Page 352

On 24 April 1945, Ensign Robert E. Minerd found himself wounded but alive in the middle of the North Atlantic. He was 22 years old, a Navy Band Musician who had volunteered for duty at sea. He was now the Senior Surviving Officer of the last warship to be sunk in the Atlantic theater of war in World War II.

He didn’t have to be there; he had been playing in the band in Washington DC every day “on the air”, raising war bonds and working with fabulous musicians but his country had asked for volunteers and so he went to Midshipmen School graduating with high honors; high enough to merit him his new status as “senior”.

He was at his station in CIC when the torpedo hit; everyone around him was killed instantly. The ship was split in two and sinking fast. He found a wounded sailor, legs broken from the impact of the torpedo, broke down the radio shack door which was jammed, fitted a life jacket on his comrade, hoisted him and stepped on deck. They were both washed overboard as the ship settled. He lost consciousness.

The sea was cold and rough; there were sharks. The depth charges from their own ship were exploding underneath as they sank. There had been no time to set the safety on each weapon. Someone pulled him to a floater net bringing him back whenever he drifted off; a shark took another wounded man just as he was yanked aboard.

Only 3 officers from Dad’s ship survived, most of the crew was dead. He wrote the letters to the families of those lost. I have them all and many of their responses. What lives might they have lived? What stories would their children tell if they had lived to have them?

Dad was awarded the Navy Marine Corp Medal for valor and a Purple Heart. He never considered himself heroic. So

Dad and I used to sail little boats in big weather on Lake Champlain. When small craft warnings were up, that’s when we ventured out. Through gray skies, pounding waves and high wind we would sail a course that took us miles out into that massive body of water. Unshaved, sporting his Navy cap, blue eyes sparkling, he would sail until we ran out of muscle to hold the sheet and rudder returning home to a cup of coffee and a cozy cabin. Sometimes on those trips I could tell where his thoughts were: on another small ship on an even bigger sea on a cold April day long ago.

 

THE GREATEST GENERATION, INDEED

APRIL 24, 2016

Every year on 24 April I try to take time to commemorate those events, now 71 years ago. Earlier this week I was wandering the stacks at a library in Richmond; I walked my usual pattern from music to theatre and ended up (go figure) in American History. For as long as I can remember, in every library I’ve ever visited from California to Texas and the Mid-West I’ve gone to look for Samuel Eliot Morison’s definitive history “The Atlantic Battle Won”. I’ve never been to a library that didn’t have at least one copy and sure enough, there it was; so old and tired but faithfully sitting on the shelf. I turned to page 352 “The only survivor of C.I.C. Ensign R.E.Minerd USNR broke open the jammed door of the pilothouse where he found the helmsman lying on the deck with both legs broken. He picked the injured man up and struggled to the pilot house where both were swept into the sea.”

I paused a moment to reflect and then I put it back on the shelf.

That’s what Dad did after the war; he put the war behind him and back on the shelf; an unusual and difficult chapter in his life that informed his every waking day for the rest of his life was simply an episode that allowed the truly important stories in his life, and ours to be written. Ask him about his war years and he would reluctantly give you a few facts. Tell him the grandkids were coming over and he beamed from ear to ear.

Reflect a little; be grateful and then put it on the shelf and move on. Thanks Dad. Gotta run. The grandkids are due any minute.

 

THE CREATIVE STORM -BUSCH GARDENS WILLIAMSBURG

When I was a young composer, I had one goal firmly in mind: I wanted to be able to notate or transcribe any musical idea that popped into my brain and turn it into an original piece of music that would be inspiring, fun to play and even more fun to hear. That seemed like such a daunting task but I practiced that skill for 10,000 hours - from 1977 until 1986 and finally, after hundreds of scores, millions of notes and more than a few failures I could do it and I remember the day it happened. 

There was a hurricane headed to Virginia; discretion being the better part of valor (to quote my Dad) we decided that my wife Rita and our two young kids should head inland, home to Oak Ridge Tennessee and that I should stay to ride it out come what may. Now we were inland from the coast, so this was not a foolhardy decision; rather it was a practical choice since it was likely that the power would go off (and in the country that means water as well) and it seemed silly for the kids to have to endure the inconvenience. I also stayed because...well I was on a deadline. Composers and every other creative type in the theme park business are always on a deadline. 

As the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, the "kids", including the remarkably calm and competent (but very young) Rita headed South to safety. I battened what hatches I could, checked the beer supply (Busch Gardens was of course still owned by Anheuser-Busch at that point - no point in facing a crisis without sustenance - after all part of the reason the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth was that they were low on beer) - and settled in for the night.

How fortunate I was that my colleague, fellow trumpeter and producer Sean Murray, he of indomitable spirit and great faith arrived to stand watch with me through the storm. And what a night it was. The power was out before we could place a bet on the hour of its demise; the walls shuddered and it rained so hard that streams of water regularly blew through the sliding glass door in the living room and trickled past our feet. We had a kerosene lantern, food and drink, a radio and enough good humor and confidence to stay the course. My aforementioned father, also a brass player and WWII Naval hero would have called it: "Eloquent sufficiency" to see us through the night. 

