Tony Barton messaged me sometime in November with a really leading question… “What are you doing Christmas day?” At the time both my family and my wife’s family was probably going to be travelling, and we’re not really big “Christmas People” anyway, so when the offer came in, it was hard not to take. In short, on Christmas day, come up run the spotlight and and take some photos of the Whistler Fairmont Château’s Christmas Dinner and Dance stage show in exchange for a hotel room for the night and a bit of cash in the pocket. Hard to say no to right?
So I said yes. It sucked a little to not be able to do the traditional Christmas get-together with mom and dad, but we could do that the day after easily enough, and hey, it’s a free night in Whistler!
So up at 7am on Christmas morning (known as “sleeping in” to parents, but I’m used to lounging in bed until 10am…) and on the road, hot tea in hand. The drive up was gorgeous, one of the benefits of travelling on Christmas morning is that no one is crazy enough to drive then. As we got farther up the beautiful Sea to Sky highway, the snow (hovering in the distance of the mountains surrounding the Fraser Valley before this, started moving closer and closer.
By the time we stopped in Squamish for a fuel-up (and by that I mean a Tim Horton‘s mocha dome lid with a sleeve) the snow was right next to the highway and with the sky looking gorgeous with white puffy clouds and blue sky, I made my wife stop so I could take a few photos of the Squamish Chief. You can’t tell now, but back when I was young and fit I was a rock climber, and I missed the old girl. She looked great too, just enough snow to define the nooks and crannies of a mountain that will hopefully be admired and climbed on for generations after we’re gone.
The closeness of the power lines and the wide angle sort of sucks from a landscape photography point of view, but unfortunately there aren’t any pullouts with a good view going north. “We’ll stop on the way back,” I said (there was a pullout with a good view southbound), “we’ll be passing by around the same time of day so the weather will be about the same and it’ll look gorgeous like this!”
Spoiler alert – it wasn’t and it didn’t, 24 hours later it was snowing, foggy, and we headed straight home without stopping (other than for another mocha dome lid with a sleeve).
We got to Whistler a bit before 11am as requested. Turns out there were a couple of minor details that hadn’t been mentioned. Remember the “come up, shoot some photos and work the spotlight” part of the deal? The part that wasn’t mentioned was the ‘help set up’ and ‘help tear down’ part.
This was the MacDonald ballroom when we got there.
The lights and stage were setup the night before, but you’ll notice a distinct lack of audio equipment (and with the doors to the truck with it on the left of the photo, a distinct lack of a path through the nicely setup tables and chairs). The gear showed up and I got to learn on the fly how you set up audio gear for a show. Turns out, there’s a lot of moving and carrying heavy things, uncoiling, and most importantly a lot of leaving the wiring of important bits together to the guy who knows what he’s doing.
We escaped for a short break for lunch a while later. Disappointing sadly, I have to give low marks to the hotel… a $24 burger should not be cold, low staff and Christmas day aside. Our server was great about it though, and made it right.
A bit after this photo was taken, the stage was finally setup and ready for the band. Tony has a full nine piece band, so that’s a feat in itself! Then came sound check, which to me looked like a lot of twiddling of knobs, people asking for a different mix in their monitors, and playing short sections of some of the songs to confirm what the plan is for certain intros or outros.
Somewhere in here I got a quick lesson on the spotlight, my main task for the night. In short, point the bright end at Tony, or someone else if he hands it off to someone else for a solo. Easy right? I was going to be perched on an equipment box that wasn’t big enough for me to be behind the light, so I’d have to aim it from beside, making it a bit trickier. Easy stuff, right?
Once sound check was done it was time to wait. The banquet started at 6 and then the band came on at 7, so we got to wait in the green room.
The green room turns out to be another unused, smaller banquet hall where you get to sit and wait, or watch your fellow band mates change clothes while partially hiding behind the spare Christmas tree in the corner. When we ordered dinner (on the house, woo, living large now!) most of the guys in the band ordered the 36oz steak (menu price of $95), until they were told that they would take an hour to prepare. At that point these were converted to the more reasonable 8oz ones. There was chatting, more discussions of the flow of the evening, and makeup touchups.
A couple of other things related to my job for the night were finalized as well. Being that it’s hard to take photos while keeping a spotlight trained on an energetic entertainer, during “Oh Holy Night…” Tony would stay in one spot, and I could leave the light in one spot. Then I could jump down from my perch (ugh my poor aging knees) grab camera, take some shots through the song, then jump back up before it ended. Also there was going to be a parade of people entering at the start of the festivities, point it at Santa and keep it on him until he leaves. Ok, easy.
