In the summer of 1970, my family went to the Indiana State Fair for the rides, cotton candy, and the usual things that are to be expected. What was not expected was that I’d get to meet Cowboy Bob. Cowboy Bob, portrayed by the late Bob Glaze, had a kids’ show, where he’d play cartoons and entertain between them.
Bob was an animal activist and preservationist, so he always had animals in his show. At one point in his show, he has a guy bring out a boa constrictor that had to be close to 10 feet long, and he called for kid volunteers who wanted to “come on up and check out the snake.” I wanted to volunteer.
There was one problem with all of this. I’d have to climb some stairs and get on a STAGE, not only in front of a BUNCH of people, but this was also being broadcast on television.
It was the ultimate battle in a kid’s head, over which was stronger: My fear of the stage, or my desire to check out this boa constrictor. Ultimately, the snake was just too damned awesome.
Someone walked me over to some steps, and I had to climb the steps to get on the stage.
There I was, on an elevated stage, in front of a bunch of people, on television, with Cowboy Bob himself, and the most awesome snake anyone has ever seen.
The stage was positioned on the dirt track in front of the grandstands, which were not being used at that time of day, for this event.
It was fun to meet Cowboy Bob, as well as get to pick up a huge snake. However, I had no idea that in just ten short years, I’d be returning, with a snare drum.
1980: INDIANA STATE FAIR [Capacity = 13,921]
This was my first true experience on a big stage, as a musician. I was only 15, and was performing with my high school marching band. We had a good drum line during the 1979-1980 school year.
However, just about everyone in the drum line was a senior. They graduated at the beginning of summer, and had no desire to go to band camp, let alone march in the Indiana State Fair. Other segments of the band lost people, as well.
This meant two things, with the first being that we would be the smallest band marching at Band Day. Other schools had 200-350+ members in their marching band. My marching band, including color guard, had a grand total of 27 people.
There was one more thing. I’d be the only snare drummer. I would not have the luxury of a snare line, with other players to lean on or rely on, should I drop a stick or mess up. I’d also not have the luxury of marching toms or other things. We had a bass drum player, a cymbal player, and me.
And almost 14,000 people in the grandstand. This was not a Cowboy Bob show, where only the little kids cared. This was a major competition, and parents and family members of every band member from every school were packing those stands to the gills.
It was a full house, and the performance was a success. If you’re wondering what a marching band with only one snare drummer sounds like at the Indiana State Fair, then today you’re in luck.
After this experience, I decided to go to band camp and march at State Fair in the summer of 1983, just a few months after graduation, in order to show support. I would also return in the summer of 1984 as a camp counselor and drum line instructor.
1983: Riverfront Stadium [Capacity = 40,007]
I performed a show here with the first-ever Cincinnati Reds High School Honors Band. I got to meet Pete Rose and Johnny Bench during rehearsal break, which was cool.
With this particular marching band, roughly 14,000 people auditioned for a spot. They selected 124 people. I was the leader of the drum line.
This was a very fast-paced gig. Sheet music was sent to us in advance. However, I also had to write an intro cadence, a drum break, and an outro cadence. This involved quickly writing parts for all of the drummers, getting the other drummers in a circle, and distributing the parts. We ran through them twice before the show.
As for the show, we ran through that twice as well.
Everything was so big, that it almost felt like nobody was there, even though the stadium was full.
I’ve not been able to find any photos or videos of this. Should you find a video of this performance, you can find me easily, as I am the ONLY person wearing a cape.
1993: The Hollywood Bowl [Capacity = 17,500]
This was a different type of gig for me. I was not a musician this time, and I was a solo improv act. I had been doing some work in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.
Everything about that came a rather abrupt end in 1991, after the real Pee-Wee got arrested. But I would be pulled out of forced retirement in April 1993, after the Stage Manager at The Hollywood Bowl called me.
Every year, the great Henry Mancini would perform at The Hollywood Bowl, conducting a full orchestra, for his birthday. This was always a huge sold-out event. The staff at The Hollywood Bowl would always “prank” him whenever he started conducting “The Pink Panther Theme.”