We slept not a wink but went straight to our work (sorry Clement Clarke Moore) as the winds peaked and the trees groaned and snapped . We wrote some shows, solved world problems, told a few stories and in general laughed at our circumstance until finally, the wind abated for the second time (the first was merely the passing of the eye - an intermission as it were) and a glint of red sun dared to twinkle through the (now) bare branches left behind by the storm.

As the sun rose on a stunning morning, Sean headed to the park and I retired to my studio; I opened the window and breathed in an absolutely crystal clear Autumn day. The neighborhood was a wreck but intact; there was debris as far as I could see but we were all safe. I sat down to work - didn't need any power to be a composer in those days, just a pencil and paper and off I went.

I was in the middle of the longest production number I had ever written; a new dance arrangement of Offenbach's "Can-Can" for a stage show at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I had been working on it for weeks; 100's of thousands of notes, each written in #2 pencil on manilla, "Alpheus" score paper as quickly as my brain and hands could muster. This arrangement was, as they say, a piece of work. A bear; a monstrosity that had kept me awake night after night but on this morning, fresh from the events of the storm, my head clear as the crisp Autumn air the notes flew from my brain to the page as if I'd had some kind of epiphany. If the storm had cleared the air, rarified the atmosphere and streamlined the foliage it had also, apparently focused my thinking, stripped away the clutter and somehow wired my brain to a #2 pencil in a way I'd never experienced. Uncanny. Suddenly whatever I could conjure in my heart and soul effortlessly translated to the written page. I still have that score and I marvel that there are almost no eraser marks; no "do-overs", no second thoughts.

There are some lessons to be learned from this: If you want to do something well you have to practice, sometimes for a long time - 10,000 hours or 10 years whichever comes first. Make a habit of investing in good friends who will see you through tough times, ride out the storm and make you laugh; remember to mark the milestones you achieve - I will always remember this moment in time for its excitement, the good friend who saw me through and my personal moment of arrival, after hard work and many years, as a composer. 

Is this a great business, or what? 

 

1893

Nov 30, 2015

Like many of us I am on a multi-year journey sifting through family treasures from previous generations; war records, photographs, letters from the front, audio recordings and personal artifacts that tell the tales of history, nations and institutions through the focused lens of family and friends in a way that is personal, memorable and in no small measure emotional.

Recently, while sorting a small but heavy box labeled “Coins” I came across something that speaks volumes to those of us who love the amusement business and call it home. As I turned one small coin, too small and light to be currency and not quite the right scale to be a subway token I realized that I was holding a commemorative coin from the seminal event in our collective theme park experience: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It literally took my breath away; how had it come to be in our family? I will never know but there it was and here we go:

In 1893, in Chicago an interesting thing happened; well actually a lot of interesting things happened but the ones that concern us happened at theWorld's Columbian Exposition, the first Chicago World's Fair. It’s not a stretch to say that this event marked the beginning of the modern amusement business and but for the folly of a few adventurous and intrepid souls the industry we celebrated two weeks ago at IAAPA in Orlando might never have happened.

 Let me explain.

 At the exposition, for the first time, that magical recipe of entertainment, architecture, technology, the arts, science, food and drink came together in a signature, massed event that stretched over the horizon for months and months. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, conjured to celebrate Columbus’ stumbling on the New World some 400 years previous enshrined all the trappings of modern theme parks in an unforgettable, never-before-seen spectacle of light and experience that dazzled millions of people as they teetered on the cusp of the 20th century.

Dazzling at night, with its endless array of white lights set against the brilliance of "neo-classical" architecture the fair filled some 600 acres with more than 200 buildings centered around a long reflecting pond that symbolized the long journey of Christopher Columbus some 400 years prior. Design and development was managed by Chicago Architect Daniel Burnham; the architecture followed French aesthetics of symmetry and balance coupled with a knack for splendor that is perhaps, well, uniquely French. Dazzling and painted uniformly white, the fair became known as The White City, a blank canvas that served as the backdrop for everything from industrial exhibitions and high cuisine to salacious shows on the “midway”, a “no man’s land” of amusements strategically located to lure the unsuspecting patron from the frivolous to the meaningful; a spoonful of sugar designed make palatable the teachings of technology and lessons of science and culture.

Burnham hired master landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted, most notable for his design of New York City’s Central Park and it is perhaps his work that makes the fair so unique. Olmsted believed in using every available natural aspect of an area as fully as possible, wrapping his treatments around features that nature had planted there already. He always worked to create a picture, a scene and in that sense he was the forefather of modern cinema, theatrical and themed design. He was a naturalist who understood that the integration of a space with the imagination of human invention was a powerful combination. One could generate emotional, visceral responses by creating an immersive space that became an experience. Like good theatre much of the effect was subliminal but had an impact on the viewer that ensured that memories were made and treasured for a lifetime. Eliciting an emotional response is the purpose of all great art and Frederic Law Olmsted was a master.

