Wilbur Graham Jr., Head Carpenter on Broadway (R. O. C. U.)
By Liam Klenk
Wilbur Graham Jr. is the Head Carpenter of The Longacre Theatre on Broadway, in New York City. The Philadelphia schooled native has been doing stage work and technical management for almost fifty years. This article is part of our series introducing members of Roadies of Color United. Wilbur Graham Jr., who usually much prefers staying out of the limelight, shares some stories of his life backstage with us.
I am not the out-front guy. Apart from personal preference, this is also an essential element of our job backstage: to bring the magic to life without being seen by the audience. If we are noticed, then there is a problem.
I have always loved my backstage out-of-sight situation. I also demand that of my team.
Initially, I started out in broadcasting in 1967 at Rutgers University in Camden NJ. As a broadcaster, I moved to and worked in various places.
Then, I moved to Denver Colorado, At KBPI-FM. I went by the name of Jay R. Baggs (Bro. Baggs) for short and the handle stuck for my Broadcasting career. Many people back in the day, didn’t know my given name. They only knew me as “Bro. Baggs”, taken from the Jazz Musician, Milt Jackson of the MJQ!
I am now 73 years old. We’re talking broadcasting in 1969.
After Denver, I worked in Indianapolis, for WTLC from 1972-74. For a while, I also worked at WLWI Channel 13 in Indianapolis, where David Letterman started as a weatherman and booth announcer. I was his floor director (now they call them stage managers).
When I was in Denver back in the Seventies, Philip Bailey and I worked in the same night club. I remember Philip and Larry Dunn going out to audition for Earth Wind & Fire.
Many people I know work for Earth Wind & Fire. I have never sat down and told this story. How a few band members went out to audition in California back then. Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn got the job. The others came back to Denver.
I was still doing radio in Denver at KBPI-FM, and I think I broke their album on the air on my midnight to 6am overnight show. We had a big party. I am still a huge Earth Wind & Fire fan. Always have been.
In 1974, Jackson State University was developing a Mass Communication Department with a Broadcasting Radio Station.
I got involved in the technical side and helped develop the Radio Station and its Jazz Format. We started out as a 10-Watt station which was allowed for educational purposes only: WJSUFM.
We put a 25ft tower and antenna on a the 90ft administration building and ended up with a range of 22 miles. It was a little bit amazing for the university. We even had complaints from other radio stations that we were over our range.
WJSUFM still exists. They now have a 100K Watt transmitter. The radio station is also on the web and thus now accessible from everywhere on the globe.
Helping to build up that radio station was a great step in my learning and education. A kind of stretching of my technical skills in broadcasting.
After Jackson State University, I moved down to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1977, to work at another radio station, WTAM-FM, in Gulfport.
While I was there, they opened the Mississippi Coast Colosseum. A friend of mine knew I had some technical skills. And asked if I wanted to sign a pledge card for the union, Local # 674 Biloxi/Gulfport.
That was the first time I signed a pledge card for the union, in 1976. I was an active charter member of Local # 674 from 1976 until I came to Philadelphia in 1981.
By that time, I had been just about everywhere. Traveled around the world.
After a rough beginning in Philadelphia and difficulties finding a job, I got a production job at the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia. I was part of the production team which did basketball, hockey, and concert load-ins and load-outs.
Then, one Saturday in 1983, I went to Atlantic City, about an hour and twenty minutes from Philadelphia. I am on this date and we’re walking along the boardwalk and all of a sudden, I see a big hole in the ground.
There was a fence surrounding the site with a sign saying, “The future home of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. Applications are now being accepted”, opening March, 1984.
So, in the middle of my experience at the Spectrum, I put in an application for the Trump Plaza Casino, in February 1984. In March, I was hired as a stage technician.
I had applied for the technical supervisor job. I got the position as a stagehand in their carpentry area. That was the opening.
Four years later, in 1988, I became the technical supervisor of carpentry. I supervised a crew of eighteen. And was responsible for all the areas. Lighting, stage carpentry, you name it.
It was a bit different at the casino because we did not have departmental lines of responsibility. If you were a stage tech you were expected to know a bit of all of it and what had to be done.
Our department was responsible for setting up press conferences and box office events.
I did all the Mike Tyson fights up until Don King lost his license in the late Nineties. I supervised all set-ups with three other department supervisors and the entire marketing team.
Overall, I spent twenty years at the Trump Plaza. In total, we did three hundred plus shows.
It started with Sammy Davis Jr. Complete 8 days with Sammy and Guest, as we called it. We did Rich Little and Bettie Page. George Kirby, Mickey Gilley, Lou Rawls, Rip Daniels, and Gladys Knight.
And that was just our opening week.
Other than doing the shows with Sammy Davis Jr., I did Bill Cosby, Roger Whitaker, The Temptations, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anker, Jerry Vale, Jeffery Osborn, Anita Baker and Penn & Teller … we could go on and on.
Some of these people became closer to me than just performers.
When we would get together there would be times when we would have BBQs. We used to play softball with Gladys Knight and her band. I remember one time we were playing between shows and Bubba Knight decided he was gonna slide into second base. But our lighting tech, Bob Wiechecki, did not give up the base. As Bubba slid in, he hit the base and broke his arm. He went to the hospital, but that night Bubba Knight still did the performance with a sling on his left arm. Gladys’s band and road crew could really play softball and with Gladys pitching no one wanted to hit any line drives at Gladys.
