Russ Ringsak

Confessions of a Greetings Tyrant

January 20, 2001

People sometimes ask what goes on backstage at the show. If one wanted to avoid the question they could answer with the precise technical truth: "Not that much - it's real quiet." Because in the Fitzgerald Theater, as in most vaudeville halls, there is no real back stage. All we have at stage level are the wings and a small room on stage right. Directly behind the stage is a narrow alley graced with dumpsters; in the hours before the show, cars and vans come and go, dropping performers and staff at the loading door. During the show not much moves in back of the stage at all, and it is real quiet.

But we don't often stoop to the "it depends what you mean by 'backstage'" ploy. What we call backstage at the show is cramped and usually full of hushed people thinking about what they will be doing in a few minutes; actors becoming one with their characters, for instance, and musicians humming softly. Quiet jokes are told between people who aren't about to hit the stage, and sometimes APHC staffers will have to go looking for someone who is. Now and then a mandolin or guitar can be heard from the open stairway. There are speakers high on the wall, little 5" monitors with not much bass. We don't hear the show nearly as well as the audience does and it always sounds better the next day on the radio rebroadcast.

People learn to stay loose backstage. The show's order isn't fixed until about 40 minutes to air time and even then things change; occasionally, with the clock running down, audiences have been treated to the sight of Garrison reaching over an actor's shoulder with a felt tip pen, editing scripts live on the air.

Like it says in my bio, I am responsible for sifting through the greetings that people submit at the theater door or online. Garrison reads these right after intermission so during the first hour of the show I sit down and go through the greetings -- basically in an arbitrary way, reducing two or three hundred down to about 30, of which the host will read perhaps 25. This used to be done at a small desk crammed into a corner of stage right, but lately I've moved below decks to a round table in the green room. It's a hurried process and those who have labored over a finely-crafted message would be horrified to see the summary treatment it gets. All I can say is that it's basically a lottery, folks, so please don't expend too much emotional capital in wishing your masterpiece onto the airwaves. And it's not always me making the decision; sometimes I get help from passersby and sometimes I'm not even there.

When I am there, though, I admit to having some prejudices. I am reluctant to talk about these because, first, it'll reduce the number of instant rejections and we might be overwhelmed with stuff that's qualified, according to my own capricious standards; and, second, because people might take umbrage that their work is being judged by an irrational tyrant. All I can say is that a lot of good material and a lot of sincere wishes are lost to our audience every week and it's my fault, and that's why they keep me protected backstage and why I am whisked off in a black limousine by uniformed guards right after the show.

Anyway, here goes, for the first time ever: an inside view of the public radio live-on-air greetings trade, as told by a person who has read about 11,000 of them:

  • I never go for greetings to pets - people want us to say hello to their dog or tell him to get off the couch. I toss those. Call me cruel, call me heartless, but I figure the dog isn't going to care if he doesn't hear his name on the radio.

  • Some good ones don't make it on the handwriting; if Garrison has to struggle with a spelling it means I'm not holding up my end of the deal. Also it has to be clear enough to be read on stage by someone with a spotlight in their face.

  • The first priority is laugh lines. If there's time I'll even rewrite one with bad handwriting if I think it's a laugh.

  • Mentioning your new Mercedes or BMW is not going to cut any ice with a guy who drives a Freightliner truck.

  • The phrase "we're here and you're not" brings instant rejection.
    Clever cat names also cut no ice with guys who drive Freightliners. Sorry; just the way we are.

  • We don't do messages from ourselves, unless someone on the staff sneaks something by me. I suspect it's happened.

  • Political sloganeering and boosterism is generally tossed, as are team messages, as in Go Bears.

  • A few years ago, probably around April of '97, a greeting came in with a dollar bill clipped to it; I knew staff and top management would be offended by the very thought, so I did the right thing and privately took the hit on that one. Slipped it quietly into my shirt pocket. Don't recall if I forwarded the greeting to the stage or not, but I didn't hold it against the person nor did I judge them for it, because it might have been the custom in their society. That December I think I might have put that dollar in a Salvation Army bucket. Unless maybe I was out of town.

  • We used to do marriage proposals but we gave that up. Not only didn't want to risk liability if it didn't pan out, but there's a personal responsibility issue here; we just felt the guy should ask her right to her face. Could be quite an experience for him, and he shouldn't miss it.

  • Inside jokes and love names have to be pretty good; Poopsie, Bubbles, Foxy Lady, Night Rider and the like usually don't get through.

  • There are hidden criteria as well, which change week to week and have only to do with the perverse and downright sour nature of truckers in general and this one in particular.

P.S. Now that I've come clean on all this, I don't want to see greetings coming in addressed to me personally. Please. I only work here.

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