So, you didn’t die?

It’s only a tragedy if we don’t learn something from it.

I’m sure I said that to my kids at some point over the weekend, passing on to them the wisdom of Riff Markowitz, Producer, Master of Ceremonies, &c. of the Palm Springs Follies, which gave its final performance this weekend.

I endured many near-tragedies at the Follies, learning many lessons that I not only carry with me, but also put into action at every job I’ve had since then. Of course, the greatest gift I got from the Follies was my wife, who I hired as my Assistant Stage Manager, thanks to a recommendation from my friend. Unlike the many employees I had to let go from the Follies, she walked out on us, mid-season, just after we had finally gotten her trained–a months long process.

Obviously, I didn’t hold it against her, especially since she was leaving to travel around the world for a year on a paid research fellowship. I’d have gone too, if I could.

But I couldn’t, since I was finishing out my final season at the Follies as the Stage Manager, a job that I had backed into the same way one backs down into a cannon before being shot through the smoke, spotlights and cacophony of a three-ring circus. In my three-year trajectory at the Follies, I learned many things:

  • Never trust a monkey on stage.
  • Firing someone is never easy. It sticks with you for the rest of your life, no matter how necessary and justified it might have been.
  • It didn’t happen if you didn’t see it.
  • You’re responsible for it, even if you didn’t see it, so look harder, closer and everywhere.
  • Checklists are your friends, but never your salvation.
  • Nobody can make smoke hit a spike mark…but that doesn’t mean they can’t try, try, try, try, try, try again. And one more time, just for good measure.
  • Homing pigeons will get lost in the dark.
  • There is no detail too small.
  • Don’t be late to a meeting with the boss, if you like your job.
  • Friends are your salvation.
  • Given the means and the opportunity, there’s nothing that motivated people can’t achieve.
  • A man can fit inside a balloon.
  • Pigeons can live for days without food or water.
  • Grandmothers can be strippers.
  • You can always be kind. Always. No matter how you’re being treated.
  • 80-hour work weeks are possible without medication, so long as you don’t count coffee as medicine.
  • The ideal location for a coffee bar is next to a theater.
  • Eight-hour days seem like days off when your standard day is 15 hours.
  • The guy who leaves first isn’t always a slacker. He’s sometimes just the best organized.
  • 24-hour supermarkets are a thing of beauty.
  • You can stay calm while firing a headline act between the matinee and evening show, but the strain will still keep you awake for days, like an overwound watch spring.
  • The screamers and drama queens are loud, but watch out for the ones who are too kind. They’ll kill you with a smile.
  • It pays to plan and practice for what everyone else says could never happen.
  • Test everything.
  • Twice.
  • Never drink tequila with a man who sips it to cure his colds.
  • Everybody poops. Pigeons poop more.
  • If you’re kind, when you go over the inevitable cliff, people will throw you ropes. If you’re unkind, I hope you packed your parachute.
  • It’s better to test safety nets with sandbags than with your own body.
  • Friends will always catch you, no matter how far you fall.
  • Manners matter.
  • Texans talk a good game, but when you’re messin’ with people, remember that Missouri rolls deep.

Our profession was drama and our average employee was like me–a little too young and a little too male. This meant there were many tales told to Mr. Markowitz about hijinks and high perils engaged in on our one day off each week. He would let the tale teller get into the thick of the plot and then suddenly raise his hand to stop them, then say, “So, you didn’t die, then?” After the teller confirmed their current status among the living, Mr. Markowitz would wave them onward with his hand, “OK, then. Proceed.”

Just as we pushed ourselves hard on our “weekend,” we pushed hard at work–ourselves and each other. Because everyone was performing beyond what they previously thought they were capable of, they could get pissed–with good reason–at someone else on the show who let them down by not working up to that level. We all raised each other’s game to new heights.

We also all knew the tremendous strain the show put on us–on our relationships, our sanity–such as it was, our health. It shaped our entire lives. The first Thanksgiving in my life that I missed having dinner with my family was because I had to run shows at the Follies. And yet, I got from that time lifelong friends. They saved my ass more times than I can count–until now I just count on them like I count on the sun by day and the stars at night. And when I fall down, I look back up to them and start climbing again, always attempting to get to their level.

Because we knew the weight, we forgave and picked each other up when the load was too great.

At the start of another day in the grinder, Mr. Markowitz and I were standing in the house right aisle, discussing the events of the upcoming day, when the taciturn Audio Engineer entered the theater at his call time and walked past us up the aisle without a word, just a quick nod of the head. “Good morning, Mr. __________,” said Mr. Markowitz and I at the same time. We got a quick wave of the hand as the Audio Engineer proceeded up the aisle. As we watched, I said quietly, “It’s all about personality, isn’t it?” Mr. Markowitz nodded and said words that I can still hear, to this day.

No matter how geekish my jobs have been since then, no matter how far behind the scenes, no matter how much technology has been between me and the people I serve, that’s always been true, along with two other lessons I learned from my two boothmates. You can guess who said which.

  • Yes. It’s all about the people.
  • Never let your ass shit you out of a job.
  • First there’s a booger in the sugar and then there’snot.

After all the years, we didn’t die. Instead, we met our wives, forged our careers, started–or restarted–our lives, and we all rose higher than we thought we could. Yes, there were the dark times, the low moments–literally, when the stage lift wouldn’t $%^&ing lift for anything–and the bad times too. But let’s leave that offstage for now. Let’s live in the light, where we smile to make the audience smile with us. Where we dazzle to make them believe that the impossible isn’t. Where we do our best, because that’s what we do for friends.

The house may be dark now, and the stage barren, but the light still shines within each of us every time we do our best…and know that tomorrow we’ll do even better than that.

–Thanks to Mr. Markowitz, the entire Jardin family–Mary, Dan & Terry for the opportunities you gave and the lessons you taught. Thanks, also, to John Finkler for reminding me to laugh at least once a month.