I was at ringside when Mike Tyson walked across the ring and knocked his opponent out with the first punch. I remember, he was booed. Because some people went to get a hot dog. They heard the bell, rushed back for the beginning of the fight. Only to find out that this was already the second bell and the fight was over.
Here in this picture, you see me with Bob, another tech, while we are testing the A-frame with a heavy bag for Mike Tyson.
Bob studied Kung Fu. He hit the bag with all he had to see if the structure was strong enough to absorb the blows. It was fine. But Mike complained that the structure was moving. He hit it so hard, he moved the entire object with the three-hundred-pound bag on it. You could almost say, he walked with it. I ended up bolting the whole thing to the floor.
At Trump Plaza, we had a fully staffed entertainment department. Carpenters, wardrobe attendants, lighting, and audio crew. And all artists had personal security.
We ran the 750-seat theatre. And we had fun doing it. Just ask anyone that worked the room.
At some point, we stopped doing fights at Trump Plaza. Afterwards, the fight and lighting package was for rent.
There was one time, in October 1998, when we had an issue at the Apollo with the rental gear. It was a heavy weight fight for ESPN Saturday Night.
The crew at the Apollo said they didn’t know anything about setting up a boxing ring.
The Apollo had always been a cornerstone of my existence in the entertainment industry. So, naturally, I offered my help and I really wanted to work at the Apollo.
I talked with the technical director and the head stage carpenter and worked out a deal so I’d come, supervise the setup, be there for all of the fight, and then supervise the load-out as well.
My show at the Trump Plaza was finished at 11pm. I took the casino bus straight away and arrived in New York at 1am. Got on the A-train uptown and went to the Apollo theatre. I arrived at around 2am for set-up.
“Ok,” the TD said, “We have one set up under the marquee. They’ll do a TV shoot, then they’ll tear it out and move it to 126th street and set everything up ready for the ESPN fight.”
I asked, “How many people do you have?”
He said, “This is it.”
I just envisioned the many hours of hard labor ahead of us and said, “Halfway through, you’ll need to have someone come in fresh.”
We set up and they did their TV morning show shoot at 8am. We tore the boxing ring down and moved it around the backstage area on 126th Street at 10am. Then we did another total set-up of the ring.
It was a 24-foot ring. And they had a 25-foot stage. We needed 3 extra feet of stage to make it happen and set up lights etc. I asked, “Did you guys check this out when you did the math?” They obviously hadn’t.
So, we rented an additional 4 foot of staging. Which meant, they lost the first three rows of seating. The rows where you usually had all the VIPs people wanted to see on television.
To accommodate for that, we set up a bleacher section behind the ring. Safety-wise for the ring we had to have extra bracing.
The crew was dead. And I was on my last button. Just waiting for someone to push it. But everything worked out well. We had the fight. At this point, I had been up since 10 o’clock am, 2 days ago.
The fight promoter offered me an extra 500 dollars to drive the truck. I said, “Ok if I can have a hotel room and a good night’s sleep. I went to the hotel and registered as “Justin Case”. Got my key, went upstairs and had a late check-out for the next day.
After a little bit of rest, I drove the truck back to Atlantic City, to Trump Plaza, where my crew was waiting to unload and store this boxing ring.
I just got the job done.
What evolved from this incident, however, is that I got a call from the Apollo. The Apollo had decided to go Union and asked me if I wanted to sign a local pledge card for Local One. I did, the Apollo was organized, and I became a member of the IATSE Local One Union in 1998. This was my second IATSE membership card.
I worked at Trump Plaza until October 8, 2001. Just after September 11.
September 11 kind of put a hold on all casino traffic. I lost my job when my department team was cut in half. But, luckily, I still had a foot in the door at the Apollo.
I became a stage carpenter and project supervisor there. I worked under Joe Gray and Steve Jones who was Harry Belafonte’s tour manager for eighteen years. He also worked at the Apollo for twelve years.
I was at the Apollo when a friend of mine got sick and asked me to take his place, he asked me to go out on tour as Ne-Yo’s Head Carpenter on The Up Close and Personal Tour. I endured the one-offs and the lack of sleep and tried not to act like a fish out of water, knowing that my last tour had been thirty years earlier.
When I came back after the tour, I talked with my Local One President James J. Claffey Jr. and said, “I am too old.” At that time, I was 63 and did not know that I had stage four prostate cancer. That was on New Year’s of 2008.
In March 2008, I became the Head Carpenter of the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.
Since then, I’ve done twelve shows on Broadway. I worked with Tom Hanks, James Earl Jones, James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, George Takei and Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson and I worked together again in August of 2018. He did his show Undisputed Truth on Broadway, directed by Spike Lee.
Thankfully, in 2016, my doctors told me I was in remission from my prostate cancer.
I have had a beautiful time in this industry. Right now, I am still doing a show.
And, as soon as we can reopen, we’ll go ahead with Diana the Musical. We just shot the film, which will be released this spring.
While waiting for the re-opening of our theatre, I’m not getting bored. I have taught myself AutoCAD, am studying for OSHA 30 right now and doing my household projects that I have never had time to do.
I’m also a wanna-be drummer and very interested in Web Radio. Building a studio in the basement.
I’m keeping busy. Yet, I am immensely looking forward to getting back to regular shows again!
Loving Life. So Far So Good!