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Backstage in Paradise
Written July 11, 2003


For me, the winter of 1985 came to an early end on March 6, when I found myself at a basketball tournament in springlike Williamsburg, Virginia.  On March 12, I headed even farther south, to spend three weeks in Miami Beach.

Next, after a week of vacation in Arizona, I went to New Orleans for two and a half weeks.  By then it was May, and spring had truly arrived back home.  But my travels weren't over; later that month I was off to the Hawaiian island of Maui for an additional two weeks, staying into early June.

How did I get so lucky?  Well, the company I worked for, TCS Productions, had been contracted to provide television equipment and services for a series of corporate events in Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Maui, and I was part of the crew.

We stayed at the  Fontainebleau Hilton Resort in Miami Beach (above), at the Sheraton on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans, and at the Maui Marriott Resort on Kaanapali Beach in Hawaii (below).

Although these events were for a major corporation, technically we weren't working directly for them but for a smaller company called WQPL (Westerfield / Quitt Productions Ltd.).  We weren't supposed to tell outsiders the name of the big corporation, because "our corporate client wishes to remain anonymous to the outside world."  Is the corporation's identity still a secret decades later?  I can't be sure, so I'll just tell you that it was a blue-chip computer manufacturer.

As I explained in a letter I wrote from Florida on the last day of March:  We TCS folks are finishing up a three-week stay down here in which we’ve provided video services for a series of events that they call the Hundred Percent Club Leadership Conference.

Salespeople who made their quota in 1984 get to come here for four days of recreation, speeches, and entertainment.

There were so many Hundred-Percenters that they had to travel to Florida in shifts.  We'd do the four days for one group, then another group would arrive and we'd do four days for them, and so on.

I continued:  Our TV truck is used to feed videotapes to as many as five large screens set up in the ballroom.  Sometimes we feed live cameras to those screens as well, and we send crews out with portable cameras to tape the guests enjoying themselves in the Everglades or wherever.

The corporation spends a lot of money on this event — I’d guess a few million dollars, if you include everything — but they feel it’s worth it because it inspires the salespeople to sell harder so that they can attend.

The corporation sent another group to New Orleans the next month; then the really elite salespeople went to the Golden Circle on Maui in May.  And we were there for all of it.

TCS was chosen because of the special capabilities of our mobile unit, Video Voyager 1.  It had been built four years before with the Penn State Football Show in mind.  For that program, we taped a football game on Saturday afternoon and then edited it on Saturday night into a one-hour show that stations could air on Sunday morning.  We usually found it most convenient to edit the show right there in the mobile unit at the stadium, starting as soon as the game was over.  Therefore, VV1 was built with a CMX 340X editing system onboard.

The CMX was a computer that could control all four one-inch video tape machines, rolling them to edit points with single-frame accuracy.  The controller was like a normal computer keyboard except that every key was a different color and had a special dedicated function; I recall that the spacebar was ALL STOP.

I also recall that old-fashioned paper tape was used to save Edit Decision Lists.  When the machine was punching holes in the paper tape, it sounded like someone was taking an air wrench to the bottom of the truck.

But I don't recall the CMX being used to actually edit a Penn State show that I worked on, except once when we brought in someone who was exceptionally skilled in its use.  Usually we just rolled the video tapes manually.

At these corporate events, the CMX was desirable because WQPL had decided to show multiple video tapes, rolled synchronously.  The CMX could do that, and it could do it much more accurately than two tape operators trying to punch four PLAY buttons at the same time.

In Miami Beach in March, VV1 parked near the hotel's main entrance off Collins Avenue, as seen here.

In New Orleans in April, it parked behind the hotel, near the loading dock where garbage dumpsters reeked of discarded shrimp in the Louisiana heat and humidity.  (If you're looking for a TV truck, you'll usually find it at the loading dock next to the dumpsters.  It's part of the glamour of show business.)

