Tim Willoughby: A couple of music tent crew kerfuffles
Legends & Legacies
I began a 13-season stint with the Music Association of Aspen on the Monday after I graduated from high school. My sister had worked as a ticket seller for several summers and recommended me to Col. Glen Daugherty, who handled everything non-musical for the festival. Later I learned that he hired me because he had watched me participate in a high school wrestling team demonstration. I fulfilled his qualification: I looked as though I could move a piano.
At 17 years old, I was the youngest person on the crew. That first season I drove the truck, a donated 1954 pickup. No one worried about my speeding with a vehicle deemed unsafe at any speed. I moved harps, harpsichords and percussion equipment on the same truck I used to haul campus garbage to the dump.
Ralph Johnson, my cousin from California, worked alongside me for the summer. We received $1.50 per hour, sleeping space on the top floor of the campus Victorian office building, and meals at the Music Association of Aspen cafeteria. When one of the two tent crew members departed near the end of our term, Johnson replaced him. The following summer Daugherty chose my cousin and me to work the tent.
The festival held fewer concerts that first year. The Bayer tent had aged only a few years so we were still doing projects to make it a better facility. The two of us dealt with cleaning, rehearsals and concerts. We rarely saw Daugherty at the tent, but somehow he knew about our work.
How we worried over the opening concert! We polished the bathroom fixtures, cleaned each audience bench, straightened our ties and buttoned our suits, and quickly and gracefully made stage changes. Afterward, we met Daugherty in front of the tent. Although he kept a poker face, we sensed his displeasure. As a career Army officer, he had noticed that we reversed the left and right positions of the U.S. and Colorado flags in the parking lot. We had confused stage left with audience left.
At that time the all-concrete stage stepped up four levels. Musicians hated the concrete for its challenging acoustics. Cellists had to fit their instruments’ pegs into a T-shaped board positioned between the front legs of their chairs.
My cousin and I wrestled the grand piano up and down the four stage levels most days. We jockeyed one leg at a time to handle the 1,200-pound behemoth. For a piano solo, we had to move the instrument from the back of the stage, through the orchestra, and then to the bottom level of the stage. This required that we first clear a path through a portion of the orchestra — a slow and disruptive task for two workers. To save time, we used a stand at the edge of the lowest stage level. The stand extended the stage enough to allow us to set the front leg of the piano toward the audience. The two legs at the keyboard end balanced on the edge of the stage.
The second season that my cousin and I worked as stage managers, the festival added the chamber orchestra and conductor Jorge Mester, a former student of the Aspen Music School. Pressure built for the additional orchestra and young conductor to succeed.
One week we prepared for a piano concerto rehearsal. Johnson and I placed the piano on the ramp extension so that we could quickly roll it into place for the rehearsal. Then we left for lunch at the Music Association of Aspen cafeteria in town. We planned to return in time to position the piano for the concerto.
A recent complaint that students sneaked into the tent late at night to play the piano had led to a newly installed keyboard-locking device. Before we left for lunch, my cousin and I forgot to remove the device.
We returned to the tent in time for the soloist’s scheduled rehearsal, but someone had changed the schedule. Mester, meticulous in his management of scarce rehearsal minutes, was livid.
We learned there was never room for error, ever. The following summer was the last where only two crew members covered all the hours and concerts.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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