first celeb (besides Andy, of course) that I got to work with at the theatre. She was truly wonderful and great to be around. Her assistant was so nice as well and I think everyone at the theatre appreciated the pair of them and how open and welcoming they were. She was part of a double-bill summer show that came in for just a couple of weeks during the summer to give Andy a little break. Phyllis was the opener and she was hilarious. I still relay jokes today she told during those shows.

The celeb who had top billing shall remain nameless (but he was a very famous comedic impressionist) and he was the complete opposite of Phyllis. He was always holed up in his dressing room, never talked with anyone, had major attitude, and was completely unapproachable. I dreaded having any contact with him. I would venture to say he was the least liked celeb we ever had at the theatre during my time there.

But Phyllis more than made up for him. I even baked her a pie. And she was totally fascinated with Wal-Mart for some reason. The lady just plain rocked.

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21 Aug

The Real Life: Don’t You Love Theatre People?, Pt. 2

Working at the theatre was one of the best experiences ever. But even great jobs have their down days. Probably one of the worst (or at least one of the most memorable) was when Andy took a summer break and we brought in an ice show. The cast of the show stayed the same for the run but every two weeks we got a new headliner for the show – popular World and Olympic champions.
One particular week in the run I was basically left “in charge” as the boss was out of town. So it was up to me to make sure all was well and running fine. The main part of my job was taking care of our celebs, which happened to be a recent Olympic champ. The day started very early attending to the skater who had to be driven to a real rink two hours away each day for practice, then brought back for a matinee and evening show. While the practice was going on I got a frantic call from a box office person at the theatre. Apparently they heard on the news that the skating show was failing and the theatre was on the verge of closing. If you know anything about the tourism business, a rumor like this can panic tour operators and kill business alike.
So I got into action and called out publicist trying to get damage control going. Oh, and performers are sensitive to these rumors as well so I was trying to work on the down-low. I was hours away from the theatre, the skater wanted to go to the mall and shop, and I’m quietly trying to get control over a bad situation. Then, of course, on the way back to Branson through all the hills I loose cell reception and I’m flying in the dark for the ride.
Then upon arriving back and after getting my charge settled in I’m greeted with the news that there is a water leak in the theatre. Not just a little drip on an aisle or a seat, but a constant drip on the stage – which is an ice rink. It had been dripping all night leaving a gaping hole in the ice at center stage where everyone skates. Patching would not help as the drip would just dig it out again. The skate captain is saying the show has to be cancelled because it was too dangerous to skate. For me that was not an option as it would be my head on the chopping block. So the thing to do was stop the leak and get the ice fixed. Did I mention this was two hours before the doors were to open for seating?
The leak was at the ceiling and we had to get the lift out as this was way up top. A stage hand road the lift up as far as we could extend it. He had a broom with him and he reached up to tap on the ceiling tile. As soon as he touched it, the tile exploded and a huge gush of water came flying down. It was like watching Angel Falls. In an instant the entire stage, first few rows of seats, and some of the employees were drenched. We were all in shock.
The good thing is that it was not a pipe or anything. It was collected water from a roof leak – a very large pool of it. Bad news was that everything was wet. We called the ice guy to get here and see if the ice could be saved for the show. Then we had everyone grab extension cords and hair dryers from the dressing rooms and began blow drying the seats. In the meantime, I was taking calls from the publicist and talking to news folks trying to iron out the rumor mess. It was crazy.
Somehow, we got the theatre back in order, the ice settled, and opened the doors to the auditorium barely a few minutes late. The news and papers did a nice report on the show and that PR nightmare came to an end. I finally made it to bed after the skater’s post-show massage appointment and passed out a frazzled mess. As they say in this business called show, the show must go on. And it did. And I aged about 5 years in a single day!
BTW – when I told the boss everything when he got back, he thought it was hysterical and said “welcome to my world!” Thanks…

18 Jul

The Real Life: Don’t You Love Theatre People?, Pt. 1

For eight years I was fortunate enough to work at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson, MO. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had at a job. There was always something weird or interesting going on, lots of celebrities to attend to, and wonderful co-workers and friends that made the experience something very special.

