December 6, 2019

Tales from the Green Room

What happens when you import a celebrity to northern Michigan.
By Ross Boissoneau | July 27, 2019

We’ve all heard the stories about high-powered touring performers demanding specific, sometimes ridiculous things in their performance contracts (looking at you, Van Halen, and your infamous “no brown M&Ms” rider). So has that been the case in northern Michigan?
 
Well, there’s no Superdome equivalent here, so we’re not exactly attracting a ton of artists prone to prima donna behavior, but that’s not to say their rider requests — or expectations — have been simple.

TRIPLE TIPPLE TIME
Gene Jenneman, the recently retired head of the Dennos Museum Center, said that as a whole, most performers who’ve appeared on the Milliken stage haven’t been very demanding — though he said there has been a request common to many: a range of alcoholic beverages in excess of what a single person or band might drink before or after a concert.
 
Diane Baribeau of the City Opera House (and prior to that, The Wharton Center in Lansing) and Rory Baker at Interlochen Center for the Arts share similar experiences — and are equally ready to respond.  

“If they want a bottle of wine, OK. But if they want Patron and a bunch of expensive liquor, we tell them there’s a bar out front, and we can give them a discount,” said Baribeau.
 
“In every single rider, there’s a request for alcohol. Some are very particular. If they insist on taking it onstage, it has to be in a cup,” Baker said.
 
LIMOS, NIXON PICS & MARLBORO REDS
While most performers are gracious and pleasant, that’s not always the case. Baribeau told of an opera singer who was the definition of a diva. Not only did she request — er, demand— a certain color of limousine, she found her first hotel room unacceptable, and made Baribeau personally escort her to another one. That one wouldn’t suffice either, and when the third hotel didn’t pass muster, an exasperated Baribeau told the diva she could stay at the Townsend in Detroit — but she would have to pay for her own transportation back and forth to East Lansing.
 
Other requests ran the gamut. “We had a pop group in East Lansing who specifically requested 8-by-10s of Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung. We had a well-known tap dancer, who specifically asked for drugs and alcohol, and posted a note on his dressing room door saying, ‘The party’s in here.’ That was not acceptable. You can’t be inviting students in.”
 
When Liza Minelli performed at Wharton, she asked that a carton of Marlboro Reds be placed in her dressing room every day. But Baribeau said Minelli offered something in return: “She actually had a little dog, Lillie, who was a direct descendant of Toto. That was the best part of her visit.”
 
Sometimes the requests could take a comedic turn. “I recall one concert with a blues artist who was playing a great show, and the audience was asking for more,” recalled Jenneman. “The artist said something to the effect, ‘I would play longer if I had a six-pack.’ I asked one of my staff to run across the street to 7/11 and get a six-pack, and then I took it down to the stage and placed it in front of him. He never opened it, but they still played on. It was all somewhat of a joke that made the evening even more great fun.
 
“In the early days of the jazz series at Milliken, we had one jazz artist who had not arrived for the concert a few minutes before he was to be onstage. Turns out, he was at the bar at the Park Place, perhaps drinking the courage he needed to get on stage,” said Jenneman. “We had to hold the rest of the band from going on until he arrived.”
 
DRUGS, PREGNANCY TESTS & OXYGEN TANKS
Pre-show prep isn’t always limited to off-site activity. Take it from Chris Ludwa, artistic director at Bay View. “Last year a certain well-known blues/rock band had its lead singer in the green room pre-show, and we were told that even the road manager didn't open the door to see what drugs were going down in there. He even told the security guard not to look in there,” said Ludwa. 
 
Artist food requests often include special provisions, such as gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan. Baribeau said that’s now just a matter of course, though some can get more specific. One of the children of frequent guest Natalie MacMaster is extremely allergic to peanuts. So Baribeau had to make sure the entire backstage area was cleaned and disinfected before her and her family’s arrival.
 
Other requests? “One performer asked us to get a pregnancy test,” said Baribeau. And, yes, it turned out she was pregnant.
 
“One artist wanted us to drape all the leather furniture — it was not the right color. We also freshly painted the room white,” said Baker. One performer requested a room for their gym equipment; another wanted space for their psychiatrist.
 
“For one band, we had to bring in medical-grade oxygen equipment” for the lead singer to take a hit from offstage. “Several want massage therapists before they go back on the bus. It’s always something crazy. For OK Go, we had to buy a ridiculous amount of confetti. They had it going the whole time. It was a great show, but our housekeeping staff was not happy.”
 
Baker said the biggest challenge the venue faces is typically not a request by the artist, but with their audience interaction onstage. “What we struggle with the most is when the artist invites the audience to come up by the stage,” he said. The patrons paying the big bucks for the seats up front suddenly find their space invaded by dancing audience members singing along with the music, making it difficult to see or hear the performers. “We ask them to hold off till the show is three-quarters over,” Baker said.
 
BETTER TO GIVE THAN RECEIVE
Above and beyond the requests are what some guest artists offer, in their interactions during the show and prior to or after it.

“Harry Connick Jr. wants to spend time with the students. He’ll do master classes, after the show invite them back stage. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are amazing to work with. Vic Wooten spent time with the bass players in the jazz program and the string bass players. They attended sound check, which is typically closed. Another really special one was B.B. King. He’d single out a student, play with him on his bus after the show, give him advice. That gives our students something they don’t get anywhere else.
 
“Jay Leno was very giving of his time,” Baker continued. Leno talked with students about their goals and dreams. He also would have one of the student ensembles open the show for him. “He was very gracious.”
 
Baribeau said actor John Amos was one of the most affable artists she’s ever dealt with, as was the late Rip Torn. Both would sit down and chat with people, including the accounting department staffers whose offices were just outside the dressing rooms.
 
There is the other extreme, to be sure. Baker recalled one act where, unbeknownst to anyone from Interlochen, the road crew for one act put a line of cocaine on a band member’s harmonica, which he snorted just before he played. “We had no idea that was happening,” Baker said.
 
Jenneman recalled hosting a performer who made a request that was not part of the rider, but was made privately — for some female “company” for their hotel room following the concert.

“Of course, this was all before the Internet and the accompanying websites for procuring such services,” he said.

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