Shortly after the song starts, someone in a Pink Panther outfit would go out and interrupt the performance. They’d get on a microphone, greet Mr. Mancini, hand him a rose, and wish him a happy birthday. They’d close by expressing how they hope he can come back next year.
That’s basically what I would be doing, except I’d be dressed as Pee-Wee Herman, and I’d be on the historic stage of The Hollywood Bowl in front of 17,500 people. No pressure.
When I get there, I am sent backstage to get ready. The backstage area was packed to the gills with a who’s-who of just about every big-name celebrity you could ever imagine.
I had a long conversation with Kris Kristofferson, who had been in Big Top Pee-Wee about five years prior to our meeting. He complimented my outfit and my presentation, which I considered to be high praise, considering that he’d worked with Paul Reubens.
A stage manager comes to get me. It’s about time for The Pink Panther Theme. Let’s get pumped!
They take me to the edge of the stage, give me a red rose to put in my pocket, and leave me there with a security guard. However, the security guard did not know who I was or why I was there, which was strange, so he was not going to let me do my schtick. I had to get someone to inform him. The night was almost ruined!
The song starts, and I’m in position like a track runner. I pick my moment and run up on the stage. I’m doing the Pee-Wee Tequila! dance behind his back, shifting every time he looks so he cannot see me.
Then I run through the ranks, yelling at the orchestra players to shut up. Someone from the side of the stage hands me a microphone.
I run to the front of the stage and put my hands up. The sound of 17,500 people screaming came back at me. I was almost blown over. I look over to Mr. Mancini, and he’s smiling because he knows exactly what is going on.
I raise the microphone and tell the audience, “Ssshhhhhhh…. this is kinda important, so please don’t be rude and shut up. HA-HA!”
Then I go over to Mr. Mancini, hand him a rose, and address him. “Mr. Mancini, on behalf of The Hollywood Bowl, its staff, everyone here… and ME… I’d like to wish you a very happy birthday, and we hope that you’ll come back next year.”
We shake hands, and the crowd goes nuts. Of course, I don’t walk off the stage without going to the front one more time and raising my arms up to welcome one last round of incredible applause.
I go backstage, and Kris Kristofferson was the first person to greet me. I was getting big pats on the back. Considering that I did this in exchange for two free tickets, I took that as payment. It’s something that nobody can ever take away from me.
My mother was there that night, in the nosebleed section. I changed backstage and then made my way up to the top of the audience area. People couldn’t stop talking to me. Mom tried to take pictures, but it was night time and she was really far away from the stage.
That was my final performance as Pee-Wee Herman. As for Henry Mancini, unfortunately he was too sick to return and died the next year. However, I did meet his widow, Ginny, in 2003 when I was working at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles. She told me that he truly enjoyed my performance, and that they had talked about it when they got home later that night.
2009 & 2016: Wilshire Ebell Theatre [Capacity = 1,270]
While this is the smallest venue of them all, the audience was full of big names. The event is an annual fundraiser for the Peter Boyle Research Fund and the International Myeloma Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funding for research for a cure for Multiple Myeloma. Sadly, Mr. Boyle passed away from this in 2006.
With my experience at The Hollywood Bowl, there were a ton of celebrities backstage. However, with THIS event, the entire audience is comprised mostly of celebrities.
Ray Romano is the Emcee, and everyone from Everybody Loves Raymond was there, as well as a variety of acts. I would be performing with the comedy great, Fred Willard.
Our act was relatively simple and short. In 2009, we were the openers, and we moved up a few spots in 2016.
In our act, Fred portrays the late Elvis Presley from a different timeline, where Elvis took up comedy instead of music. Fred delivered the jokes as “Laffest Presley,” and I delivered the rim shots.
It wasn’t as simple as using a generic rim shot. We had jokes that were bad on purpose, so they’d get a different rim shot. There were also jokes where he’d say, “alternate punch line,” and then I’d have to grade those punchlines and give them a more exciting rim shot if they were better.
In this gig, I got to see what stage managers do. It’s so insane, that they’ll reach out to anyone to try to get answers. I was walking down the hall, when I got asked, “Do you know who this Bill Burr guy is? Because he wants a microphone with a cable, so we gotta set that up. Do you know what he does?”