 If we reverse engineer the fair in our minds, the elements of its success become clear and look something like a template for modern parks, museums and other location-based attractions. There are multiple layers of activities, spread across a broad range of events from food to show, rides to transportation, threaded together in a contiguous design that is equal parts art and logistics creating a mesmerizing experience the leaves visitors spellbound and speechless. Spellbound. Speechless.

 If the goal of modern amusements is to engage, entertain and inspire we might do well to study this past in search of universal truths that are as meaningful and effective today as they were then. If the patina of every park is different, the underlying architecture and operating principles are the same: create an epic event with engaging spaces and experiences, speak to the masses, guide them safely through their day, dine with them, teach them, amuse them, inspire them – send them home profoundly changed with new memories to last a lifetime.

©2015 Minerd Music Works llc

Doug Minerd is a composer, producer and management consultant. Spring Semester 2016 he will be teaching “The Business of Fun”, a survey of the history of the amusement business, at the University of Virginia’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

 

Second Star to the Right

September 25, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve spent lots of time with many of you in our family of entertainment and theme park professionals: musicians, writers, designers, producers and performers. I’ve seen more than a few shows, stared endlessly at numbers and plans for new parks, marveled at the creative instincts of so many and remembered once again what I love so much about this business. I’ve also decided this: PT Barnum was right – but so was Walt Disney.

Barnum famously quipped that there was “a sucker born every minute”. True perhaps but in fairness he also made some prescient observations about human nature and the importance of entertainment; a show producer in Branson once told me “The Branson crowd loves to pretend to be surprised by the expected” – I think that’s true of every crowd and Barnum knew how to do that and more. We all like to be fooled a little and then have it turn out fine in the end. And then there was Walt.

Walt Disney had an endless ability to dream; but more than that he believed, no he knew that his dream would come true.

Sometimes Walt takes flak for creating “the Disney version”; you know a saccharine, sanitized view of things like the perfect Main Street or a contrived happy ending. In a sometimes-troubled world, I think he simply envisioned a world where he’d like to live, where kids could be kids and the rest of us could be kids too. His genius was in knowing that the only thing that could possibly stand in the way of his dreams was Walt. He wanted to craft things that articulated his world and so he did. At the end of the day, he did a very simple thing: he believed in his dreams and acted on them. And then there’s little Sofia Cruz, who met the pope because she knew she had to and she knew she would.

The beatific look on her face as she was lifted into Pope Francis' embrace says it all: hope, faith, trust, belief. She looks so serene, so confident, and so happy. She has learned an ancient truth early in her young American life: that faith and belief coupled with the courage to act is an unstoppable combination. When asked by a reporter if she thought she was going to get to meet the Pope when she took her long journey cross country, she immediately said: “Yes!”. The reporter chuckled, a little surprised and said: “You did?” “Yes” she said once again. She never doubted for a minute that she was going to meet the Pope. And so she did.

Among my projects these past few months I’ve met people who have long held onto dreams that are now about to become reality for a very simple reason: they have suddenly found the courage to act. Theme parks are interesting because they are complex constructs of multiple layers of operational disciplines wrapped in the unforgiving environment of live theatre. Which is why they are so magical. It’s easy to be dazzled by all the detail and forget the simple truths that really make them work: The power of people to dream and create, and an equal ability on the part of our audience (and ourselves) to suspend disbelief just long enough, that dreams can actually come true.

Just ask little Sofia. Second star on the right; can't miss it.

Elevator Music

Sep 1, 2015 

In music school back in the day we had a bad joke that went something like this: “I hope the fellow who invented Muzak isn’t working on something else”. Well the fellow who invented “Muzak®” was Major General George Owen Squire who also held the patent on multiplexing, the simultaneous distribution of multiple analogue signals over the same network. So indeed he was working on something else and it’s a good thing because that technology and several of his other patents helped to jump start turn of the (last) century communications. It also made Muzak possible.

Muzak like “Kleenex” has become a generic descriptor for a specific class of product, regardless of the actual brand. Unlike “Kleenex” the term Muzak is sometimes used as a perjorative, a snickering judgment made by musicians to an alleged bland and mindless reading of "instrumental favorites", frequently as the punch line to a joke.

Like Kleenex, its profits were nothing to sneeze at.

Also known as “Elevator Music” (to my knowledge the Muzak company never actually offered elevator music as a service; such is the power of pop culture to bend history) there was science behind the bland and relaxing message. Referred to as “Stimulus Progression” the music was programmed in 15-minute intervals followed by 15 minutes of silence. The effect (in theory) was to “stimulate” productivity in a relaxed environment that provided pacing and a soothing temperament designed to empower a good day’s work.  (Apparently there were also technical limitations to the length of audio they could play at one time: 15 minutes).

In later years, beamed from a satellite in geostationary orbit at 119 degrees West Longitude, Muzak was ubiquitous; a kind of audio Kudzu covering the music landscape, morphing into millions of cues across dozens of discrete channels of programming. And then, it died. The world had changed. 

