Backstage Stories Vol. 1: Chuck Mangione’s Gonna Kick Your Ass

Chuck Mangione
Chuck Mangione

Sometime in the mid-1990’s, renowned flugelhorn player and bandleader Chuck Mangione brought an immense show to the Stanley Theater in Utica, NY. In addition to his own band, Mangione hired a 100-member choir and an orchestra for the event.

The trucks were late. We were understaffed. Nobody knew how the stage was supposed to be configured. When the musicians arrived it was difficult to move around, with road cases and risers and chairs and cables running everywhere. Add instrument cases and the chaos increased.

Mangione started his sound check just sixty minutes before the show, and it continued past when the doors should have opened. Finally he was ready, when somebody reminded him of the choir, which hadn’t yet been in the building or rehearsed. Mangione said they should stay on the bus until the performance began.

The man was distracted. The previous night’s performance hadn’t gone well. As Mangione maneuvered off the stage, his pants caught on a road case, which he seized and threw at a stagehand. “I can’t even move back here!”

I was assigned to run a followspot. The booth at the Stanley is about 200′ from the stage. Operators wear headsets which are used to relay instructions. The other spot-op and I met the stage manager, who explained that this would be his first show, as the previous stage manager had been fired last night.

“I’m going to keep this simple. I’ll call everyone by their first names, and you just pick up whoever I say. Now, the first trumpet is Dave, the trombone is Joe…” My partner and I looked at each other. (This is not how most stage managers call shows.) “Now, we can’t have another show like last night. I hope you’re better operators than those guys were.”

The Stanley Theater, Utica NY
The Stanley Theater, Utica NY

In the booth, headsets on, followspots ready, the show began. Our first pickups were on Chuck Mangione, easy to pick out even on the packed stage. The lighting was intensely strange – full washes of canary yellow and kelly green, making it difficult to pick out anyone who wasn’t the bandleader. I doubt the audience noticed anything unusual though, until the moment Mangione stopped a song just a few bars in. He had the orchestra start again. He stopped them again. It looked like he was explaining how something should go – as if there weren’t 1,500 people in the audience behind him. After a few more false starts they seemed to find the right groove. Then it got really bad.

“Followspots pick up Sam. PICK UP SAM!” I looked at my partner and he shrugged his shoulders. We couldn’t remember who Sam was. “Damn it – I told you guys their names! Now hold on… OK! Get Rick. GET RICK!”

“Who’s Rick?”

“The guy taking the solo!”

From 200′ away, over 100 musicians bathed in pink, we had no clue who was taking a solo.

“Oh man, this isn’t good. Oh man…”

Mangione had stopped the song again. He stood center stage, looked directly up at the followspot booth, and pointed at us. Then he pointed at himself.

“OK. Get Chuck. Go ahead and pick up Chuck.”

So we did. Then Chuck started to do what I can only describe as a bunny hop. Both legs together, hopping around the front of the stage.

“Follow him — stay on Chuck.”

He pointed at another musician.

“Go ahead and get Rick.” Aha – Rick.

“Alright, follow Chuck as he –” Mangione started waving his arms, pointing frantically back at Rick. “OK, back to Rick, back to Rick, sorry…” Then Mangione threw down his conductor’s baton and stormed off the stage.

After a moment a new voice came over the headset: “Spot booth, this is backstage. Just wanted to inform you that Chuck Mangione says he is coming up there to kick your asses.”

The show ended up being three hours long. I wanted to quit but my partner convinced me that professionals don’t walk off the job. Still, we didn’t go downstairs after the show until somebody verified that Chuck had left the building. To this day, my old partner won’t eat at Tiny’s Bar and Grill because they have a picture of Chuck Mangione on the wall.

Tiny's Bar and Grill