Part six of my Frankie Manning’s 95th Birthday Festival recap with BONUS found footage of the Hellzapoppin recreation from the Sunday Show in addition to the regular grammatical edits from the original post. You can see a compilation of the rest of the videos from Sunday here on my site. This note was originally posted on June 23, 2009.
I grabbed a radio and headed upstairs to check out how everything was progressing. That’s when I found out that we were in more trouble than at any other time in the festival.
It was a little before 6:00 pm, our scheduled time to open the house for everyone to get their seats, and the Frankie Show crew had not made much more progress from where I had left them a couple hours earlier on my printer quest. I figured that the house doors would be delayed in opening, but no one knew for how long. 20 minutes? Half an hour? Longer? They were still figuring it out.
I went downstairs to check the crowd. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. We were an hour away from the show starting, and the word “early” is usually absent from most Lindy Hoppers’ vocabulary. I should have learned my lesson from the registration opening on Thursday. Let’s just say there were a lot of people out there.
The frustrating thing about this for me was not being able to do anything. All I could do was watch the disaster unfold. On stage, they were still setting up a scene that was still a few acts from the end. In the mean time, someone had prematurely signaled the opening of the front doors to the public. That decision was then reversed by someone else. The people that got inside the building were asked to wait in the stairwell or in the lobby below the Grand Ballroom. The volunteers outside were getting battered by questions they couldn’t answer. I wasn’t the only one frustrated.
We got to 7:00 pm, the scheduled start time of the show, and the doors were still not officially open. In fact they were telling us that they were still a long way off. Elliot gathered the other two co-event directors David Jacoby and Tena Morales along with Yvonne and myself to figure out our options.
To say that our discussion got a bit heated is an understatement. Elliot eventually had to ask us to go back stage because he could tell that this was getting to a level that shouldn’t be aired in front of prying eyes and ears.
I had never been so angry before in my life. I felt that we had been bobbing and weaving minor disasters all weekend putting put on the three biggest dances in the history of Lindy Hop back to back to back. I thought we were bullet proof after Saturday night. But now our little cruise ship had been struck by an ice berg of unpreparedness that was much bigger than I thought possible, and we were leaking out all the good will that we had built up all weekend.
Eventually it was decided to give Ryan Francois more time to get the show together. Fortunately, it didn’t take him as long as he thought and we started letting people into the Grand Ballroom around 7:30, an hour and a half after we advertised.
It still took them some time to get ready, but once seated, the crowd found ways to amuse themselves. Eventually someone started the Wave of all things. I heard the crowd watching the simulcast downstairs in the Hammerstein actually joined in.
The show finally started a little before 8:00 pm, but that was only the beginning of the problems. Nothing could go right from the get go. I can’t even begin to catalog everything; it entered the realm of the utterly ridiculous very quickly. I had to go in and out to run various errands, but there were a number of times that I walked out just out of sheer frustration.
On my end, we struggled with what to do about the live feed going into the Hammerstein Ballroom. For some reason, the camera shot stayed static through the entire show, and the cameraman was not responding to requests to follow what was occurring on stage.
The show had been sold out to the room’s fire code capacity, but quite a few people didn’t show up. After a quick head count we figured that there was just enough space for the people downstairs in the Hammerstein to fit upstairs. At Christine Tse’s urging, we made the call to send them upstairs because they simply couldn’t follow what was happening on screen.
I probably could have done that a little better, or at least change the order of my announcement because as soon as I said that they could go upstairs, everyone was up and out of their seats, running for the doors. Anything I said after that was just me talking to myself.
The upside was that we were able to clear the ballroom and get it ready for the dance ahead of schedule for once. This was important since people were already coming in for the evening. They weren’t early; we were that late. Ryan Swift was a trooper and volunteered to leave from watching the show to start DJ’ing for this crowd.
When I run an event I build all kinds of contingencies and fail safes into the planning because life doesn’t ever happen the way you want it to. Formulating an event schedule requires you to tap into your inner OCD, but anything that depends on everything happening exactly the way you plan it is pretty much screwed. So despite the lateness of everything, I was still flirting with the idea of running the rest of the evening on schedule. I should have known better because I’m not a very good flirt.
