SOBIESKI, Wis. (WFRV) – All around Gerald B. Henley in his jobs is an array of talent – people who perform and those who help them shine on stage.
“The entertainment business is really fascinating. It takes a certain type of person who wants to be in the band. It takes a different type of person who wants to be in the entertainment business. And let’s not forget it’s a business.
“There are the agents, the agencies, the marketing team, the bus drivers, the truck drivers, the bands themselves, the stagehands, the tour managers, the tour accountants, the stage managers, the production stage managers, the carpenters – all of that. I don’t think that you do this if you don’t love doing it.
“You want to love this, whether you love traveling or you love just being around entertainers and being in the music industry or the entertainment industry at all.
“That’s the common thread that I found where really – even if people on that particular day aren’t nice, kind and considerate the way that you would want them to be – it’s still they are doing this because they love entertainment and the entertainment industry.”
Gerald Henley is immersed in entertainment at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton and Summerfest in Milwaukee, both of which are juggling schedules because of the coronavirus COVID-19.
He is especially involved at present with the PAC, working from home in Sobieski. We spoke by telephone.
“I am the director of production and facility operations. There, I just simply lead a number of teams. I lead the facilities services team, the facility maintenance team, the security team, all aspects of production and basically all of the activities that take place back of the house.
“I also am instrumental with the programming. I am the liaison between the center and promoters, our PAC Presents, which are shows that we take a look at and we take the risk on. “Yeah, I like getting promoters in the building. And really that’s probably my real emphasis there because I’ve got a facilities operations manager who reports to me, and I’ve got two stage managers also – my direct reports.”
Gerald Henley also is also the voice of the PAC. His warm tones have come to be easily recognizable.
“The voice that you hear in the main lobby – that’s usually recorded. But the voice that you hear before the show starts – that’s usually live. I do a lot of those.”
How did that come about?
“I guess it’s just my voice. When I started there in 2004, I used to go in the theater and just start singing. It sounds so good – the theater and everything – I would just go in there and start singing. And I’d just take a microphone and just start using (pro wrestling and boxing announcer) Michael Buffer’s voice, “Good evening, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center welcomes you” – those kinds of things.
“I was just fooling around, and before you know it, I had a script, and I was thanking our sponsors and all sorts of fun things and then ultimately introducing the bands or the comedians.”
In his performing days, Gerald Henley played saxophone and sang. More about that is in the first part of this column at this link:
Serious action pulses around Gerald Henley on show days, like the following description for a one-nighter.
“Let’s take a typical day of a show. Let’s say its Alice Cooper.
“About three or four months before the show comes, a member of my staff is in contact with their production team. It’s called advancing the show. That person will advance the show. So then we’ll know exactly what time those guys are coming in, what time they want breakfast, what time they want lunch, dinner and what time traveling tour crew will coming into the building.
“Then that member of my staff will reach out to Local 470, the union, and we’ll put in what we call a stagehand call. This is just an example. We may ask for 17 carpenters, 15 electricians, 6 riggers, 4 people in wardrobe, 5 people in props. We get all that taken care of so that the moment that the buses and the trucks roll up, we’re already in a place where all we’ve got to do is unload them and get them on stage.
“When we advance the show, I would say usually we’re at a 95 to 97 percent done rate. But there’s still going to be that three to five percent of the time of what we call ‘Oh, by the ways.’ That’s because once they come in and they see our theater and how fabulous it is and how big it is – we may have advanced them using six or seven of our dressing rooms, and once they get in the building and they see that we have 10, they’ll want to use all 10 dressing rooms or they’ll want to use our Green Room. We’ve got a room called 180. They’ll also want to use that room. I usually use that room for catering. But, yup, that’s a typical day.
“Now, we start unloading their trucks. On a typical day, we’ll start at 7 a.m. Their people will come in. Their riggers will come in and will start laying out points. Points are these areas where will now begin to hang motors so that we can put up their P.A. system, we can hang all of their lighting systems and all of those kinds of things.
“So that will be a 7 a.m. call. I may have the guys in there for two hours. They break for lunch, and then the real work starts with all of the stagehands.
“My regular stagehand call will come in when I need the carpenters, will need the electricians, will need the folks in props. This becomes how things get loaded and unloaded off the trucks, and that depends on how the flow of the day goes.