The day the Muzak died (in bankruptcy court) was February 10, 2009. Today it lives again, beautifully and successfully reinvented with a new owner but the commercial moniker “Muzak” has been lost to the ages; its colloquial use endures. I like “Muzak”; I think General Squire was on to something.

In modern terms, he found a way to “monetize content”, cleverly devised ways to structure his data and created technology with which to distribute it. He actually used music as a loss leader for his technology, just the way trolley companies built theme parks to stimulate traffic on their rail lines. Brilliant. Originally piped into peoples’ homes (the service appeared as a line item on their electric bills) when radio came along the model was changed the company set its sites on business. In other words, they adapted. To survive. As the music world continues to change, musicians would do well to study his lessons of survival and evolution and as companies struggle with how to manage and leverage big data, they might best ponder it against the soft strains of dynamically limited but impeccably “in-tune” strings. 

Artistic integrity and profitability are not mutually exclusive; if they were Haydn would be considered a hack, a minion of the Esterhazy conglomerate and we’d laugh at Bach for having a day job. Nope. Background music is well produced and generally well performed. (When was the last time you heard a trumpet “clam” while walking through frozen foods?) Technical innovation – well managed content - broad distribution – sustainable profits.

 Sounds like business is humming.

 

 

The Real McCoy

Aug 6, 2015

A free black man born in Canada in 1844, Elijah McCoy was an inventor and a certified mechanical engineer. He was an inveterate “tinkerer”; a maker of things and builder of dreams. We love contraptions in the theme park business; stuff that moves people, thrills people and immerses them in a space in which they’ve never been. Elijah McCoy is a brother.

Elijah’s most famous invention was an automatic lubrication device for steam locomotives. I think you all know that I love steam as much as I love theme parks and I especially love steam trains IN theme parks. After all that’s where I met my wife Rita, a conductor on the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad just a few short decades ago. And as much as I love steam in theme parks I especially love Rita so you won’t be surprised to know that Elijah McCoy, he who made possible the proliferation of the steam age is one of my favorite inventors. What I like about him is the same thing I love about Louis Armstrong: Authenticity.

I was meeting with some folks about immersive spaces, education and history just a few days ago. At a previous work session we were knocking around the idea of festival events and themed environments and someone who is much smarter than I will ever be asked me an interesting question: “How can a produced cultural event bill itself as “authentic” when it is all staged?”

Interesting question.

Rita and I spent a couple of nights last week at Market Street Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial WIlliamsburg and it was authentic. Jefferson (“TJ” as we call him in Charlottesville) slept in that very building. Across the street at Chowning’s I was thrilled to listen to a fabulous musician playing a Serpent, an ancient “brass” instrument that is the precursor of the Tuba. His instrument had been viewed, “eyes on” by Napoleon. Well that’s authentic. On the other hand I enjoyed the air conditioning in the tavern and appreciated the fact that they sweep the (paved) streets at night to keep the horse litter to a minimum. Not authentic.

The Museum of Appalachia outside of my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge Tennessee has lots of authentic buildings, crafts, tools and interpreters. Yet the buildings mostly came from someplace else. Authentic? I think so because of the story they tell. Colonial Williamsburg features (largely) recreated buildings stood up in original locations;  it is absolutely an authentic recreation of a town that had not existed for many years. Walt Disney famously walked through it one day and thought to himself….."Huh….you can recreate a space from the past and make it real”. I think the idea of building the Main Street of his childhood started to form at that moment.

Listening to an Appalachian String Band in a Blue Ridge country meeting house in celebration of a friend’s 80th birthday I chuckled as he walked up to me with a plastic cup and said: “I’d like you to meet the Real McCoy”. I smiled and looked at the contents: crystal clear and locally made, the real deal “moonshine” tasted better than I ever could have imagined. The Real McCoy indeed. So what do we mean by “authentic”?

Well if you are Louis Armstrong you play from the heart; nothing gets in the way; your instrument  is simply a window to your soul. If you’re Colonial WIlliamsburg you pour yourself into creating an experience that is so true to the original, so perfect in the smallest detail that enabling that experience with modern convenience simply doesn’t matter. If you’re John Rice Irwin whose vision is the Museum of Appalachia you bring together people like Alex Haley and every other conceivable human being and artifact who are the essence of the history of the hills of Tennessee and tell a story of resilience and laughter, music and faith. Totally, authentic.

 

If you’re Elijah McCoy you live a life that celebrates the gifts you’ve been given and change the course of history. Your name becomes synonymous with authenticity, “the real deal”. The phrase, “The Real McCoy”, coined by railroaders who had been burned by cheap imitation equipment that was not McCoy’s authentic automated lubrication device with its 70+ patents that changed the world, will forevermore define authenticity; the real thing. What you see is what you get. The Real McCoy.

Be authentic; create experiences that transcend any need for explanation. Whatever your message: education, thrills, history or marine science be authentic and true to the spirit of who you are. Make sure that every element of craft, every detail of your message is true. Embrace authenticity and become The Real McCoy. 