Last night when we were out someone mentioned Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, which is an odd thing to mention when out at the bar! It reminded me of the summer where the theatre hosted her for a series of daytime shows. Part of my job was to take care of the performers that came to the theatre and make sure they were all set with everything they needed or wanted. I had been told ahead of time that Shari was “high maintenance,” which in the entertainment world is a code phrase for “pain in the ass.” Having already dealt with HM celebrities, I was not happy to hear this because this was for a long summer engagement. However, I was surprised when I discovered quickly that Shari and her family (including tour manager, pianist and merchandiser) were truly wonderful and I had such a great time working with them. All of them treated me so kindly and were quick to include me in anything they were doing. If they wanted to see a show, Shari would ask me to get tickets and always said “don’t forget to get a ticket for yourself and come with us.” Or when her daughter came in town for a visit, I was invited to dinner. I was treated as part of their touring family and always felt appreciated and welcomed. I can tell you from experience, this is not the norm.

Shari, her touring family, and me

My favorite Shari story is when I had to take her out to the local theme park, Silver Dollar City. There was a theatre at the park and during the summer they had lots of kid events and shows. For promotion to get the same crowd over to our shows, Shari was scheduled to make a quick appearance with Lamb Chop before one of the kid shows started. I picked up Shari and drove her to the show. Once there, we were escorted to the stage where the curtain was down. On the other side of the curtain was a theatre packed with kids. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and was ready to leave the stage because I didn’t want to be there when the curtain went up!  But Shari said “no, stay right here – this will just be a couple of minutes.” Then she proceeded to open up her purse, pull out Lamb Chop, waited for an introduction, and then stuck Lamb Chop through the curtain part and launched into the promo. It was quite surreal to be standing next to Shari, purse open and over her shoulder, arm stuck through a curtain with Lamb Chop on the other side, and the voice of Lamb Chop coming right at me.  Then just as quickly as it started, Lamb Chop was done, put back in the purse and Shari was ready to go.

On the back of this photo, Shari's tour manager wrote "Dr. Aaron Latham Puppet Proctologist"

On the way back after the appearance we had a really nice conversation about books. She said her favorite book of all time was “Time After Time” by Jack Finney and asked if I had read it. I said no and she responded, “oh, you must read it!” Two days later, there was a gift at my desk. Shari called someone and had the book bought and sent to give to me. How cool is that? I really appreciated that gesture and it ended up being a fun summer with her. And yes, the book was terrific.

05 Jul

The Real Life: Scenes from a Restaurant, Pt. 1

My days of being a waiter were short-lived. I did 2 years worth and have no plans to return to that profession. For me it consisted of long hours and hard work that put me on a financial rollercoaster. Plus, you have to serve the random public and rely on them for your income. It is a ghastly job and I applaud anyone who can make a career as a server.

I had been told that I was a very good server. Still, no matter how fast, friendly, or attentive I was there were always people who tipped like crap. It is really deflating to connect with a table of people who had a good dining experience and then on a $100 tab they leave a paltry few buck. My advice to people? If you are going to a place where the entrees are $25+, don’t tip like you are at the Coney Island. If you don’t have the extra money or don’t want to spend it, then I heartily suggest you find the nearest chain restaurant and enjoy your chili cheese fries and endless pasta for $5.99. You can leave your $2 tip there.

So who are the good and bad tippers?  It can be random, but there are certain folks that when they sat in our sections at the restaurant, we looked on them either with joy or as a lost cause. I always got my best tips from tables of women, aged 30+, having a girls night out. I just paid attention to them, chatted with them, complimented them, made them laugh, and flirted a little.  It added to their night and they usually rewarded me for it. Sure, they knew I was out to make money but they didn’t care. They were having a good time and it was a win-win for both sides. Also good tippers are the drinkers. When someone at a table said “another round,” it filled me with glee. It was amazing how looser wallets became after a couple of martinis.

The worst?  Most people would think the retiree crowd would top the list, but actually in the upscale restaurant I worked at they were usually quite good. Older folks with a good nest egg are always appreciative of good service and tip accordingly. The “fixed income” crowd tended to stay away due to the prices. But the ultimate worst tippers for me were middle aged, snobby pseudo-rich folk. You could be the best server in the world and they would still look down on you and give you nothing. I could spot them coming in the door and would say to myself “please, not my section…not my section…” You know the ones – the women are skinny as rails, coiffed to perfection, and designer labels from head to toe with the guys extra tan, slightly paunched, big gold rings and slick hair pulling up in their midlife crisis sports car. Awful people, awful tippers. There are other groups of people who are notoriously bad tippers and any server can tell you who they are, but this particular sect of people would just irritate me more than any other.

I guess what I’m trying to say is tip your servers, ladies and gents. If someone is working hard and taking good care of you, then do the same for them. They are just trying to make a living the same as you.