We could have hoisted VV1 onto a boat and shipped it off to Hawaii in May.  However, we discovered that a Honolulu TV station also had a truck (festooned inside with ti leaves for good luck) that could play tapes under computer control.  The station sometimes used these capabilities, they told us, to progressively delay TV broadcasts from the mainland in order to squeeze in extra commercials.  By the end of the Super Bowl, Hawaiian viewers might be watching action that had actually taken place 20 minutes earlier.

Why did we need to roll all those video tapes at the same time?  We were improving upon the multimedia presentations of previous years.

In multimedia, live speeches and performances were augmented by projection screens.  On the screens were movies — or maybe several of them at once — as well as slides from multiple slide projectors, accompanied by audio recordings.  Complicated controllers could sequence slide images to various parts of the screen, sometimes dissolving from one image to the next, sometimes working together to form a very large composite image. 

Video tape could replace all this, and several video tapes could work together to form a very large composite image.  (Of course, the picture quality of standard-definition video was not as good as 35mm slides, but maybe that wouldn't matter.)  Also, unlike film, video images could be shown only moments after being recorded, or even shown live.  This opened up new creative possibilities.

In the ballroom, the stage was backed by a rear projection screen roughly six feet high and 24 feet wide, which could be filled by three side-by-side video projectors, A, B, and C.  When there was no video to be projected, various other panels or curtains were placed in front of this wide screen.

On each side of the stage was one additional projection screen (shown here in red), which was hidden when not in use by a sliding panel in the proscenium.  Naturally enough, we called these "sliders."

As I recall, we used the truck's video switcher like this:  mix/effects banks 1, 2, and 3 sent images (usually from tapes A, B, and C) to the three projectors on the wide screen, while the "program" output of the switcher went to both sliders.  "Program" might be tape D, or live cameras, or still images from our recently introduced Abekas A42 still store, or even text from my Chyron character generator.

Yes, I had the fontologist duties for these shows.  I also eventually became the still store operator, so I had two keyboards in front of me.

I saved some of my stills and other video to 3/4-inch tape, which then was copied to VHS tape, which then was photographed off a TV screen to obtain the small images you'll see throughout this article.  The original video quality was somewhat better.

Among the first Chyron pages I prepared were "mayday graphics" like this, for use if we couldn't get the video tapes to roll.  WQPL was still worried about the reliability of the equipment, so they wrote inside jokes for me to type up.  For example, "This is a Headquarters presentation.  Please stand by while we quarter a few heads."  Or, "So much for zero defects."  Fortunately, we never had to use them.

But that's not to say that everything ran perfectly.  One foul-up led to the cancellation of an entire musical production number that was supposed to feature our star performer, comic actor Ronnie Schell.  (You may remember Ronnie in such minor roles as one of Gomer Pyle's buddies.  On our stage, he clowned with the singers and dancers, as seen here.)

The production number in question began with all the video screens and sliders closed.  The live orchestra was supposed to start playing and the live Ronnie was supposed to start singing.

Then later in the song, a videotaped Ronnie was supposed to join in, adding various characters to the number (for example, his version of Andy Rooney).

How can an actor who was recorded last month sing along with an orchestra that's playing today?  The answer was a "click track."

On one of the audio tracks of our videotape machines were slow, rhythmic clicks.  These were piped to the headset worn by the orchestra conductor.  On cue, we'd roll the tapes.  The conductor would hear "One, two, three, four, click.  Click.  Click.  Click."  He would know when to start the band and exactly how fast to play.  The tapes would continue to roll, and eventually the prerecorded and synchronized footage would come along.

But during one performance when we rolled the tapes, the conductor heard nothing, so he didn't start the band playing.  Ronnie waited and ad-libbed while we frantically recued the tapes.  He gave the cue again, we rolled them again, but the conductor merely shrugged.  Eventually Ronnie had to give up on the song and move ahead to the next part of the script.