Time comes, and we head out. I take my place behind the spotlight and this will be my view for the better part of 2 hours.
So, remember the part earlier about a parade led by Santa, and keep it on him? Well that started and I turn on the spotlight, but…. nothing.
Heart sinks into floor.
I had set one goal for the night: Don’t make anyone notice me. No mistakes, no screw-ups, nothing that would have Tony, the band or guests notice me. Be invisible because the spotlight was Just Working like it should.
I freak out internally. Hit the power button again, but nothing lights up. Shit. Jump down (ugh, knees) and run to Alex, the lighting tech who is across the conga line led by Santa. He sees the panic in my eyes and comes across and quickly diagnoses what I would have if I’d thought for a second longer, the other end of the power had come unplugged (probably the kitchen staff moving things around). This was resolved quickly and (hopefully) no one noticed. Tony entered, and the show started.
I’m not going to lie, I always think I’m not really into the type of music that Tony sings until he starts singing, and then I remember that I’m a huge fan. This guy puts on an amazing show and I was rocking out with him and the band for the entire set.
I found it takes a lot of concentration to keep the spotlight centred on the guy on stage. Seriously, you can’t let your mind drift, look at the rest of the band, or glance at the audience or servers, because if you lose it for a second suddenly he’s outside the circle of light and I’m fumbling to smoothly move it back to him.
Remember I was told to do the photos during “Oh Holy Night…“? Well, on the fly there were set changes and it got completely passed over. Eeek… ok, just stay perched.
The end of the set comes and we head back to the green room. This time we agree that “Fever” is the best song to take photos to in the second set. I tell him that on the off chance if there’s a change of plans (why would there be though, “Fever” is a staple of his show), give me a little click click camera motion to let me know when’s good. Of course I’m behind a big freakin’ bright light, so he can’t actually see me while he’s on stage, so the communication is only one way.
Second set ready. We file in. Band sits down. It all starts again.
I have to give props to the band as well. Other than Tracy his gorgeous wife and Kyle The Drummer (note the photo of him above is in his sound check clothes) I don’t know anyone’s name, but they are all really great musicians at the top of their game. They play the hell out of a room.
“Fever” is almost here, I steel myself, scope out a path through the dancing throngs of people, wait…. wait…. wait….
…and he skips right by it, another set list change on the fly. Arghhh. Ok, keep on spotlighting and worry about it later. A couple of songs later I see the click click hand motion and spring into action (ugh, knees).
Fight my way through a 12 deep, completely packed dance floor (I may or may not have elbowed an old lady in the face to get to the front of the stage) and shot. Snap snap snap, focus, snap snap adjust settings, snap snap, all the time whispering the photographers prayer.
Lord please let me not f**k this up.
Give a nod to him from the side of the stage and head back to my perch.
Something happened during the show that any tech person will recognize as a moment of pure terror. Somewhere midway through the second set suddenly all the stage lights went out. All of them, black, all at once. The music was still going and the spotlight was still going, but all of those nice coloured lights you see behind Tony suddenly went dark. I could feel Alex The Lighting Guy’s panic from across the room. It’s that moment that you dread when not only something has happened, but it’s very, very public.
Luckily after about 10 seconds everything came back on. Maybe someone flipped a breaker to test something, or unplugged the wrong cable somewhere. Alex told me later he thought it was a power failure, but because of where the outlets were there was only one of the three we were using he could get to if it hadn’t have come back. It also happened in the song that was currently going where it might have been planned. I think he still lost about 5 years in that 10 seconds.
A while later (and after a great finale), the night ends, lights go down, people filter out.
Packing up was, unsurprisingly, about as much work as unpacking. Lots more moving heavy things, and far more cable coiling. We worked until about midnight and got most things packed up, and then Alex the lighting guy and I said “screw it, beer time”, and retired to the pub for a couple of cold ones and a couple of war stories before passing out for the night.
The next morning was fairly uneventful. Pack up the rest of the gear, get it into the truck (which involved me stepping outside for the first time since we got there… spoiler alert: it’s cold and snowy). Headed home to do our Christmas a day late.
Honestly it was a great time. I learned a bit about the show biz biz, and got to be aa useful part of the AEB Productions team. Found out that no matter what goes wrong stay calm and think things through, and that even if you have to step on a small kid on the dance floor it’s worth it for a great shot!
Big thanks to:
- Tony Barton for the invite and the opportunity to see how a show is made from the inside.
- Alex for taking me under his wing for the lighting and tech side of things.
- Tony’s great band for making me feel like part of the team.
- The Whistler Fairmont Château for putting us up and putting on a great Christmas show.