Rushfield's Hollywood: The Stage Manager
Our series with the artists who make an industry. Today, legend Debbie Williams, ringmaster of TV's greatest spectacles
When I think about what makes Hollywood different from the firehose of “content” that floods our phones and devices, I think about the skill, craftsmanship and artistry that is the calling card of this industry — things that “we” (Wall Street, consumers, your boss, etc..) often take for granted. This is the second in my series of conversations highlighting and appreciating the untold stories in this town. (You can check out the first right here) - R.R.
Back when I was a slightly younger reporter on the American Idol beat, attending the weekly tapings of the colossus that devoured the airwaves in the first years of the aughts, there was one sight that always stayed with me. The show's weekly tapings were a circus of performances, god-like judges, choreographing, screaming fans and bigger-than-life guest performers. The set could seem so chaotic that as they counted down the final “10 seconds to air time,” it seemed impossible that the show would ever come together. And somehow with one or two seconds to spare, it always did.
Much of that was thanks to the unforgettable figure at the center of the circus. Calling the shots, ordering around stars and crew alike, was a wisecracking woman in a floppy hobo hit, bringing order to the chaos of live production.
Stage Manager Debbie Williams, who oversaw Idol for 15 seasons, is in fact, responsible for much, if not most, of the live entertainment you've seen in your lifetime. As one of the handful of expert crew members who handles the EGOT-level awards shows and TV mega-events, she has shepherded every live show from Miss America pageants to Golden Globes to Presidential inaugural events to the Oscars.
She also is a true pioneer in entertainment, having bulldozed her way into television production at a time when few women were let inside that clubby male world.
She spoke with me over a few afternoons from her house in Marina Del Rey.
THE GLOBES AND THE OSCARS
Let’s start with the biggies — the giant awards spectacles. How is stage managing the Golden Globes, a show that prides itself on being loose and unpredictable?
That show has always been one of the crazier shows because everybody's drunk. Everybody's having a party, they're having a good time. I will say the British people are the only ones that don't drink before they're going to present. They drink after but they don't drink before.
I have gotten people who were so inebriated on that show. One of the famous moments was Elizabeth Taylor presenting (in 2001). She was brought to me at the last minute, in the wheelchair. She's got her Israeli guard, all her people. There's not a lot of time. And she's saying, ‘Where's my purse? Where's my makeup? Where's my lipstick? Where's my powder?’
And I'm like, ‘Okay, Liz, I've got to talk you through what you're going to do. Okay?’ She's saying, ‘No, I have to get my makeup.’ So I'm like, ‘Listen to me while you're doing that, you got to get ready. He's about to say thank you.’ And she's like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And I went, ‘Oh yes, yes, yes, yes.’ I take her by her shoulders. I kind of spin her around. So she's now facing me. I'm telling her, ‘You got to read the nominees.’ She wasn't listening for shit. Finally they say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Elizabeth Taylor.’ And she (gets out of the wheelchair) and goes, ‘What? What? I have to go?’ And I'm like, ‘Now!’ And I kind of push her out.
She gets out and she's like, ‘Oh, what's happening?’ She starts to open the envelope to read the thing. And everyone's like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And you can hear Robin Williams yelling at her ‘No, no. Read the nominees.’ Finally, Dick Clark walks out and he puts his arm around her and he goes, ‘Madam, let's do this.’ So he talks her through. They play the clip and we come out of the clip and she looks at the envelope and she goes, ‘Gladiator.’ And it was Gladiator.
As time went on, did Globes carousing decrease as it became more watched?
No. They're having fun. That's a party. It's the only show that was really a party. They start drinking, it's just always been that kind of show. You know how cramped that room is.
I remember when Brad Pitt was kind of a nobody, he wasn't what he is now. So there's a table and it's right back by my backstage entrance at the [Beverly Hills Hilton]. And it's a terrible table. And so before the show, his PR person came in and she saw Brad had a seat at that table. I saw her take Brad's name card and move it to the table further forward. And I said to her, ‘That's not a really good idea.’ She goes, ‘Well, I don't like his seat.’
Dick goes out and he says, ‘Well, let me tell you something. We've been rehearsing for three days. So when that nomination happens, that camera guy is going to shoot whoever is sitting in that seat, because he's not going to know where your boy is now.’ And so she went, ‘Oh.’ And she took the little thing and she moved it back. Dick knew exactly how to handle that. And he did.
How does stage managing the Globes compare to the Oscars?
Oscars is different. I was never lead on Oscars. That's always been a boy. And Oscars is very political, but because they have so many people doing so many things, it's not an easy show. They've always had film producers doing it, but they're changing that this year which is the best thing they could have possibly done. Because we always got these film producers that came in, God love them, but they know how to do film. They don't know how to do live TV.