“Let’s say it’s a three-bus, two-truck show. Harry Connick Jr., for example, was four buses and three trucks. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I’m able to cut all of the stagehands except my house crew, and the touring artist’s crew can just go on stage and play around, make sure that everything’s working, everything’s good to go.
“At 5 o’clock, usually the artists will come in, and they’ll do a full sound check. Most of the time they’ll come in and do anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. I mean, artists like Vince Gill, once he gets on stage for a soundcheck, that thing can last an hour and a half. He’s just a fun, fun guy.
“After the soundcheck, they go and have dinner. And then the show will start at 7:30 or 8 o’clock.
“And afterward, we’ll load the show out using – if it’s four trucks – we can usually get that out of the building in about two hours.
“That’s a pretty good synopsis of what goes on in the day. But the real work is before they get in the building. If you do a really good job of that – whether it be sending out a technical specifications packet, talking to them on the phone before they get in the building and basically advancing their needs and their wants – then it can all go extremely well and have a really nice flow to the day.”
And then there are the touring Broadway musicals, a major draw for the PAC.
“Just think of it being much bigger. We’re doing eight shows (in six days) rather than one show – the set pieces, the props, the wardrobe, the number of trucks that are coming, the number of stagehands that are working – all of those kinds of things. The name can change, but the game is the same.
“We could be unloading, let’s say, 17 trucks for a Broadway show. When getting all the gear on stage out of 17 trucks rather than getting a one-nighter, the process is pretty much the same. It is, a member of my team will contact them three months in advance and will start the process of ‘What’s going on? When are you guys arriving?’ We’ll start telling them what we plan on doing with their trucks, how many dressing rooms we have, those kinds of things.”
At Summerfest, Gerald Henley’s turf is the excitement surrounding the rock stage, the Uline Warehouse Stage. What does he do there that he doesn’t do at Fox Cities PAC?
“At Summerfest, I am a stage manager. I’m not involved in advancing the shows or hiring the bands or hiring the crew or any of those things.
“I show up, they hand me a book with 66 bands’ phone numbers, all of those kinds of things, and basically I and an assistant stage manager just simply start calling the bands and letting them know what time they can arrive for their show.
“So if we’re doing six bands a day, I can’t have all six bands show up at the same time because I can’t load them and unload them. So it’s basically setting up the schedule of when they can come and we’re able to set them up on stage.
“I pay all the bands. The accountants come down and give me the checks or we wire them the money by the ACH (Automated Clearing House) and all that kind of fun stuff.
“One of the nice things about Summerfest is that is I just put bands on stage and, more importantly, get them off on time and keep that schedule. Now remember, there are nine or 10 other stages, so we’re working in and out of when I can put a band on stage or when somebody else is putting their band on stage so that we all don’t begin our shows and end our shows at the same time. That would be wreaking havoc, you know, letting 90,000 people out in downtown Milwaukee all at the same time. So there are staggered starts, which ultimately means that the endings all are staggered also.”
Gerald Henley has direct contact with the acts and/or their managers.
“When I pay them, I am their best friend, especially in the mornings when they get there. I’m reminding them of that. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who am I settling with?’ And I basically say, ‘I am the one who will be settling the show with you. I’ve got your money.’ I’m there until the end of the night.
“A lot of times what happens is that the bands want to get paid before they play. I won’t pay them before they play. The case is, if it means that much to them, if they start their show, give me one minute of music, then I’ll just go into the office with the tour manager or their tour accountant and I’ll pay them then. But, yeah, ‘You have to give me one minute of music. I won’t pay you before you go on stage.’”
Side note: To get to classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I drove past what became the Summerfest grounds. At the time, it was a Nike missile site. Through a chain link fence could be seen a row of anti-aircraft missiles pointed skyward. The Cold War was on, and the fear was the Soviet Union might attack us. That was the ’60s.
Gerald Henley goes back 32 years with Summerfest.
“I remember when there were only three stages. Yeah, back in the day, there were only three stages there. Now you look at that place, and it is just fabulous. It’s still the world’s largest music festival.”
At Fox Cities PAC, Gerald Henley is part of another kind of planning.
“I’m a member of our programming team. We all have our areas of expertise. I don’t do the Broadway shows, and my area there is twofold.