An American Original

Jul 6, 2015

I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s birthday on July 4th as I do every year, even though that is not when he was born. Why? Because that’s when he celebrated it and that’s good enough for me. Louis was an American of unmatched imagination and spirit. I treasure his work for so many reasons: international ambassador, consummate entertainer and the keeper of the flame of goodwill for all mankind, I honor all of these accomplishments. But there is something else: I am a Trumpet player and Louis set the bar high.

Louis defined so much of what we know to be American jazz because he was the product of a culture and time that came together in New Orleans in exactly the right proportions to distill an early proof of the American experience into a uniquely American sound. Like our country, Louis’ jazz is a gumbo of tradition from Europe, hymns from the Southern church, the rhythms of field hands and railroad men, brass bands and folk music. He famously said: “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song”. Quintessential Louis! But when we really dig, past his humor and humanity, down to the essence of the musician and get an up close look, Louis Armstrong the trumpeter is something to behold.

He found his voice at an early age; I don’t mean the beautiful, gravelly smooth croon we all know and love, I mean: his voice on his instrument, the Cornet and then Trumpet.

 The Cornet was the choice of early jazz for a simple reason: it was the standard in concert and brass bands of the day and was readily available. To make a sound on a brass instrument, you vibrate your lips at a specific pitch; the resulting note resonates with the same resonant frequency on the horn and is then amplified by the air set in motion and the vibration of the instrument itself. The resonant frequencies change with each valve combination and the Cornet is an especially tight little horn, responding quickly to valve changes, articulations, pitch and expression. It was the choice of early 20th century musical virtuosi like Bohumir Kryl and Herbert L. Clarke, rock stars of the day, (groupies and all), but in the hands of Louis Armstrong, it became the means to a whole new invention.

Instrumental technique is like bandwidth – the more you have the more content can flow through and his technique was brilliant, unparalleled, unprecedented, allowing range and facility thought to be impossible. New notes in the upper register appeared magically and his physical endurance was endless – he could play seemingly forever. When he switched from the Cornet to the brighter sounding Trumpet he left behind none of his technical fireworks. To the contrary, his virtuosic gems suddenly found their place in a shimmering new setting. But no matter what horn he played, he always sounded like Louis. His technique was simply a means to an end.

In music school we are all taught to imitate – our teachers, idols and those who came before us. This serves a purpose because we can learn quickly by emulating greatness but sometimes I wonder if we spend too much time trying to be the players we are not and not enough time finding our own voices to become the musicians we are. Life is like that too. Only you can be you.

 Louis was Louis not because he was trying to be all of those things – he simply was being Louis and the musical expression of that person became the stuff of legend. Each of us has a unique sound on the horn, in print or on a stage. That is our most important gift and the one thing that is uniquely ours. That is the genius of Louis Armstrong. He was simply and honestly, Louis Armstrong.

So find your voice. If it takes you places on the horn you’ve never been, the technique will follow to make it happen. The same is true in life – listen to your instincts and the means to get there will follow; fear not. Find your voice. 

Be your own American Original. 

 

THEME PARK MAGIC -The Suspension of Disbelief

Jun 27, 2015

I’ve been lucky in my career to hang with some interesting characters: George Roose & Bob Munger who saved Cedar Point from becoming a housing complex and turned it into one of the great amusement parks of all time, August A. Busch III whose passion for quality and excellence remain unparalleled to this day, Dick Kinzel who shepherded the growth of CedarFair and a litany of other folks: Jack Aldrich, Dan Brown, Mike Cross, John Roberts, Elaine College, Mel Bilbo and others who understood that the theme park business is a people business; that the best of the best are the folks who manage their teams in the trenches day in and day out; make it safe – make it quality – make it memorable. They had a vision and supported and trusted their teams to make it so; more than that they had the ability to inspire you to greatness – to stay focused on the mission at hand; to make it inconceivable that you would not deliver excellence.

As a Freshman music major at Depauw University I had the incredible experience of playing bass in a rhythm section with Judson Green and Steve Hanna. Steve went on to greatness with Henry Mancini and other brilliant purveyors of modern music and Judson went on to become the President of Disney Parks and Resorts. I will never forget how I felt the moment I first performed with great musicians. They elevated me to a place I had never been; my heart pounded and my spirits soared. To this day it was one of the most magical transformations of my life. So it is with greatness in stagecraft and theme parks.

In theatrical terms this is a “suspension of disbelief”. That moment when you “buy it” - subconsciously or at the tip of your brain it is the moment when everything falls away except for the essence of the moment. It can happen in a movie or theater but it can also happen during a business presentation, on the downhill of a roller coaster, in the midst of a great novel or if you’re really lucky when you hug someone you love.

“The suspension of disbelief” - that quintessential moment when the clock stops and nothing else matters. This is the power that makes themed attractions “tick”.

The full immersion of mind and body in a ride or attraction: an encounter with a Beluga Whale, the first inversion on a coaster, a fireworks show, cultural exhibit, a masterpiece at the Met or the coal mine at The Museum of Science and Industry, each of these has the same power to transport us to another place and time, to a different state of mind. This “suspension of disbelief” or more simply the power to suddenly and convincingly believe is magical and it can change lives.

