blog 18 • little richard
The first time I met Little Richard Penniman, was when he was a guest on a local TV show on..
KABC-TV that I was assigned to. He had a very dramatic appearance, and you knew he was someone special. When he started playing the Steinway grand piano that had been provided for him, the stagehands looked on in horror as he struck the keys with amazing vengeance. They cried to me," He's destroying our best piano!" Certainly there was that aspect to his playing, however his performance was electrifying! He jumped and howled and played, hitting high notes with his voice that were amazing. There was no doubt that he was someone very special.
I worked with Little Richard when he was that wild eyed rocker, and again later when he became a preacher and preferred playing country music and gospel songs. He did several shows on SHINDIG which I worked on as both Stage Manager and Associate Director. SHINDIG was a fast-moving show with lots of set changes, performers and music that hardly stopped as we segued from one song to another. It was a challenge to keep up the pace, and the days we worked where exhausting.
One week, Producer Jack Good asked me if I would be willing to donate my time to work for free on a day off to help him with a show for charity that they were doing at the Shrine Auditorium. I asked him how many other people would be donating their time, and he said there would be a large group of people helping me.
Well, I was very tired because it had been a long week with a lot of work hours, and I valued my free time. However, I felt since I had been assured there would be many others contributing their time, that it would be my duty to also assist. Thus I agreed (reluctantly) to participate.
So, early in the morning on a Sunday, which normally would be my day off, I drove to the Shrine Auditorium to join the crew. But when I got there, I discovered to my chagrin, that nobody would be there to help me put on a show which had all the elements of our regular SHINDIG TV show with all of its fast-moving elements, over 60 performers not including dancers, a live band, many set changes, etc. Normally a show like this would require at least one more stage manager and a Director, as well as Lighting Director and Choreographer.
I immediately told Jack I was concerned that we did not have enough time to rehearse and that we were very shorthanded. Jack calmly told me that his assistant (whose name I cannot remember) would be there to Direct the show. But, although the gentleman was in the building, he did not seem to be taking command of anything, and time went by for a couple of hours without any progress.
I was desperate. I went to Jack and said, "Jack you have to do something. We haven't rehearsed one act!"
He asked me," Do you think you can do it?" I said, "Well, I'll do the best I can!" And I began rehearsing the show taking on all the responsibilities of all the missing people who should have been there. It was exhausting. I have never worked so hard in my life, nor been so terrified as I watched the minutes tick by.
By noon, when we had to break for lunch, only one half of the show had been rehearsed. The final act of the first half of the show was Johnny Cash, but after that, no one had been rehearsed. The audience would be arriving during our lunch break and then the curtain was scheduled to rise on our performance.
After Johnny Cash finished his performance there was a scheduled intermission for several minutes and then the second part of the show was to begin. Johnny did great and naturally got a lot of applause and the audience response was terrific. But a dark cloud was over me. How in the heck were we gonna be able to do the rest of the show when none of it had been rehearsed?
PJ Proby, a well-known British performer, was to open the second act. PJ came to me and said, "I want you to put a follow spot on the stage right side of the curtain. I will stick out a part of my hand and wave to the audience. Then I will stick out my leg a bit and you can open the curtain farther, but don't change the size of the spot. Finally, when I motion to you, open the full curtain and start the music".
So that's exactly what I did. I told the spotlight operator to put a spot on the stage right side of the curtain as the house lights went down. As he did this I told the stagehand operating the curtain to open it a little bit. PJ Proby stuck out his hand and the teenage audience screamed! We opened the curtain a little more as PJ stuck out his foot. As he did this a pretty little girl came running down the aisle screaming as if she was possessed, running toward the stage. I don't know why she did this, but I suspect that she was paid. Anyway, as she ran, a crowd of other teenagers came after her in a big stampede, and as they rushed toward the stage the pretty little girl tripped and fell into the orchestra pit breaking her leg!
The fire marshal who had been watching this immediately ordered the fire curtain closed. He said, "That's It! Your show is over!"
While that certainly did solve a big problem for me, we had a riot on our hands! The audience was furious!
The police arrived and immediately entered the building and ordered the audience to leave.
The audience left but remained outside the building blocking the street and all the exits to the building.
Little Richard's dressing room was closest to the artists' entrance at the back of the building. But it was impossible to leave because they were banging on that door. I sat there in Little Richard's dressing room huddled with several other members of the cast for over two hours as we waited for the riot to end. I was shaking all over.
Finally, we got out of there and I walked a couple of blocks to my car on wobbly legs trying to evade contact with anyone. As I got into my car and turned on the engine my body shook and I cried. The pressure on me had been unbearable.
Somehow, I managed to get home through the crush of Sunday traffic without incident. But as I walked into my house I fell into the arms of my wife, Lisa, and I began to sob uncontrollably. I said to her," Honey, I have just been through the worst day of my life."
Little did I know, but my adventures with Little Richard had not come to an end.
In 1980 I built Skyline Recording, a world class recording studio in Topanga Canyon. Our first major client was Ann-Margret. Her producer was a young man named Paul Sabu. Paul was the son of the famous 1930s movie star, "Sabu the Elephant boy." Paul was also the lead guitarist in his band, SABU. His band was enjoying success with their record which we played on American Bandstand, a show that I did regularly at ABC TV.
My daughter, Summer Bacon, was managing the studio at the time and therefore became a good friend of Paul's and they even began writing a movie script for together.
Through Paul, Summer met his drummer, Dan Holmes, who had been former drummer for Little Richard. They started dating and eventually eloped and got married in Las Vegas.
Dan told me (but Summer cannot confirm it) that Little Richard had paid for their honeymoon. As time went on and their marriage started to fall apart, Summer had long conversations about her woes with Little Richard, who now was a minister and full of advice. She tells me they became very close and often talked on the telephone for hours.
I, too, had many hours of conversation with Little Richard, and although I have not seen nor heard from him for a very long time, he seems like family...a distant relative.
[NOTE: This blog was actually written shortly before Little Richard passed away on May 9, 2020.]
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Emmy Award winning Associate Director tells his stories about the history of television from 1953-present.