Ushering is a cool line of work. I got the job in 1996 for the Historic Theatre Group (now it’s the Hennepin Theatre Trust) and have had a ball ever since.
First off, you get to people-watch like it was going out of style. And you get to interact with hundreds and hundreds of ‘em at your station. Plus, you get paid to see the show. Can’t beat it with a baseball bat.
Call time is about two hours before the production goes up. Punch in, grab your uniform bag, and change clothes. Then, after instructions from the house manager, cool your heels. Run your mouth with the other ushers. Catch up on some reading. All on the clock.
Smooth a gig as it is, when the crowds come in, you really do earn your money. It might not seem like it to patrons. After all, we’re just telling you where your seat is. Well, try doing that for face after face, say, when there’s a capacity crowd. You’d be surprised how trying that can get. For a hit show, they’re coming at you three and four deep about three minutes to curtain. You have to get a horde situated in no time flat and be real friendly about doing it. Good luck.
Mostly, we work musicals. The Lion King, Phantom, Sunset Boulevard, Broadway stuff. Once in a great while a drama comes through (caught Christopher Plummer doing Barrymore and Charles Durning and Julie Harris in The Gin Game). And there’s concerts. Lots and lots of concerts. Being an incurable music junkie, I love working concerts. Seen almost everybody and their brother over the years.
Tonight it’s Blue Felix at the State Theatre. Well, actually, the bill is Marilyn Manson, but, for me, it’s gonna turn out to be Blue Felix, a bunch of talented guys with sharp schtick. From what I’ve heard, headliner Marilyn Manson is a trip without luggage. The crowd certainly is. The doors open and fans stream in dressed and made up like far-flung relatives of the Addams Family. Well, I guess they came to have a good time. One of ‘em, Jimmy Pedersen, a stand-up comic from Fargo, came all the way to town just for this show. And, all in black, wearing ghoulish makeup, can’t resist letting out a war whoop that, coming from behind, scares me half out of my skin. It’s gonna be a long night.
Blue Felix open. Culture shock doesn’t come close to calling this one. The strangest looking bands when I was coming up were, say, were Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Blue Felix are something else altogether. The lead vocalist has red spiked hair and wears a cut-off sweatshirt showing seriously tattooed arms. The keyboardist wears a skull piece over the lower half of his face and Herman Munster boots with a spike sticking out the front (the spikes turn out to be rubber, but on stage they look deadly—which, duh, is the point). Everybody’s got black-and-white face paint.
One of the guitarists is nodding his head so furiously—at literal breakneck speed—you have to wonder what’s keep it attached to his body and why it doesn’t go flying into the audience. The keyboard player, hunched over and wildly animated, makes a more demented looking Igor than Dwight Frye of Frankenstein and Dracula fame could ever imagine. The lead singer won’t keep still to save his life, strutting and stomping around the stage, stepping up on what might be one of the monitors in fist-raised, hail-the-conquering-hero stance. And their clothes. Talk about Salvation Army chic, these guys look like holdovers from Halloween. I am wholly convinced they have all taken full and absolute leave of their senses. Describing them as deranged would be an understatement. Plain and simple, these guys are gone.
Prepared to dismiss Blue Felix as just some gimmicky outfit, I step into the lobby to help keep an eye on things. And can’t get away from the blistering guitar, driving beat, and throaty vocals. I help patrons to their seats, attend the lobby, just generally pass time and, the less I look at these guys, the better they sound. I mean, they really have chops. I peek back inside. It’s still a freak show on stage. Okay, so you shouldn’t just a book by its cover.
They’re playing what I’m told is metal fusion or something. A lot of screaming, solidly articulate guitar, laryngitis-inducing vocals, and precision drumming. Those are the auditory highlights. The bass player and keyboardist, to be sure, are on the money, but (maybe it’s the genre, maybe it’s the acoustics) blend more into the background. Any way you slice it, they lay down a helluva set to which the crowd responds with yells, cheers, clapping, and overall hysteria.
At intermission (the job at this point chiefly consists of directing folk to the restrooms), Blue Felix have meandered out to the lobby, hanging out at their merchandise table and surprise me by showing a very interesting side. Fans come up for autographs, to take photos with members of the band, just shoot the breeze, whatever. Each and every one of them is promptly greeted and well treated. With affectionate respect.
I get a minute to chat with Jimmy, part of the merchandising crew. He’s a house of a guy in Road Warrior gear and, of course, face paint, who wonder of wonders, doesn’t behave like he eats little babies for breakfast and kicks old ladies down the stairs. With him are Erin and Heather, a pair of fetching lasses decked out in skimpy, theme-related attire, who aren’t stuck up at all, not the least bit self-impressed. I sanction myself that I really have to not stereotype—especially as I watch Jimmy do on-the-spot makeovers for audience members who ask him to either touch-up their look or give them one. Anyone who believes a man must be effeminate to know what he’s doing with makeup should put a lid on it and get a load of Jimmy doing his thing. A real Kodak moment comes when a mom brings her little boy up to this hulk and he gently works on the youngster’s face.
Blue Felix caught themselves a real break. Marilyn Manson had just been in Canada and his opener, for whatever reason, couldn’t come to the States. So Manson’s rep, looking for a Twin Cities stand-in, tapped Blue Felix, who, with only three days notice and having been a while between gigs, answered the call, muscled up, and filled the bill. Good for them.
At length, the headliner hits the stage and, naturally, the whole place (2,100 sold-out seats) goes nuts. Recently enlightened or no, I check out at little bit of Marilyn Manson and, working a half-shift anyway, am ready to call it a night.
I don’t say every evening of ushering is as interesting as this one. But, on the whole, let’s put it like this. What other job you gonna get that pays you to watch famous people do their thing? And lets you listen to music?