Labor Day for Third-Generation Stagehand

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stagehandThis Labor Day, we’re turning the spotlight behind the scenes – on members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union who help create performance magic.

We spoke with Matt Rice, Business Manager for IATSE Local 13 in Minneapolis. He’s one of several third-generation stagehands in Local 13; his nephew represents the fourth generation.

Water and Ice. Matt’s grandfather, Mark Rice, worked off and on in the industry during the 1920s and 1930s, finally joining Local 13 in the 1940s. In the 1920s, there were up to 30 live houses in the Twin Cities hosting vaudeville and traveling shows. Throughout the 1930s, as many of these theatres converted to movie houses, Local 13 membership declined. However, innovative new entertainment helped keep the union vibrant.

In 1940, the City of Minneapolis launched its summertime Aquatennial celebration, which included an outdoors “Aqua Follies” show that Rice’s grandfather and father, Mark Rice Jr., both worked on during its 25-year run.

Complete with a floating stage, the Aqua Follies was described by the Hennepin County Library as “a combination of water ballet by Hollywood professionals and high-diving thrill shows by Olympic and Pan Am Games champions.” The show eventually toured on trains to other U.S. cities.

Rice’s family and other Local 13 members were instrumental in launching other touring shows, including Shipstad and Johnson’s Ice Follies in the late 1930s and ‘Sesame Street Live’ in 1980.

Live Music Boom. According to Rice, union fortunes rose in the 1980s, again related to the movie industry. The prevalence of VCRs meant consumers could rent movies instead of visiting movie theatres.

“At this same time, traveling rock-and-roll shows started to become very popular,” explains Rice. “And live music shows have been booming ever since.”

Last month, Metallica and Luke Bryan held concerts at the new U.S. Bank Stadium on consecutive nights. The Local 13 crew totaled 300+ over three days, helping build a gigantic stage that filled one football end zone.

Rice says today’s shows are growing larger and more complicated. “When I started doing rock and roll in my teens, the trusses were ground supported and hoisted in the air with Vermette lifts,” he recalls. “Then came hanging chain motors up in the ceiling, and next we were climbing the rafters.” For today’s large arena shows, Rice said it’s not uncommon to have 150 motors in the air.

Training Required. This growing complexity has spurred the need for more technical training and specialization among union members.

“In the past, qualifications were rather generic – we just dispatched stagehands,” explains Rice. “Now they hardly call for stagehands anymore, except maybe for a rock show.” He says roles are broken down further, including audio-visual technicians or audio hands, with technology continually changing.

To keep skills current, Local 13 partners with a company called Technical Tools of the Trade that specializes in teaching the behind-the-scenes aspects of theatre. While the majority of members are stagehands, IATSE also represents other behind-the-scenes workers like A-V technicians, makeup artists and wardrobe designers.

Union Benefits. In his current role, Rice negotiates contracts with every major venue in the area. Although a 38-year veteran, he’s steered his own children away from his career path due to the challenging, on-call hours.

However, he believes strongly in the benefits that IATSE provides the industry – including approximately 30 venues Local 13 works with in the Twin Cities.

“Most of these venues cannot afford to hire a full-time staff, so we supply the skilled, temporary talent necessary to help them pull off their events,” Rice explains. Local 13 numbers 400 members, with approximately 1,800 on the bench to help on an as-needed basis.

When hiring union labor, these venues contribute to a benefits package that includes competitive wages, health insurance and retirement benefits for IATSE members. Union membership is growing today and Rice believes the next generation should appreciate all the opportunities IATSE provides.

He says there was a time when a rock-and-roll show would hire non-union crews and just pay them with a free meal and a T-shirt. “Workers today are realizing their rights,” concludes Rice. “The entertainment industry is making millions of dollars and we’re performing difficult, challenging jobs. We shouldn’t work for free.”

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