And so basically that would fall a lot on the directors doing a show because they were live TV directors. But finally to get a television producer is a nice thing. It will be better, I guarantee. Gil Cates did it for a long time. And Gil knew what he was doing, he understood live TV. Film producers just don't understand what we do. When the train leaves the station, it's going fast. It's going faster than anything they've ever done in film. And they're these people that move in a much slower pace than we do. They do art, we do TV.
What's one of your craziest Oscar memories?
We had an envelope debacle years ago with Sharon Stone and Quincy Jones, that was the first envelope debacle. Sharon had taken the envelope from the previous winner, they did two awards. So when she opened the envelope to read the winner, it was the wrong winner. It was the winner from the envelope before. When we knew that, I was like, ‘oh shit!’ So I went running in that direction. Well, the Price Waterhouse guy just walked out the stage, gave them the right envelope and they did it. That was the only thing anybody talked about the next day. And then I was backstage when we had the whole envelope debacle with Faye and Warren, which was not any fault of theirs. You know that whole story.
What's your memory of that, the most infamous Oscar flub of all time?
I was standing there. The commercial was really short. Everything happened fast. They handed them the envelope. We went out. We as stage managers never touch the envelope. That's between the accountant and the celebrity. We don't intervene, ever. So he handed them the envelope, they went out. There was that moment where Warren looked to the right over in the stage right wing. I think there's a problem with this envelope because it said it was the Best Actress envelope. And it said La La Land, but nobody got it. And so then he hands it to Faye basically throwing her under the bus because they don't like each other too much. And so she reads La La Land. And in that moment, that accountant was standing right behind John and he said to him, ‘That might be the wrong answer.’ Now this is not my wing anymore. I'm just standing nearby.
What goes through your mind when you hear those words?
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. So then it's starting to get discussed on the headset. I walk away because it's one of those moments where you're like, ‘I don't want to hear this, I don't want to hear this.’ I did this show for enough years. I knew what was happening. And so this makeup lady comes up to me and she hugs me and she goes, ‘What is happening?’ And I went, ‘Something really bad.’
So all of a sudden, Gary Natoli, who's the lead on the show, comes running up to the stage on camera to look at the envelope. Meanwhile, the La La Land people start coming up to the stage. So I said to Rita Cossette who worked with me, ‘Let's go back there because they're going to be stunned.’ So we go back there and they're all walking off stage going, ‘What just happened?’ And I said, ‘Well guess what? You're going to be part of Oscar history.’
Emma Stone comes walking off after them and she goes, ‘What the fuck?’ And I just say, ‘Yeah, that's a good way to put it.’ Like zombies, they don't know what happened. The show ends. Normally we take a picture after the show, we always take a group of the stage managers, we go down and get someone who's in the front row and say, ‘Come up and take this picture with us.’ We're stunned too. And we just kind of walk off stage and don't do the picture. It took a while for everybody to figure out what actually transpired. It was a big faux pas.
BORN INTO SHOWBIZ
Let’s take a step back and talk about how you got here. You took an unusual route to crew work. By way of ice skating.
The first words out of my mouth as a baby were ‘show, show, show.’ My parents were performers with the traveling ice shows when I was a child. And when you say ‘born in a trunk’, that's literally what it was. There were no cribs in the hotels. Mom would take a drawer out and make a crib out of it. She raised my brother and I on the road. I traveled the first 15 years of my life. It was a show every night. I went into the show (myself) when I was two. I started performing.
I did a solo and I was the one that did the most in the show actually. We became a family act known as The Williams Family, the First Family of the Ice. We did that till 1968 and then I got to be a real kid and went to a real school for the first time.
What did you learn growing up backstage?
You just grabbed your play times between when you had to perform. All meals were eaten in restaurants. You order what you want, because my mother couldn't cook for anything. And you learn very much to roll with the punches. We were in Cuba when the revolution started, they had to get us out of there quickly. Castro’s people were bombing the machinery behind the arena and the ice melted. You just learn to adapt because every week it's going to be different.
Is the chaos of backstage life calming to you?
Because of the way I grew up, I kind of thrive. It's an adrenaline thing. And I think that's why I did live variety TV; because you have to bring order out of chaos.
How did you go from dancing and skating to working in production?
As I got older, I wasn't interested in skating anymore. But later I did a show that was touring Europe to get a trip to Europe. And that choreographer became the choreographer of The Donny and Marie Show. He asked me to do that and I thought, this is a way to learn about TV. I was 20 and I did that series four years. When it was over, I started working in production.