The show was supposed to run about an hour and a half, but as the show went on it was becoming apparent that not only was it running atrociously late, it was also going to go extra long. Never in my wildest imagination did I think something like this could be so royally screwed up.
For awhile we were just bumping back the start time of the evening stuff, but I eventually realized that we were so far behind that the whole rest of the night had to be restructured. I consulted with Joel Domoe, who was coordinating the competitions, and then I called down David Jacoby, Lori the stage manager, and the band leaders for the evening: Jonathan Stout and Paul Cosentino. Together we reworked the entire evening, adjusting the sets, reshuffling the semi and final rounds of the Jack & Jill, various performances, and still made time for the final band leader of the night, Evan Christopher.
Meanwhile, the Show still wasn’t over, no matter how many times I went up there to check on their progress. I didn’t get a chance to see most of the show. Although I had seen most of the dance scenes rehearsed at various times throughout the weekend. If they were half as impressive on stage as they were in those practices, then I’m sure the crowd was pleased.
I’m disappointed that I missed the Harlem Congaroos recreation by Mike Faltesek, Casey Schneider, Laura Keat and Jeremy Otth. Fortunately for me, they weren’t afraid to go full tilt in the one rehearsal I saw a few days earlier.
I also wished I could have caught the Cotton Club number with Charleston and tap featuring Ramona Staffeld, Naomi Uyama, Ria DiBiase, Skye Humphries, Peter Strom, Todd Yannacone, and a few tap dancers led by Jenny Francois. I saw them run through this quite a few times, and it looked like they were having a good time dancing it even when they were just practicing.
I did get to see the Cleveland kids on stage. They did a routine representing Frankie’s youth and tentative first steps in the dance. I thought that was a nice bit of symmetry mirroring their own deepening involvement in our scene.
Eventually, we got to Hellzapoppin’. Despite everything that went wrong, you have to admire the lengths that they went to to recreate that scene, starting with a group of live musicians led by Gordon Webster doing the slower Slim & Slam intro number. It was a more modern interpretation of that tune. I thought the intro drum solo was a bit long, but I later learned that was because they were trying to fix something back stage.
Then there was the recreation of the music for the scene by Geroge Gee’s band. You can read about he got the call to do it and follow links to download a copy of it on Yehoodi.
Despite all of this effort, at that moment, I was not in the mood to be impressed. I was annoyed and pissed off. I just wanted this thing over.
I’m not going to sugar coat this: that show was a train wreck.
Amazingly enough, most of the word of mouth that came out of it was largely very positive. Personally I couldn’t believe it. Then again I mostly witnessed the worst of it, having to constantly leave to attend to something or just walking out out of sheer frustration. There was a period where I just stood outside of the door because I couldn’t deal with watching it anymore.
It wasn’t because the show was bad. It was just badly executed. From an event planner's stand point, it was like listening to nails on a chalkboard.
By all accounts the dancing itself was excellent. Later, someone pointed out to me that it’s not like people didn’t notice everything that went wrong. However, most people judged it on par with watching a close relative’s home movie. Albeit a home movie featuring some of the best dancers in our scene.
That our community has the talent to recreate one of the most revered, and quite frankly, hardest Lindy Hop routines ever performed is quite a milestone. However, I think the greater achievement is to have a community that is able to gather so many talented and dedicated people who were able to put on a show despite the circumstances.
And it’s not just the dancers, everyone behind the scenes did their best, but I recognize that it’s hard to put on a great show when the person in charge isn't providing a clear plan of what to do and how to do it.
It’s hard to imagine gathering that many talented and driven people together and screwing up, but it almost happened. Well . . . it was screwed up, but it wasn’t a complete catastrophe. Why? You know, honestly, I’d like to hear that story myself one day. As it is, I only know parts of it, but hopefully some one can tell the whole thing one day soon.
I have to hand it to Mike Lenneville, one of the guys who did his part to put on the show. I asked him a couple weeks before how he thought it was all going to turn out. Interestingly enough he called it exactly like it eventually did: It was going to be a clusterf&*k getting there, but it will happen, everyone will end up loving it, and all the wrong people will get the credit while the people who deserve it will won’t get any at all. I’m sorry to say that he was right.
The Boilermakers hit the stage at 10:45 PM, over two hours after the dance was originally supposed to start. I was just glad that ordeal was over, and I could go to work.