I said, “I don’t know, he’s a comedian. He might swing the microphone around like a windmill or something.”
There were lots of fun acts. In 2009, Tenacious D was the closer. But in 2016, it was Michael McKean and his wife, Annette. He played guitar and sang. Forget the Spinal Tap persona, he’s truly a guitarist and a respectable musician.
Before we went on, I was talking to Michael about his guitar and music. It was about time for Fred and me to take the stage. I tell him, “I’m scared, Michael! I’m a drummer and I might explode! What do I do?!?!?!”
He replies, “Calm down. You don’t have a contract. You’ll be fine.”
When I got on the stage, the very first thing I noticed was the audience. The audience here was significantly smaller, when compared to the bigger venues. This meant that I could see everyone’s faces. I’d have questions in my head, such as, “Why are Joe Walsh and Jeff Lynne sitting together?” I’d later learn they were working on a project.
The jokes were great, although I’m sure that you could find at least a billion people on Twitter who would be offended and outraged by them. Context is everything! My job that night was to match the power of the rim shot with the power of the joke.
The evening was a big success. Maybe we’ll do it again this year.
HOW TO GET PREPARED
I chose these scenarios because they each contain different elements, from expectations, to execution, and even preparation.
Preparation can often times help you cope with the possibility of stage fright. Below is a high-level of what was involved in those three performances.
For the State Fair performance, there were months of preparation. I spent hours after school, crafting the drum parts to make the best use of 3 players. I also worked with the band director, Greg Scott, on the marching patterns and timing. Tons of music rehearsal, after school marching rehearsal, band camp for a week. Lots of work went into this 5-minute performance.
Riverfront Stadium was a fast-paced situation, where there was almost NO time to learn. I got the sheet music ahead of time, but had to do some last-minute writing for the drum line. Memorizing the sheet music helped, as did being the one who wrote all of the cadences. It was a case of learn fast and hope for the best. I had to lean on my years of experience as a marching band drummer.
The Hollywood Bowl Pee-Wee gig was mostly improv, outside of the primary goals [interrupt show, present rose, happy birthday]. In the late 80s, I’d spent about 3 months studying the character and crafting my own act. I’d also put in countless performance hours at private parties. The framework of the character provided a great safety net. “What would Pee-Wee do or say?”
At the Wilshire Ebell Theatre gig, we had one writing session at Mr. Willard’s home, and had never actually practiced at all. He got his parts down. I learned his routine and wrote parts based on the script, and put notes on my drum head as a back-up. Writing, mental practice, and cheat notes were all essential.
As you can see, there are some subtle difference in preparation. Most of it is about knowing the material, or knowing the behaviors of a character.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that you can freeze up. The best way to deal with stage fright is to face your fear by getting on a stage. I’ve played all of the relevant stages on The Sunset Strip in Hollywood, as a drummer, guitarist, bassist, and keyboard player. There were times when I would be in two or three bands, and we’d all have gigs every week.
The more time you spend on a stage, the more comfortable it gets. Building up your abilities as a player or performer can improve confidence. Confidence can crush stage fright.
WHAT ABOUT SMALL STAGES?
While I did focus primarily on the big stage, there is something to be said for the small stage.
On a big stage, there is a sea of people out there. On the stage, you typically have bright lights shining, so you can’t really see the people. This is rather helpful.
But on a small stage, you might be playing for 10 people, there might be 3-5, or there could be just one person standing there, looking at you and listening. You can see their face, and whether or not they like what you are doing. This can have a special kind of impact on what you’re doing. It can also be more intimidating.
There are big stages everywhere, but there are way more small stages. The small stage can be where you work things out, and get yourself ready for a bigger stage. If nothing else, this is where you gain stage experience.
Even with my first high school marching band performance in 1980, in front of almost 14,000 people, I had performed music recitals at school since first grade. Experience is experience, and it’s helpful.
The small stage is most definitely your friend. It can be rough, but it can also prepare for something greater down the line.
IN THE END
I’ve discussed just some the biggest stages on which I’ve performed. But what is the smallest stage on which I’ve performed? I once played in a clothing store, next to a clothes rack.
Give me a stage, and I’ll take it.