I wanted to work in a more collaborative environment where it wasn't just about how I looked and putting a costume on and going out and performing. And that's what TV represented to me. But it was still a show.
How did you break into production?
Well, my very first job was as a runner on a show called the Johnny Yune Show, but I moved up quickly and shortly after that, I started working on Casey Kasem's America's Top 10 when it first went on the air. I was doing research and all of a sudden they came to me one day. They said, ‘we want you to produce it.’
I produced that show for three or four years and some other shows for them. Clip shows, wrap-around shows. And I was editing and it’s 24/7. When I got pregnant and I had my son, I took some time off and my husband at the time said, ‘why don't you stage manage?’ And I'm like, ‘what is that?’ We had a few director friends who said, ‘hey, we'll let you get your feet wet’ and they did. I didn't like it at first.
What was your first job as a stage manager?
It was a game show. Fred Travalena was the host. My friend Jeff Goldstein was the director. And he said, I want you to fill in for the stage manager. And I'm like, no, no, no. I had my card already, my DGA card and he goes, ‘it's very simple. This woman, Melinda Casey, she'll show you.’ And I'm like, oh my God, because you're very much out in front of people when you're stage manager. There's a lot of jobs where you can hide and you can make mistakes, but you can't make a mistake as a stage manager, you just can't. I was terrified. I mean terrified.
Did you have the sense right away you might be good at this?
I'll tell you when I did. Paul Miller was directing the Jerry Lewis Telethon and he said, ‘why don't you come do it with me?’ And this was in 1986. So it was in Vegas, at Caesars. And back then it was a big show. I think I was swing that year. I would fill in for anybody that wanted to take an hour or two off in the 24 hours we did the show. That's when I kind of went, oh, I think I like this. And right after that, they all started hiring me on their shows. So I was hired on the People's Choice Awards. This is the first big show I did.
So what do "flow" and "lead talent" mean?
That meant that I would lead talent and I have to put the paperwork together that says where everybody has to be, when they have to be there, when they're pulled backstage. So I sat with the rundown and I figured it out and I did it. And I thought, if I screw this up, I'll never work in this town again. And it was a live show.
Did you make any mistakes?
Not a one. I did it. I figured it out and I did it and it worked. And I was like, holy shit, I did it! And after that, I just got started getting hired on one show after another, because there were no girls, there were no women.
Being a woman helped you get jobs at first?
It helped me because I think I was the token. But I knew if I was the token, then I had to come in and I had to do the best job I possibly could because you're a woman and everyone else are all guys. And I had been told by somebody, ‘oh, don't do that, that's a job for a man.’ Well, as soon as that person told me that I went, ‘well shit, I'm going to try this.’ And I started liking it. I liked doing variety shows. I liked live. So I did talent. I led talent for a while, but then I got in my head that I wanted to be a lead. There were no women leads. And finally, a producer I knew who was doing the Soul Train Awards said, you're going to lead this show. So the very first lead job I had was a Soul Train Awards at the Shrine.
HOW THE JOB WORKS
As lead stage manager, what's the process for prepping an award show?
You usually have five days of prep before you go on stage to rehearse. And so when you get in there, you get the rundown. You see who's on the show, how they've got the show laid out. Usually, you'll sit with the director. And then, you sit with the script and you lay out the show. Usually, the director has the blocking notes who's coming out from where and so forth.
Then you figure the timings out and your transitions from the bands and where they load from and where they strike from and how long it's going to take. And then you'll go to the producer and say, ‘you don't have enough time here. We need to add an award or we need to put something in here.’ So you work closely with the director and the producer to make the show functional. And then sometimes it isn't. You get to the dress rehearsal and something doesn't work. All of a sudden this setup didn't work, so you got to sit with the board before the live show and you got to move things around to make the show work.
To make the show function, you're talking about the difference of seconds.
Seconds. Strikes are shorter than setups. And depending on what you're setting up, whether you're setting up a live band or you're setting up live to track, all of those things play into it. And to me, what I did in my head because of my dancing background and my skating background, I turned it all into choreography. In my head, how I laid out a show, I choreographed it — exits, entrances, how this person is here so you don't see this strike of this happening, or you put somebody out in the audience to cover what's happening on the set. It's a dance.
What are the sorts of things that go wrong when you're live?
I'll tell you a funny story. I was doing a special the night before Clinton's inaugural. So we had Clinton there, we had Hillary there, we had the Vice President there. We had Will Smith. We had all these people, we were doing a big show at the Kennedy Center. So we had this band set up and it was right before Will Smith was going to introduce Hillary Clinton.