A few years ago I was watching a Sesame character show that I produced for a park; a young Mom, watching with her kids leaned over and asked one my team members: “Is that the real Big Bird or just someone in a costume?”

That ladies and gentlemen is “suspension of disbelief”.

Make your work so compelling, so heartfelt, so honest and so passionate that your audience is taken to a different place. This is the magic of what we do and the power of those I’ve mentioned above, to inspire each of us to great things that make memories to last a lifetime. Let’s make it so.

BEETHOVEN'S COPYIST

Jun 15, 2015

For those of you who are not composers or arrangers, the copyist is the invaluable individual, who even in this digital age of music preparation, takes the score and prepares each instrumental, vocal part and final edited scores for the conductor, performers and producer. Music notation requires excruciating attention to detail and limitless patience; like computer coding even one little mistake can bring things to a screeching halt.

Back in the day, we all composed with pencil and ink; usually deadlines pushed me to write in first draft/final draft ink and hope for the best. So it was also for someone far beyond my musical sensibilities: Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Poor Beethoven. He wasn’t the happiest fellow in the world. (That honor would be reserved for “The Most Happy Fella” see: “Frank Loesser”) and he took it out on everyone in his circle of friends and colleagues especially those who were always trying to help. Pity his poor copyists.

 

The sample of Beethoven’s manuscript above tells us everything we need to know about the challenges of working for this fellow; his scores are all but illegible, he makes changes constantly and expects you to read his mind and when you don’t he lets loose with pejoratives of symphonic proportions. To his copyist Ferdinand Wolanek who transcribed his epic 9th Symphony he wrote:

“Lousy scribbler! Stupid churl! Correct your mistakes through ignorance, arrogance conceit and stupidity. This is more fitting than you wanting to teach me, which is exactly as though the sow wanted to teach Minerva”

 Ouch. That’s gratitude for you.

Each of us as leaders has associates in our circle who make everything we do possible, just like Beethoven’s copyists. They clean up and correct our work, keep us on schedule, bring us fresh ideas and frequently do so in remote corners of the organization far from the limelight. In theatre it is the Stage Manager, in the Navy it’s the Chiefs, authors perish but for good editors and executives of every stripe rely on administrators, executive assistants, subject matter experts and technical advisors to keep things straight.

Honor them. Treat them well. Elevate them to the highest levels of esteem because the fact is, without Ferdinand Wolanek and his colleagues we would never have experienced Beethoven and without the heroes who make your business possible, well…… “Lousy scribbler! Stupid churl!!”

You get my point.

 

The Power of Experience

May 19, 2015

I recently had the privilege of spending some time on the Chesapeake Bay; a whole week in fact. The community I was with was passionate about many things but the common bond was this: learning about the world and themselves through the power of experience. The commitment to learning in this group was lifelong; all had lived rich and meaningful lives filled with joy and sadness, accomplishment and failure but each one of these seasoned citizens was still eager, engaged and excited to meet the challenges of learning more about the world and themselves.

The common experience we shared was this: we were on the water in a small but tidy ship surrounded by the history and culture of a region that has seen more than its share through the years. As we explored together we simply became part of that history.

We met island people who speak a dialect all their own, met with craftsmen who create household goods and necessities just as they did 200 years ago; we dined on local foods, heard ancient tales of the sea and somewhere along the way, the years melted away and we were simply part of that continuum.

I had the distinct honor of sitting with a 90 year old World War II veteran of the 10th Mountain Division. Sharp and agile we connected on a few topics; photography - food - family. I asked him when he got to Europe, knowing with some certainty the answer. “December 1944”. “You must have a story or two” I said. He smiled and told me how he came to be in the 10th Mountain Division as the Nazis retreated; I asked him about his battalion and the men he was with. He earned two battle stars and lost many friends. As we talked he remembered clearly and with passion those days and how important they were to him and to the world and while the events were somber, he was young and there was joy in that; they all were young and his memory was one of being a young adult on an important mission. To see it through no matter what came.

When we parted on the final day he looked at me across the room while everyone else chatted and did something I will never forget: he saluted me. Why? I think because he knew that I knew his story and would treasure it always and share it in the years to come. Our eyes met one last time and I could do nothing but point at his heart, thank him and walk away.

This is the power of experience. You learn because of how you feel; the memory becomes a part of you. This is why I love what we do because once we learn this way, we never forget

 

Leadership.

Apr 24, 2015

Everything I know about Leadership I learned from my Dad

On 24 April 1945, Ensign Robert E. Minerd found himself wounded but alive in the middle of the North Atlantic. He was 22 years old, a Navy Band Musician who had volunteered for duty at sea. He was now the Senior Surviving Officer of the last warship to be sunk in the Atlantic theater of war in World War II.

He didn’t have to be there; he had been playing in the band in Washington DC every day “on the air”, raising war bonds and working with fabulous musicians but his country had asked for volunteers and so he went to Midshipmen School graduating with high honors; high enough to merit him his new status as “senior”.

