From Chicken Wings to Chewing Gum: Performers Get Royal Treatment at Mason

Posted: June 9, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

When the Four Tops took the stage at the Center for the Arts (CFA) last month, their tummies were full of pigs-in-a-blanket, chicken wings, and raspberry bars. Their outstanding performance that night was due in part to the staff at CFA hitting all the right notes backstage to ensure that the artists were comfortable—and well-fed—in their temporary home away from home.

Everyone has heard the legendary stories about pop divas and ego-driven rock stars demanding ridiculous foods and furnishings in their dressing rooms. On site, one can read hundreds of “contract riders”—specific requirements artists have before, during, and after a show-from famous musicians and singers. Demands range from white couches, table linens, and walls (Jennifer Lopez) to a Sony PlayStation (Snoop Dogg). However, according to Barry Geisler, general manager of the Patriot Center, outrageous and picky demands are mostly just legend today.

“None of that really happens anymore,” he says. “It’s a business, and these artists would be wasting hundreds of dollars if they had all those demands. They are just people, and they work hard on the road. They mostly just want to be as comfortable as they can be away from home.”

Geisler works closely with event promoters who deal with the contract riders of artists who perform at the Patriot Center. Most artists request basic food and drink—fresh fruit, beer, wine, or soft drinks. Occasionally Geisler’s staff will have to handle special requests such as reserving a tee time for a singer who loves to golf, or assuring that a room is available for massages or doctors. It is the variety of the requests that keep the job interesting and the staff on their toes, he says.

The same goes for Carrie McVicker, CFA outreach coordinator, who has literally helped artists stay on their toes while performing. While hosting an internationally known pianist, McVicker found herself in the urgent care center waiting room because the artist’s toe was hurting. She later got his prescription, helped him with the instructions for applying and wrapping his foot, and drove him to CFA to perform.

“You never know what can come up in this job, and you always have to be prepared,” she says with a laugh. “I feel sometimes like the Center for the Arts is a bed and breakfast, and I’m the innkeeper. I always want to make people as comfortable as I can.”

McVicker has seen many strange food requests, and deals with it all in stride. She has seen a French ballet dancer eat an entire bowl of jelly with a spoon. She has ordered special food for the Drummers of West Africa to eat during Ramadan. And all the artists have Otis Spunkmeyer cookies to munch on backstage if they like because that is McVicker’s favorite. “If there are leftovers, we get to take some home!”

Barbara Lubar, executive director of events management, has also fulfilled her share of unusual requests in the course of doing her job. In the past year, Mason has hosted several major political figures, and Lubar has ensured that every one of them got red-carpet treatment. During Ralph Nader’s visit, Lubar drove to Harris Teeter to buy hummus wrap and tomato juice for his vegan diet. And Gov. Mark Warner, after speaking at the Sen. John Kerry political event, asked if his staff could have sushi on the plane ride home. They got it.

But one of Lubar’s most embarrassing experiences came several years ago during a Northern Virginia delegate event in George’s Restaurant. A senator asked Lubar if she had any “Beech Nut.” So Lubar drove to a convenience store and bought a pack of the chewing gum. Expecting he would be thankful for her trouble, she was instead teased the rest of the night. “He meant chewing tobacco!” she says, laughing at the memory.

McVicker says she has never had a major complaint from an artist. “We have great students working with us, and most of the time things go well,” she says. The complaints they do get usually involve alcohol requests because the staff is not allowed to provide alcohol.

In the end, for both the artists and the staff at Mason, making sure the performances go off smoothly is, simply, their job. As in any job, there are stressful moments and high points. But there probably are few jobs that allow one the pleasure of seeing Vanilla Ice ride around campus at night on a minibike, an experience Geisler says he is unlikely to forget. Those strange moments are what make the job priceless.

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