And we had talked about it. Hillary was making her entrance stage left. So they're out there striking it. I'm standing there with Hillary. Will's at the mic in the front. I'm saying to the AD, how much time? 40 seconds. So there's a guy out there and he's messing around with the monitors and he's having a problem. It's 40 seconds to get the hell out of here. And so I'm standing there with Hillary. She's here making her entrance. He's down there and I said, you got 10 seconds. Get the hell out of there! All of a sudden I'm counting him down five seconds. Come on. He takes that monitor, he picks it up and with no idea where to turn, he suddenly dives at me and Hillary, right as Will Smith says, ‘Ladies and Gentleman, the next first lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton.’ That guy is at our feet, Hillary picks up her script and steps over him. And I'm standing there going… okay, that was cool.
One of the most important relationships on a live set is between the stage manager and the host. You're the two people out in front. What makes for a great host?
I always say to people, hosting is a very finite skill. Generally, for actors it is very hard. It's just a whole different thing. Ryan Seacrest is a host, and a lot of people that did radio become a really good host. They think on their feet, they're fast. Dick Clark, same thing.
The whole thing with working with hosts is making them feel completely comfortable, making them feel like you have your back, they need to trust you implicitly, especially on a live show. I used to say to Seacrest, sometimes we'd go into Idol and there would be things we didn't know and I'd go ‘it's okay, it’s you and I, no matter what, we can figure this out. We'll make it up if we have to.’ Hosting it's hard. People think it's so easy.
After the adrenaline rush of running a live show, is scripted boring?
I don't like tape shows. Because if something screws up it's like, oh, let's go back or let's do that five different ways. I hate that. I like it when the train leaves the station and we just go. When somebody calls you about a show and it's not an award show, you ask, is this live or is it tape? Taped shows are just arduous, there's too many choices. And producers sometimes can't make a decision. So it's like, oh, well let's try that five different ways. It's annoying.
After Soul Train, did your career take off right away?
Things took off and directors then started using me. Some of my male counterparts didn't like it because I was a girl.
How did they express that?
They didn't hire me on their shows. But then it changed. They got over that. But I just put blinders on when I was doing it. I mean I knew I was cutting through something that girls didn't do. I think sometimes boys might like to make things look really hard sometimes. I would watch some of the little games they would play. And I was so naive to it. But I just wanted to go in and do a good job and I did. And then the guys started respecting me for what I did.
Were you the only female lead stage manager working in TV then?
Yes, I was alone. And then my friend Rita Cossette came from New York. Another girl, Alisa Levison. Her father was a cameraman and her mother was a makeup artist. So Alisa was very young. She came in. So then there were only the three of us for a while. But as far as lead went, I was the only female that did lead here in this town forever.
So let's talk finally about the big one for you. When you found a home for a decade at American Idol.
As a culmination to a big long career, that was my most fun time, really. I loved working with all these newbies and watching them, forming them, helping form them into these stars. I loved Nigel (Lythgoe) and Ken (Warwick). Working with them was crazy, fucking crazy, fucking crazy.
Because they were last-minute guys. And Nigel was one of those people, and I've worked with a lot of creative people like this, where they get an idea on the spot and you're about to do a live show and now — we're going to do it. But that energy, is what made Idol great because we were all spinning on a dime all the time. We call it dress rehearsal producing. All of a sudden in the dress rehearsal, Nigel would get an idea or Ken would get an idea and we'd just do it live on the air. Never rehearse it. It was electrifying.
The first year we didn't know what it was. It was a little fill-in summer series, karaoke. And then we did that finale and then we went, ohhhh… maybe we get five years out of this. That'd be cool. And it became something none of us ever thought it would be ever.
That was a grueling production. Two live shows a week, often three hours of television. With multiple musical performances, a boisterous studio audience, pre-taped segments and guest acts. At its height, tens of millions watching Did you ever get in a rhythm where you could coast?
Are you fucking kidding me? No, we never coasted. We just had it down. And then they started adding production, a lot of production, but we didn't have the rehearsal schedule.
So we started calling the dress rehearsal live at five, because that's when we were doing our dress rehearsal, live on the air at five. And that was part of, when X Factor went on the air, when we jumped the shark (in terms of losing our minds). When X Factor went on the air, then all of a sudden we had to do all this new production we'd never done before. And so the lighting director didn't have time to light. We didn't have time to rehearse. Nobody had time to do shit. And so slowly, slowly we kept adding to our production schedule, rehearsal days and things like that. But we never coasted on that show ever. It was always down to the wire, cuckoo crazy fun, talking through the show as we're on the air. But there was something about that I think that made that show good.