What went wrong?  We eventually figured out that one of the tape operators had turned down the audio output level of his machine.  This is often done while rewinding to keep loud high-pitched sounds from bleeding out of the machine, but you're supposed to turn the level back up to the normal setting afterwards.  This operator forgot.

We all felt bad about the mistake, but since the video screens never opened, the audience in the ballroom never knew that it was the TV crew's fault!  All they saw was Ronnie stalling for time and the orchestra not playing.  So when they filled out their evaluations of the session, "video" still got high marks, as was reported to us on the beach later by Jonathan Quitt from WQPL.

You see, the ballroom sessions were in the morning, so our hardworking crew had the opportunity to visit the beach at midday.

Here are some of us as seen in John Geisel's video footage from Miami, such as technical director Tom Clark and tape operator Dan Rotante enjoying the surf (left) while technical manager John Roché looks on (right).

Jim Huet adjusted a beach chair (left).  Joe Puthoff tried to listen to his newfangled Walkman, but as Phil Szumowski could have told him, it wasn't working (right).

Click here for Mike Sherwood, and here for a group.

Audio engineer Steve Weber had to be aware of a special circumstance.  For better sound quality, prerecorded segments had been sent to us on Dolby-encoded video tapes.  However, the VTRs in the truck were not equipped for Dolby.  So in the corner of Steve's audio room was a stack of Dolby decoders, one for each channel of each machine.

On the left, our relaxed director, Gary Clem.  On the right, his assistant director, Tami Rippy, who mainly was in charge of keeping track of where we were in the script.  After a few minutes of busily directing cameras, Gary's usual question was "Tami, where am I?"

Back at the truck were technical types like engineer Mike Gianutsos (left) and CMX editor Bill Morse (right).

Our engineer in charge, Joe Stovcisk, managed to avoid being photographed.  But he did lead us down to South Beach and Joe's Stone Crab (no relation).

Later in the day, while the rest of us returned to the ballroom for rehearsals, handheld camera operators like Marc Lynch here would follow the guests to their recreational activities — golf, tennis, boating, and so forth.

Overnight, a crew would edit these tapes into a presentation of people having fun (to the tune of "If They Could See Me Now") that would be shown during a subsequent morning session.  They used tricks such as showing a golfer stroking a putt on the left screen, then the ball rolling across the green on the center screen, then the ball falling into the cup on the right screen.

We also had another opportunity to show off video's quick turnaround time.  Coffee breaks, very important to the corporate culture, were included in each morning session.  Our cameramen would follow the attendees to the coffee break room.  Communicating with their respective tape operators back in the truck, the cameramen would edit together shots of the guests.

Then as the guests filed back into the ballroom, on the screens they would see footage of themselves that had been shot only minutes before.

I was surprised that, as far as I know, none of the attendees ever asked for a copy of these tapes to take home with hem.

The singers and dancers and fiddlers who appeared on stage were chosen from talented corporate employees around the country.

They performed parodies of popular songs of the day, such as "Footloose" and "Neutron Dance" and "Up Where We Belong."  A quartet emulated Manhattan Transfer on "Java Jive," which naturally led to another coffee break.

These performers were supported by professionals.  There was a director in the booth giving lighting and staging cues.  There was the aforementioned orchestra.  (However, as we moved farther west, we noticed fewer musicians in the orchestra and more synthesizers.  It might have been for budgetary reasons, or maybe union rules were less strict about the required number of musicians.)

And comedy writer Bob Orben was on hand to "punch up" routines as necessary.

Back in 1985, not everyone carried a cell phone as they do today, but many doctors had pagers on their belts.  Orben had a pager, too.  We were amused that it was necessary for the Comedy Surgeon to be constantly available, as was the Choreographer On Call.

Inside the ballroom, we tried to keep our cameras as unobtrusive as possible during actual performances.  These next pictures were taken during rehearsal. 

On the left, Mike Kobik is dimly visible.  For a real performance, he'd be wearing black for even greater inconspicuousity.

On the right, a spotlight operator is caught napping when his coworkers illuminate him.

