Al Ford brings his work home with him and he doesn’t mind a bit. In fact, the crew passes he wears when on the job as a rigger with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local No. 19, for the past 26 years form the heart of his collection.
What began as a part-time summer job in 1985 working rock concerts and what are known in the biz as “load-outs” turned into a full-time gig when he was laid off from his more conventional job. He didn’t consider himself a nine-to-five kind of guy anyway. A rigger’s life is physically demanding and Ford is built for the task.
He played football—wide receiver and quarterback—while attending Salisbury State College (Class of ’81) and continued playing the game for 16 years with the Arbutus Big Red semi-professional team. “George Kendrick is still the coach,” said Ford, noting that he is well known in Arbutus circles. Today, Ford stays in shape thanks to a well-equipped weight room in his home.
All in a day’s work for Ford means being on location for up to 20 hours at venues that include Merriweather Post Pavilion and Pier Six during the summer and at the Hippodrome Theater, Baltimore Arena, Lyric Opera House, Baltimore Convention Center, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as well as hotels throughout the year.
His area of expertise involves spending long hours high in the roof over the stage. That’s where all of the lights are hung and heavy chain motors are hoisted.
The musicians and entertainers are as varied as the venues.
“Half of the time I don’t know who they are unless it’s a big-name group,” said Ford, whose own taste runs to old-school. “I’m an old rock and roller. Rolling Stones, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Mötley Crüe.” And, he has helped stage shows for them all—some multiple times. The Beach Boys, Elton John, Jimmy Buffet and Bruce Springsteen are also on his list of favorites.
The downstairs knotty-pine paneled clubroom—which Ford finished himself over the course of three years—includes an array of memorabilia. His wife, Nancy, created two framed displays of crew passes a few years back. He now has so many that they were laid out on a pool table for this writer to see. He hopes to get some of his favorites framed in the future.
His collection also includes guitar picks that litter the stage when a group has finished its show. These are a hot collectible among stage crew folks.
Ford said he has found the road crew accompanying the performers often more of a hassle than the headliners. Not surprising that tempers can be short as they have likely been all night long in a bus, traveling from another venue a considerable distance away.
“There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the scheduling,” observed Ford. And, they may have had to deal with nonprofessionals, particularly if playing on a college campus.
Ford prides himself in IATSE’s professionalism and he has recently been promoted to head of the rigging department at Merriweather and head rigger at the Convention Center.
In addition to stage productions, Ford’s credits include working on 50-plus movies filmed in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, D.C., both hits and flops.
He recalled that Tony Curtis and Charles Durning were among those who enjoyed hanging out with the crew between takes. Other well-known actors he spent time with have included Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine, filming “Guarding Tess,” and Clint Eastwood, for “In the Line of Fire.”
After Kathleen Turner was in town to film John Waters’ “Serial Mom,” she presented the entire crew with one of the more unusual gifts—pink penknives. Ford has worked on all of Waters’ films and a vibrant green lava lamp that once graced the set of “Pecker” has now found a home on his bar.
Ford does have a favorite performer story to share that occurred at Merriweather a few years back. The crew had just had dinner; the show was up; the stage was dark.
“I was looking out at the crowd and someone came up behind me and said: ‘Will they sell this place out?’ I said ‘yeah’ and turned around to see this little short guy.” It was Paul Simon. Ford introduced himself and said one of his favorite songs was “You Can Call Me Al.”
Simon proceeded to tell him how the song’s name came about. Seems he and his wife, Peggy, had been invited to a stuffy New York party. As a couple of old rock and rollers, he claimed they felt out of place so they stayed only a short while. As they were saying their goodbyes, the host shook their hands and said: “Thank you, Betty; thank you, Al.”
Simon said for the next month or so, he and his wife walked around the house calling each other Betty and Al.
Afterwards, Simon’s road crew approached Ford and said that usually Simon doesn’t talk to anybody. Guess sometimes it’s good to be called Al.