Rupp Arena crews work around clock to go from concert to game back to concert

rcopley@herald-leader.comFebruary 12, 2013 

At 3:30 a.m., Luis Hernandez and Humberto Hernandez turned ratchets to bolt the final corner of the University of Kentucky's men's basketball court to Rupp Arena's floor.

It took the Hernandezes, who are not related, and a crew of a little more than a dozen people slightly more than two hours to assemble the 233 sections of the court for Saturday's UK-Auburn game.

But Rupp's weekend started nearly 20 hours earlier, on a completely different trajectory.

Last weekend boasted an uncommon but far from unheard-of schedule for the 20,000-plus-seat arena in downtown Lexington.

Friday night brought a major country music concert by chart-toppers Rascal Flatts and The Band Perry. Just 17 hours after the final notes of that show, the UK-Auburn game was set to tip off Saturday afternoon. Then, Sunday evening, less than 24 hours after the Cats finished off the Tigers, it was back to music with the Rock and Worship Roadshow, a Christian pop music tour.

To make it happen, the arena was active for all but a few hours from before 8 a.m. Friday, when Rascal Flatts' tractor-trailers backed up to Rupp's loading docks, to 11:35 p.m. Sunday, when the worship show's last truck left.

Making it all happen are crews that put the events up and take them down, even in the wee hours of the morning.

"It's good money, and it's not boring," said Alberto ­Velasquez, part of the crew assembling the basketball court. "It's a good job."

By the time he said that, much had already happened in Rupp Arena.

As the clock ticked toward 8 o'clock Friday morning, the arena was empty save for a 60-by-48-foot stage. Rupp technical services manager Bob Stoops wrangled a different crew, and the biggest ensemble of the weekend, to get ready for the 7:30 p.m. concert.

Crews are fans of Rupp

The total crew of about 125 people putting the show together consists of 55 people traveling with the tour and 70 local crew members, including arena employees and hired labor. Some of the locals are employees of The Lexington Center, which manages Rupp Arena, taking time off from the day job to work as crew.

"As long as we give them 40 hours, they don't mind if we come and earn some extra money on the side," said Jim Barber, who has worked at the arena for 37 years. On Friday, he was wrangling rigging wires for the Rascal Flatts concert.

The jobs range from specialties such as rigging, requiring workers to navigate the catwalks and beams 86 feet off the floor to hang wiring for lights, sound and set pieces, to a lot of lifting, moving and plugging things in.

Alvin Walsh of Huntington, W.Va., has made rigging a specialty, piecing jobs around the region into a regular income.

"It's fun work and good work," Walsh said after coming down from Rupp's rafters. "It's flexible work you do six to eight days a month, and then you have the rest of your time to yourself."

Walsh and others, including tour representatives, give Rupp high marks as a venue to work in.

Observing the arena at 9:25 a.m. Friday, Rascal Flatts tour manager Jan Volz said, "We weren't this far along at noon yesterday," at the venue the band played in Terre Haute, Ind. "From parking to the loading dock, it's top-notch here."

Having multiple loading docks that trucks can back right up to helps to make for a quick load-in and setup. Crew members stand in line at the dock door, grabbing racks and crates, most of which are on wheels, and taking them into the arena.

Tour crews generally serve as supervisors for a handful of local workers.

Tour sound technician Steven Berry guided a group of four through setting up speaker stacks that bowed out toward the audience from the stage.

Local crews have to be ready for anything, but they do develop areas of expertise.

Chuck Hisle, an engineer for Rupp Arena who oversees in-house video for UK basketball games, generally gets assigned to video-oriented duties when he works as local crew, but he also can work lights and sound.

Busy, but not that busy

Regular crew members said that the past weekend, although packed, could have been worse. Rascal Flatts is a medium-size tour, they said, and blockbuster acts such as Taylor Swift, coming April 27, bring many more trucks of gear. And rock concerts don't compare in size to some regular Rupp visitors, including the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Then there are shows with dirt.

