Backstage Stories Vol. 3: Don McLean and Itzhak Perlman

Don McLean - American Pie

One of my favorite concerts was Don McLean with members of the Utica Symphony. The show was a benefit for the Symphony, which had struggled financially for years. McLean played acoustic guitar with a string octet and piano, as I recall. His ninety-minute set breezed by, including a handful of Buddy Holly tunes and of course the expected Vincent and American Pie. He was gracious and easy to work with.

The show probably would have been memorable just for those reasons, but McLean had a surprise up his sleeve. Now, the Symphony used to have an executive director who spent most of each concert drinking backstage. Mostly, this didn’t affect the shows – it was a harmless, sometimes colorful, part of the environment. Before his encore, Don McLean thanked the audience and the local musicians, and maybe even the crew (I’m not sure about that, but it seems likely.) Then he pulled something from his pocket and said, “Utica is lucky to have its own symphony orchestra. I want to do my part to contribute, which is why I’m returning my fee for this concert.”

The audience burst into applause. Suddenly a figure sprinted from the wings toward the performer. The Symphony executive threw herself on McLean and kissed him all over his face, and wouldn’t let go even as he struggled to free himself. He staggered, then made a quick exit stage right, the executive running after him. McLean re-entered the stage and played one more song, took a bow, then darted his head from side to side and and made a beeline stage left. He locked himself in his dressing room and wouldn’t come out until he was assured the executive had left.

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Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman

Itzhak Perlman is surely one of the greatest contemporary violinists. I’ve provided lighting for three of his shows and have always been amazed at his virtuosity. But he’s also a world-class jerk.

Shortly after the second time I worked with Perlman, I heard him give an interview on NPR. Terry Gross asked him if he experienced hardships while touring, because of his physical disability. He answered, “I was just in Utica, NY last week. Can you believe they expected me to get to my dressing room through the audience?” It was true, but Perlman wasn’t telling the whole story.

In addition to lighting the show, I also had to fill Perlman’s hospitality rider. We had to rent furniture for the dressing room, provide a fruit basket, a cheese tray, a vegetable platter, two bottles of wine, sparkling water, several kinds of fruit juice and obscure sodas I had to travel to Syracuse for. The star dressing room at The Stanley Theater was so packed with stuff it was hard to move. When Perlman arrived in the early afternoon, he said “What is all this shit? Somebody get me a pizza.” So we got the pizza, he rehearsed, ate a slice and went back to his hotel.

The Stanley Theater stage is 13-1/2′ below street level. In those days, all equipment was lowered down via rope, and people came down the stairs. Itzhak Perlman was in a wheelchair most of the time (he used crutches to get on and off stage.) The only way to wheel something or someone from the street to stage level back then was to come through the main auditorium, down the aisle to the orchestra pit, then mechanically raise the pit and proceed once it was at stage level.

Perlman was not back from his hotel until about 30 minutes before the show. We offered to carry his wheelchair down the backstage stairs; somebody jokingly suggested lowering him via rope. He refused those options, so he came through the audience. Today, the Stanley is much more handicap accessible, and this wouldn’t be an issue.

After the concert, the stagehands took home $250 worth of cheese, wine and other delicacies.