PROJECT This month, legendary electrician, inventor, entrepreneur (Van Buren Industries), and 1994 Wally Award winner George Van Buren offers up a classic tale about working with legendary showman David Merrick.
I took a show called 110 in the Shade for David Merrick. I built four motorized winches, which was kind of the first time they were used on Broadway. I went down to Canal Street and bought a bunch of Selson motors and Selson generators, and went into Tommy Fitzgerald's shop and had them built. Tommy was located on 318 West 48th street, near Eighth Avenue. We took 110 in the Shade into Boston with these four motorized winches, and although I did close the loop - I had the Selson motor run a lead screw along, which a little pole rode and would hit - it wasn't a terribly good feed. The loop was closed, but the feedback wasn't 11/44" and the things would come together and bang, and the scenery would shake. The carpenter on that was Teddy Van Bemmel, and I would always hear him say, "Get the bolt cutters," and he'd cut the chain from my motor and hand-crank the stuff in place.
We had six piano boards for that show. We had a couple of presets; remember what we called the presets. They used to sit on top of the piano boards, and there'd be a bank of either four 750W dimmers, or six 500W dimmers, and you'd use these for specials. So you didn't have to bring up four lights at a time, and you didn't want to have to hang loaders all over the place. And then I had the control for the four winches up there, and I had a thunder screen, and I had a water curtain, I had fireworks drops, and I had 16 pipes of electric. John Harvey was the lighting designer.
When we were in Boston with the show, Merrick came to me and said, "What do we need to do to make a Monday night opening in Philadelphia?" I said, "There's no way we can make a Monday night opening in Philadelphia, Mr. Merrick." He said, "Mr. Van Buren, what do we have to do to make a Monday night opening in Philadelphia?" And I said, "Give me a little time to think about it." And I went back to him, and I said, "Well, you know, Boston's got blue laws. We have to be off the street by 8:00 in the morning, and, I can't do it if we have to go to the train and load stuff into the train. So, we're going to have to go overland." "Okay," he tells me. "That will be fine." I said, "Number two, we're going to have to duplicate some of the equipment, and have it in Philadelphia waiting for us." He said, "Okay." And I said, "I'm going to have to get rid of about half of this electric." He said, "Okay." And I said, "Do you want to tell John Harvey, or do I?" He said, "Screw John Harvey. I got Monday night sold out. You light the show, George."
Anyway, we opened 110 in the Shade on a Friday night on Broadway. Of course, the IA production contracts expired on opening day, and you have to get run-of-the-play contracts from then on. I got the contracts for all my guys, and I took them to the office on Monday. Tuesday, all the contracts come back except mine. I saw Jack Schlitzle, who worked for Merrick, under the marquee about quarter after 8, and I said, "Hey, Jack, I don't have my contract." He said, "Yeah. I want to talk to you about that. Stop in our office tomorrow."
Wednesday, matinee day, I go up to his office at the St. James Theatre. He calls me in the office and my contract is laid in front of him, and he said, "George, you're asking for $300. We don't pay $300 in New York." "That's what we agreed to when we left," I said. "I brought the biggest show on Broadway here." He got on his phone and he called Vince McKnight in, who was the chief accountant. I said, "Oh, don't do this to me, Jack." He said, "Vince, how much does the electrician in Cuckoo's Nest make?" I said, "Please don't tell me. These are my friends." "$250." "What's the electrician on Luther making?" "$275." "What's the electrician on Dolly making?" "$275." "George, we don't pay $300."
I said, "That's fine, Jack," and got up. He said, "Where are you going?" I said, "I'm going down to the corner and look for a job."
"Wait a minute," he said. "George, no argument. Curtain at 2:00." "You better get an electrician across the street," I said. "Don't give me that crap, Van Buren," he said, "You're not irreplaceable. You're not, I'm not. There's only two people who are irreplaceable: David Merrick, and the star of the show - if she happens to be Ethel Merman."
Then Merrick walked into the office, and said, "What's going on?" "Well, there's a little dispute." He said, "How much money is separating you guys?" And Schlitzle said, "$25." Merrick said, "Sign his contract, Jack. Go on to work, George." And so I went across the street to work.