Unfortunately,  some cameras were near the air-conditioning vents in the ceiling, and their operators (like Twister here) were forced to wear parkas and gloves to keep from freezing.

The truck was air-conditioned as well.  I had foolishly thought that it would not be necessary to take a jacket to Hawaii, but I soon found myself buying a golf sweater in the hotel gift shop.

In my letter of March 31, 1985, I recalled the breakthrough classical music album from my college days, "Switched-On Bach":

Walter (now Wendy) Carlos painstakingly recorded one voice at a time from a synthesizer to make that recording on multi-track tape.

Well, one of the performers here can play the Brandenburg Concerto from that album, live.  Michael Iceberg has what amounts to a customized electronic organ with other keyboards and computers off to the side.  He says he’s a compulsive buyer.

The whole thing is housed in a metallic pyramid which rolls out on stage amid smoke and flashing lights.  By using technology dear to the hearts of the guests (“Aren't computers wonderful?”), he can make this “Iceberg Machine” sound like a full orchestra.  Well, almost.

And I suspect that some parts of the score are pre-recorded.  He may simply play a tape to obtain the synthesized drum part to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” because one person has only a limited number of fingers and feet.  Anyhow, he’s one of the hits of the show.

A digression:  Sometime in the next few years, I synthesized some music for myself.

In 1984 it had been announced that 33 early chorale-preludes by J.S. Bach had been discovered in the library at Yale, and soon some of them were published.  Noting the three-part polyphony, I decided to make a recording of one of these pieces, using a little Casio keyboard and a couple of stereo cassette recorders.  Here's the result.

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"Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," BWV 1100, recorded about 1988.

To keep the rhythm steady, I first laid down my own "click track" (a march beat from the Casio) on one recorder.  I played that into Track A of the other recorder while recording one of Bach's parts on Track B.  Then I played back that tape, listening to Track A while mixing Track B with the live output of the Casio to add a second part.  I recorded this two-part mix back to the first recorder.  Then I played back that tape to Track A of the second recorder while I recorded the chorale melody on Track B.

Often the "slider" screens beside the stage would be used for simple graphic images, like the one on the left.  But sometimes they would show live video from our six cameras inside the ballroom, such as this speech by the  president of the company.

The corporate folks were at first reluctant to show live speeches.  They feared that the audience would become confused and wouldn't know whether to look at the larger-than-life video or at the real person.  But they eventually conceded that "magnifying" the speaker in this way was a useful technique.  On their evaluation forms, one group of guests rated "live video magnification" highest among all aspects of the presentations.

We used it for guest speakers like author Alex Haley (left), former NBC News reporter Edwin Newman (right),

and this guy, who gave a motivational talk.

Often in the evening, the guests would return to the ballroom to hear big-name entertainers, including Lou Rawls and Sheena Easton.

We fired up our video cameras to "magnify" the performances of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Beach Boys, who coaxed the gray-flannel-suit salesmen into dancing along.

Other personalities appeared only on tape.

Howard Cosell, recently retired from Monday Night Football, narrated a piece.  When the audience saw Howard, he got his usual mixed reaction.

In another segment, an old sailor previewed the next year's Golden Circle, to be held in Bermuda.

We also had grabbed images of our live performers to use as test patterns in setting up the video projectors.  Technicians were always fussing with those projectors, trying to get the pictures to look true to life.

For example, on the left is a corporate executive named Lou — he doesn't look completely lifelike, even now — and on the right is Ronnie Schell in costume as Bubba, a Texas politician.

Tom Clark had plenty of time to spare in the truck, so he flipped Bubba's image sideways using the Digital Video Effects unit and then combined two mirror-image halves.  Combining the halves that included cigars resulted in an evil villain, smoking out of both sides of his mouth.

Tom also arranged for Lou to wear the Iceberg Machine as a hat.  And he dressed Lou up as the old man from Bermuda.

So, each in our own way, we all had fun during our three months backstage in paradise.  Aloha!



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