USS Frederick C. Davis was a Destroyer Escort; an intrepid class of small ships that were deadly to U-Boats. Dad said that at 301 feet they rode over one wave rode the trough of the next and smashed through the third in a typical North Atlantic sea; even at sea Dad was aware of rhythm.

He was at his station in CIC when the torpedo hit; everyone around him was killed instantly. The ship was split in two and sinking fast. He found a wounded sailor, legs broken from the impact of the torpedo, broke down the radio shack door which was jammed, fitted a life jacket on his comrade, hoisted him and stepped on deck. They were both washed overboard as the ship settled. He lost consciousness.

The sea was cold and rough; there were sharks. The depth charges from their own ship were exploding underneath as they sank. There had been no time to set the safety on each weapon. Someone pulled him to a floater net bringing him back whenever he drifted off; a shark took another wounded man just as he was yanked aboard.

He “came to” on USS Bogue, the carrier they were escorting in the task force. They had been looking for U-Boats that had reportedly been fitted with rockets, headed for NYC in one final effort to hurt the allies before Germany fell. But the war was over and everyone knew it including the U-Boat captain. He fired anyway knowing it was suicide for him and his men; but he survived the onslaught by the other destroyers and lived to cherish his “moment of glory”. The deaths of his own men and those on Dad’s ship were useless but he earned his medal. Then again, he wasn’t a poor conscripted German, he was a Nazi; a member of “the party” as were most U-Boat commanders. My father never forgave him; there was no valor in his act only a selfish desire that is inexplicable to this day.

Only 3 officers from Dad’s ship survived, most of the crew was dead. He wrote the letters to the families of those lost. I have them all and many of their responses. What lives might they have lived? What stories would their children tell if they had lived to have them?

 I’ve provided copies of letters to family members who never knew what happened. In each one Dad wrote something specific about the man lost; about his life on board, his skills as a sailor and how much he was loved. He also gave comfort surrounding their deaths; his after action report was detailed enough that he could infer exactly how they were killed. In one case, speaking from experience he gave comfort that even the cold sea could provide a gentle death as eventually, one simply fell quietly asleep.

Dad was awarded the Navy Marine Corp Medal for valor and a Purple Heart. He never considered himself heroic; he always missed those men and cared for the survivors, even into old age. I found a hand written letter recently that he wrote to the original captain of his ship, who was not aboard that day. He had just met him. I could tell that it was hard to write; it was a scribbled draft and in it he said how happy he was to have a captain again; all these years later he felt relieved to have someone to share the incredible responsibility he shouldered.

So what are the lessons?

Leadership is not about the leader it is about those you lead. When your crew looks up to you and respects you they will regard you as their leader forever; I met men 50 years after the event who would have followed Dad into combat again and told me so. He took care of them his entire life. If you put people in harm’s way make sure it really matters – don’t do it because it will make you a “hero”; know your people, each and every one of them. Personally. Learn what is important to them; learn about their families and their hopes, their fears, their talents. Be brave; stay at your post; take responsibility. Be visible; be decisive. If you’re a sailor, know how to sail.

Dad and I used to sail little boats in big weather on Lake Champlain. When small craft warnings were up, that’s when we ventured out. Through gray skies, pounding waves and high wind we would sail a course that took us miles out into that massive body of water. Unshaved, sporting his Navy cap, blue eyes sparkling, he would sail until we ran out of muscle to hold the sheet and rudder returning home to a cup of coffee and a cozy cabin. Sometimes on those trips I could tell where his thoughts were: on another small ship on an even bigger sea on a cold April day long ago.

 The Greatest Generation, indeed.

 

YOU CALL THIS WORK?

Mar 20, 2015

So in the past few days I’ve consulted with a non-profit on a whole range of creative development ideas, edited some original audio for conspicuous consumption by the public, had breakfast with true American Hero Paul Galanti, worked on a proposal for one of my favorite West of the Mississippi show producers and still found time to work out, drink a local beverage or two, cook some spaghetti and take a drive through the Blue Ridge. So why am I sharing this? What’s it have to do with work?

When I was Vice President of Entertainment at SeaWorld San Diego, I had an office with a brilliant view of San Diego Bay. Every day, without fail, as I reported to work my Creative Director would yell “Welcome to work!” to the chagrin of all of the Operations and Entertainment Managers, Supervisors and staff within earshot to which I would (unfailingly) reply: “You call this work?!”

And that’s just the point.

Sometime between 551 and 479 BC Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Or logograms to that effect). Anyway the point is this: fall in love with something to do and do it. As well as you can for as long as you can. The rest will fall into place.

I chose theme park entertainment.

I still marvel every time I stand in front of a studio orchestra with a newly composed piece of music; I am enchanted at every front gate entrance I make at a theme park (thank you Disney for Magic Bands) and remind myself constantly that to have worked for and with Cedar Point, Busch Gardens Williamsburg/Tampa, Sesame Place, Valleyfair, Silver Dollar City, HersheyPark, Aquatica, Water Country USA, Six Flags and SeaWorld San Antonio/San Diego is a unique privilege for which I am ever grateful.