“For all of the production numbers – basically I’m putting together the stagehand labor numbers, the safety and security numbers, anything and everything to do with production, whether we’re going to have to rent some things, whether or not we’ve got it in house. So that’s one piece of it.
“The other piece is I will present to the team some opportunities that we may have, whether it be presenting commercial product or having promoters present that product in our facility. When I say that, I basically am saying, looking at our calendar and making sure that what we’re doing when it comes to commercial product makes sense.”
That takes knowing what’s out there. How does he know what’s out there?
“I’m a member of the International Association of Venue Managers. I’m a member of the International Entertainment Buyers Association. I also go to the Pollstar events (Pollstar being a trade publication for the concert industry).
“Those times, I’m meeting with agents and talking to agencies, and basically they’re telling me what’s coming out on tour.
“I’m also meeting with a number of promoters that are interested in renting our facility, and they have a pretty good gauge on what’s going to be touring. Let’s say for example right now – what’s going to be touring next April, May and June (2021).
“Where I’m getting a lot of my intel is by attending those events. Pollstar was in Los Angeles this year. Venue Managers was in Chicago this year. And then International Entertainment Buyers Association is always in Nashville. And then I get an opportunity to go out and visit with, again, agents and agencies.
“Once you get the reputation in this business, the whole thing is about relationships. They will call you. They know that we have a fabulous facility and know Appleton and Green Bay and all of the surrounding area are a really a nice, fun place to come visit.
“They’ll seek us out because, again, it’s a really nice place if you’re a band and you’re going from Chicago to Minneapolis or Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis, why not take a chance and come up to Appleton and do a show on a Wednesday or a Thursday on your route to Minneapolis.”
Personal preference has nothing to do with Gerald Henley’s suggestions to the programming committee.
“In this business, you will learn: Never book anybody you like (laughing) because you become too attached to the event. Yeah.
“We are a gathering place for the community. That’s always at the heart of the decisions that we’re making as part of the programming team.
“Is this an artist or a comedian that we haven’t had in our facility, or is this an artist or show or something where a segment of our population is one we need to get into our building? Again, we are the gathering place for the community. We need to put a little of something in the building for everybody.”
As with so much today, technology factors into the entertainment industry. Some things at Fox Cities PAC are very much different from the day Gerald Henley walked in 17 years ago.
“Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. This is just one segment – backdrops. Walking in the building, we have what’s called the bars across the top of line sets. We’ve got 81 line sets. That means basically we can hang 81 backdrops in shows. Now you can do all that with one video wall.
“The advent and the use of video and video walls have drastically changed what’s going on in the entertainment business. Just think about it. If you had that many backdrops – legs, borders, main curtain, those kinds of things – you may need three or four or five, six, seven trucks – to carry that around. Now you can put one video wall in one truck and accomplish all of the things you would need had you used the conventional backdrops. So, yeah, technology has really taken over.”
It’s in financial matters, too.
“Yeah, back in the day, you would have to have relationships with the buildings and the other personnel within those buildings to call them and just say, ‘Well, this artist, how many tickets did they sell, can you help me in the range of what the gross dollars that you made that you were able to take in on that show?’ Now it’s all out there electronically.
“We all report to Pollstar or a couple of the publications. So it’s like anything else where these people want to be No. 1, this person will be in the top 10, we want to be in the top 20, that kind of stuff. So everybody’s reporting to these various publications on how you’re doing as far as ticket sales go, how many people came into the building, number of shows that you did, how shows gross.”
At present, there is a haze around what Gerald Henley does.
“There’s a lot of questions out there. But it’s one of those situations where nobody has the answers. Nobody has any real answers on how the public’s going to come back, what’s going to happen out there…We’re making plans. Everybody’s making plans, but we will just have to wait and see.”
To end, I’ll go back to the start and what makes Gerald Henley tick:
“When I look out whether it’s at the PAC and there’s 2,000 people in the building who paid their money and are really into this artist or I’m at Summerfest and there are 4,000-6,000 kids out there at 10 o’clock when the artist starts, my satisfaction is that, ‘Yeah, I did the job that I just love doing and not only is that audience appreciating the artists, but also they’re appreciating my crew and myself and all the work that we put in to get them on stage.”