by Loyce Braun, Theatre Chair
Our historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, one of the few Broadway-style theaters in Los Angeles, is described by Stage Manager Bob Bigelow as a “hemp house.” No, he doesn’t mean a place where hallucinogenic fumes are inhaled, but a theater whose original mechanical systems consisted of rope (hemp) and sandbags.
The theater has special importance in the lives of the diverse cultural communities of Los Angeles, featuring performances of well-known African-American, Armenian, Korean, Persian and Russian shows, to name a few, as well as High Holiday services, graduations and entertainment industry productions. Caring for the theater full-time are three exceptional people: Theater Manager Michael O’Connor, Assistant Manager Virginia O’Connor and the afore-mentioned Bob.
Michael; a native of England, came to the U.S., became enamored of Santa Monica and met Virginia there. They married and now work together. Although he was always interested in the arts, Michael’s background was primarily in restaurants and hospitality, including a run as Banquet Manager at the Riviera Country Club. He came to the Ebell 19 years ago, starting in the box office.
Virginia, raised in Encino, was a dancer and singer who performed with “The Young Americans,” a group that worked with Liberace. Virginia is by far the prettiest of the three full-time staff, indeed so good-looking that one marvels she is not still on the stage. After working in sales and marketing for TV production and distribution companies, she joined the Ebell on a “temporary” basis 19 years ago.
Much of Virginia and Michael’s work overlaps, such as interviewing clients and negotiating contracts, but Michael is the “front of the house” presence and is on-site for 98% of the theater’s events. He solves problems, does crowd control and eases the interface between promoters, audiences and theater.
Michael and Virginia say Bob is the “true artist” of the team, saying he knows everything about the workings and capabilities of the stage. Bob oversees personnel brought in by promoters to ensure the historic building is protected, as well as to help turn backstage chaos into coherent action onstage.
With a BA in theater and an MA in directing, Bob’s own background as an actor, director, onstage guru and consummate stage craftsman allows the theater to book a variety of shows and events that would be daunting for less experienced stage managers. Virginia says she and Michael sometimes make “cheeky bookings” knowing that Bob can handle anything.
Bob himself offers these memorable backstage moments:
• Telling Billy Crystal to get his [euphemism for rear end] off our antique table
• Having his cheeks pinched by then-Governor of Texas Ann Richards
•Watching a ballerina pirouette across the stage and into the orchestra pit, then climb out to finish her dance
• Having his daughter Maggie make her piano concert debut on the Ebell stage
Sometimes the promoter’s experience with American practices can be challenging. Michael describes a short, stocky promoter with a shirt open to the navel and a neck draped with gold chains, flanked by two huge and intimidating companions who plunked down $2,000 on Michael’s desk, declaring, “This is when I’m renting the theater, and this is what I’m paying for it!” Michael began to gather up the money, hand it back, and explain that the process had to begin over, on customary terms for the customary sum. The booking was then made.