In 1964 as a tot, I wandered into the World’s Fair in NYC and an attraction called “It’s a Small World”. In 1976, twelve years later I walked on stage at Cedar Point and really, I’ve just never left.

Do good work – just don’t call it that.

 

Tell the Tale

Feb 26, 2015

We all know the power of story; the ability to connect a series of moments in space and time into a cohesive narrative that can engage, entertain and inspire an audience, a student or perhaps even a Board of Directors. As important as the content of a story is its architecture; the story arc – the pacing and delivery make or break even the most compelling content. Stories after all can be true or fantasy but it’s the telling of the tale and often the storyteller, that makes a story memorable and therefore great.

Nowhere is it more important to get the facts right than when telling the tales of History and nowhere is it easier to fall into the abyss of endless facts, figures, dates and names.

Telling tales of American History has been a lifelong passion of ours culminating in the musical drama “Four Part Harmony”, a show that tells the true stories of American POW’s and the heroic efforts of their wives to free them from captivity and torture in North Vietnam. Premiered by Virginia Repertory Theatre (then Theatre IV) in Richmond with additional work in NYC, the tale was told through music and stagecraft in a completely unique way. Heroes all, those remarkable men and women reminded us to tell the story; let the facts take care of themselves (they are after all: facts) but weave through, around and among those facts the fabric of story in a compelling, memorable and unforgettable way.

Not too many years ago I had the privilege of working with historical playwrightSal St. George and the brilliant Producer Sean Murray. We developed a piece of theater for Branson Missouri called “Celebrate America” that followed generations of one family from the founding of the Republic to today; no easy feat for a piece of commercial work but if among the thousands of people who saw the show, there are among them a handful of young people inspired and older folks made proud it’s because we framed the facts of history with a compelling, personal and memorable story.

So what’s your story? What are you trying to say? How can you deliver your message in way that’s unforgettable? Find your voice; or find someone else to be your voice. Craft the architecture of your presentation on the model of a story; carefully choose your words, chapter and verse but most of all remember to tell the tale.

 

Too Many Notes

Jan 12, 2015

Since last year at this time I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of thousands of notes; notes for Muppets, men, women and children, notes for Altos and Tenors, Brass and Percussion, Strings and Reeds, dogs and hoof stock, notes for every variety of entertainment, educational and musical expression. The question is: was it “too many notes”?

 

I hope not.

There are only so many notes and musical inspirations in the universe and it would be a shame to waste any of them. I do know that the folks who have heard those notes themselves number in the millions and the people who helped me to wrangle them in the studio have led me to believe that the end result of our work is lots of smiles, laughs, a tear or two, some nickels in the corporate coffers and more than a few ovations.

And that’s as it should be.

Just enough to get the job done; “right sized” to the occasion. The economy of means in music matches the allocation of resources in the real world. Think of it as “lean manufacturing” for creative endeavors. Not too much; not too little; just in time, always on time.

Too many notes? I don’t think so.

Mozart’s detractors were motivated to accuse him of such excess because…well perhaps they were a little jealous; but too many notes? No. Just right; he wrote just the right amount of music to fit the occasion, move the heart, sway the conscience and nudge the needle. With passion, imagination and eloquent sufficiency. Just enough is usually perfect.

We’ve been blessed with so many great projects this past year and want to thank our partners for letting us help you to realize your musical dreams. May the New Year be filled with new opportunities for us all to do more of the same.

 

Ballet Causes Street Riot!

Nov 26, 2014

You just had to look right? I mean, the headline –who can ignore that? Ballet causes street riot? Piques your interest maybe a little? What kind of ballet – a badly performed “Nutcracker” perhaps? What about the delicate (generally) kinetic artistry of classical ballet could cause violence in the streets? Well for one thing it wasn’t classical and for another there was nothing delicate about it.

 

At the premiere of Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING in 1912 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris patrons experienced (operative word) something new: dissonant sometimes savage music from which were derived angular sometimes savage movements in a piece of visual storytelling unlike anything they had ever experienced (operative word) before.

 

Poor Stravinsky – there he sits watching his epochal work as the audience begins to fidget – then hiss and boo then become disorderly to the point that the police can no longer contain the mayhem. The audience itself became a metaphor for the “behavior” of the work: musical inspiration uncontainable by the structures of classical music theory.

The fact that the subject matter dealt with pagan rituals and pre-historic catastrophe likely didn’t help but it was Stravinsky’s ability to experientiallytransform the power of this ancient world and express it in his score that made it visceral and clearly, unforgettable. The stuff of legends.

 

The power of experience is like that; done well it is visceral, powerful, unforgettable and life-changing. Its power lies in its ability to immerse an audience through sensory stimulation; referenced against their common experience it can elicit a powerful response they will never forget.

Remember that when you design an attraction, a ride or a museum exhibit; tell your story in a way that compels your guests to take notice, to be moved. Stimulate their senses, their sensibilities and most of all, their imaginations. Use their collective experience as a backdrop and paint a picture they’ll never forget.