"Anything like a truck pull or a rodeo is a much taller order," Hisle said. Still, this was a busy weekend.

Outside the arena, other processes were at work, including furnishing the dressing rooms for the artists.

Even big-time country stars do not rate accommodations in the UK Wildcats' new multi-million-dollar locker rooms. Rascal Flatts and crew are set up in the visitors rooms across the hall, with furnishings often specified in riders for the tour contracts.

"They'll even specify colors for the furniture," said Tony Clavenger, facility services manager for Rupp Arena. He said some tours will have agreements with stores like Rent-a-Center, which have the select items ready at each tour stop.

By just past noon Friday, the stage in Rupp looked like somewhere a big pop concert would happen. It needed tweaks and additions to be show-ready, but it was heavily transformed from four hours before.

By 1:30 a.m., it would all be gone.

Color coding saves time

The Load Out is a languid Jackson Browne song about road crews that are "the first to come and last to leave" at concerts, which is indeed true. A load-out might be more appropriately set to the tempo of speed metal.

As soon as the music ended for Rascal Flatts, crews were on stage. All the equipment hung, just a few hours before, was lowered, dismantled and crated.

Color codes help crews pack up and move out quickly. Each crew member wears a colored T-shirt to identify him or her as sound crew, light crew and the like. Rigging wires are color-coded by size and type so they are placed in the right crates.

The Rascal Flatts crew was gone 21/2 hours after the show ended.

Building the UK floor

While one crew was busy taking down the stage, others swung into action just as fast to clear the way for a basketball court.

Less than 15 minutes after the show, the majority of the floor seats had been collected and sent to storage on rolling racks. Several workers swept bottles, cups, wrappers and other concert detritus into large piles.

Once all of the Rascal Flatts gear was gone, another crew dismantled the huge stage before switching over to basketball-court assembly.

The essentially self-directed crew began to lay down the first rows of a court while the final pieces of the stage were carted out.

The 233 pieces of the court were stacked on carts in order. One crew walked down the line, diagonally laying out the 4-foot by 8-foot, 200-pound sections, slowly forming familiar icons including the “UK” at center court. Another handful of workers followed, putting the pieces in place and tightening bolts on the perimeter.

"That holds the whole floor in place," Gilbert Blades said of the bolts as he supervised the floor construction early Saturday morning.

As the floor took shape, other workers brought in the sideline video boards and the goals. After the second goal was secured, some workers pretended to dunk into the chest-high rims that had not been raised into place.

But they would be, and soon.

Part of the reason the floor had to be installed in the early hours of Saturday morning is that the Auburn team was due in for a shoot-around by mid-morning.

By early afternoon, blue carpets were set up around the perimeter of the court, and tables and chairs for media and VIPs were in place. Lower-level seats had been set with blue “3” cards. The yellow-jacketed guest-services crew, many of whom worked Friday night's concert, were briefed. Outside, concessionaires set up their tables.

This might all seem routine, but guest-services assistant manager Kristi Sparks said, "Every game is different. The time is different, the day is different, the crowds are different. No two games are ever the same."

Some of the folks who worked to set up Rascal Flatts the previous day were now in different posts. Hisle was in the video room, overseeing the in-house production. Jimmy Barber, son of Jim Barber, who disassembled light grids early Saturday morning, was at his post running the spotlight atop Section 215.

He arrived a few minutes before game time. As the lights dimmed for the introductions, Barber, 38, swept the spotlight across the crowd and Rupp's floor. He does it the same way he has since he was 10, helping his dad spot Sesame Street characters when one of their children's shows came to Rupp.

Soon after the introductions, Barber was done, taking off for the rest of the afternoon.

He wouldn't be gone too long.

In a few hours, the game would be over, the floor removed and the stage reset. Load-in for the Rock and Worship show started at 8 a.m. Sunday.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. ­Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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