So what was it like dealing with the contestants over those years?
I loved it. We all schooled them in the manners of working on a stage. If you ask for something and somebody brings you another monitor, new ears or whatever, thank them. Be appreciative of these very skilled professionals that are making you look good on live TV. I said these people are here to serve you, but they're not servants. They're here to make you look good, and when you become famous — if you become famous — you will see them on every show you ever do. And believe me, if you mess them up, they can mess you up.
STANDING UP TO JERRY LEWIS
How was Circus of the Stars?
Oh my God. That was crazy. One thing you don’t want to do is the wrong elephant cue because if you have 10 elephants, once that train starts, it’s not going to stop. Don't cue the elephants at the wrong time.
How about Miss America?
I did it starting in maybe 1990, in Atlantic City. That's a crazy show. And you do nights of preliminary shows that never air, for the judges to watch and you do a night of just talent. That's a fascinating night. All the crazy talents that these girls have.
But the tough part is the loser girls, they're not done (with the show obligations). Some of them don't want to go back out. There have been those girls who say: ‘I can’t, I can't do it.’ The show has to go on and there's still stuff that they have to do, but guess what? You're not Miss America and you're never going to be. So there's that. Some of them throw fits and throw things in the dressing room when they come off just because you're working for that your whole year and then you're not Miss America.
You work with the same crew on every show?
The team, they always call us the A Team. We do the big shows. We've known each other for 30 some years. This one's gone through this divorce and this one had a child and this one's... I mean, we all know way too much about each other and you rely on each other. Live TV is like that. Everybody's a professional and everybody relies on each other and it's the best. And so, it's comforting. It's a family, we're a family, dysfunctional as we may be.
Tell me about working on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
When you do the show with Jerry Lewis, he has this entourage. It's very intimidating. And this was back in the eighties, and we were still doing the telethon at Caesars. And so Paul Miller was the director and we had talked about me being with Ed McMahon that year. And I thought, great. Perfect. So then they called me and Paul says, ‘I want you to be with Jerry.’ And I was like, ‘I don't think that's a good idea.’ And he says, ‘No, it'll work.’
What made you nervous about working directly with Jerry?
He was an intimidating figure and he had all these people that were with him all the time. And that was intimidating.
, he walks out on the stage
How did you get someone like him with a reputation as being, shall we say difficult, on your side?
I don't know. I was on my game and I took care of him and made everything easy. And we had a good time, actually. I saw his sarcasm and I have sarcasm. And I think we both kind of connected on that front. And I think also that he kind of respected that I wasn't a pushover, and I'm strong, so he liked that. It was a really good working relationship. I didn't take his shit ever. I would dish it back to him as soon as he would dish it out to me.
Did he ever get testy with you?
There was one time he was rehearsing with Tina Sinatra on stage. They were going to do a duet and there was going to be a video package to play behind them of him and Dean. So they were going to rehearse it. When JL would get nervous, sometimes he'd get a little mean. His nerves brought that out in him. But God knows, I knew that. And so this one day rehearsing with Tina Sinatra, Mary Jo Blue in the truck said to me, ‘we don't have the video package completed yet. We're building it so we can't play it during this rehearsal.’ And so I repeated this to JL. I said, ‘You're not going to have the video package right now. They're still building it.’ And he said to me, ‘This is not some American Idol. This is a professional program!’
And I looked at him and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?’ And he knows damn well I don't build the package, I'm just delivering the message. So on that, I turned around and I crossed the stage. I was just like, I'm out of here. Crossed the stage. I could feel him coming after me. There was a camera cable across the stage. He tripped over it. I thought, oh my God, he's going to fall! And he didn't. And he comes up behind me and he goes, ‘I'm sorry, I'm sorry.’ I went, ‘Talk to the hand. I am not talking to you right now.’ And so I didn't. Finally I went back and I did what I had to do for rehearsal. We got through it.
The next day he comes in and he gives me one of his notes. He had these little notes that he would write and on and it's a little mea culpa, ‘I'm sorry.’ And he says, ‘You know what I did?’ I said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘I went home yesterday and told Sam what I did.’ Sam, his wife. I said, ‘That was pretty stupid. Why did you do that?’ And he goes, ‘Because I felt bad.’ I go, ‘Well, you should have felt bad.’ I said, ‘It's over now. It's over. Okay, moving on.’
I mean one time he was in a bad mood. And it was right before he was supposed to walk out on the show. And everybody had been telling him, be happy when you walk out in the air. Be happy. And I said, ‘Put a smile on your face, stand by and come here and give me a kiss.’ And I gave him a kiss and I said, ‘Now get your ass out there.’