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Stage design is 'the best job in the world'

The setting is the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Building, one recent morning.

In the dimly lit hallway, students are lounging on sofas, quietly discussing classes and professors. One is using a laptop; another is texting. They're dressed casually but artfully.

Out of an office walks the main character, John Holloway. He greets a waiting reporter, and the two proceed into the Guignol Theater to talk.

It's tough being a theater scenic designer.

One day you're combing the town for a Chevy front end that can double as an '83 El Camino. Another day you're hitting the flea markets for a candlestick phone. At night, you might be sketching out a vision for that legendary den of iniquity, Hernando's Hideaway.

Yes, a stage designer's job is no fun. No fun at all.

Strangely enough, UK theater professor John Holloway doesn't see it that way.

"This is the best job in the world," he says as he prepares for the department's upcoming production of The Pajama Game.

The musical, a lighthearted love story about a 1950s pajama factory embroiled in a labor dispute, has required a lot of construction from scratch: There's the time clock where employees punch in, elevator doors with a moving floor indicator, a wooden '50s-style refrigerator and four rolling sewing machines for a big dance number.

Norma Rae this isn't.

To illustrate his process, Holloway had set out a miniature stage on the Guignol Theatre's stage, a half-inch scale model for the show, where the various scenery elements could be moved around, or, some might say, played with.

On one side is Hernando's Hideaway, that "dark secluded place," as the song says, where Gladys, the factory president's secretary, takes Sid, the new shop superintendent, in Act II. It has a curved booth, just perfect for "a glass of wine, a fast embrace." Framing the miniature stage is a portal, or stiff curtain, with cut-out pajama tops for "men of bedroom discrimination," the Sleep-Tite factory motto.

"I've seen this play before," Holloway said, "and we wanted to make it look fun. There's no hidden symbolism here."

Discussions began last summer; by fall, most of the design was done. He shows the manual that he put together, with drawings and specifications for each scene.

"I get together with the director, we talk, I sketch things out. By the time I make the model, I know what it's going to look like."

The model looks intricate; it must take forever to make, right?

"Back in the day, I hand-painted everything. Now it's done on Photoshop," and the pieces are pasted onto cardboard, cut out and folded to create the scenes.

Holloway holds up separate drawings for a park scene.

"The factory owners decide to give the workers an employee-appreciation day in the park in lieu of the 7½ -cent raise they're asking for."

The bosses hope that will keep the workers in line, but no such luck: Those lucky employees have a union looking after their interests, and by the end of the show (spoiler alert) everyone's off to celebrate at Hernando's.

It's the romantic tension between Sid, the new shop superintendent ("Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes," he sings, a song that became a huge hit for Maysville's own Rosemary Clooney), and Babe, an employee firmly in the union camp, that drives the story.

No hidden symbolism — just the simple message that love can bridge the widest bargaining table.

Propping up the show

It was the department's previous show, Blur in the Rear View, that sent Holloway combing the bargain car lots, ending up on Loudon Avenue at a place that had a Monte Carlo hours away from the crusher and cheap enough to buy solely for its front end.

The rest of the props Holloway recycled from past productions: An experienced eye might have seen a little bit of Picnic or Ah, Wilderness in the Rear View.

But The Pajama Game was a different matter. Except for a few props, everything was built in the department's shop.

"In the factory, there were a lot of sewing machines. Not only do they have to sit at them, but they have to dance with them, too."

Holloway estimated that it took about 40 hours to construct four faux treadle machines that glide as smoothly as Bob Fosse, the show's original choreographer. It's the kind of challenge Holloway says he enjoys the most.

Staying put but always moving

Holloway is at a comfortable place in life. A revised edition of his book Illustrated Theatre Production Guide has just been published; he's a full professor in a profession he loves, and he gets to experiment with playwriting, shadow puppets and other aspects of theater in his classes.

But it took a little bit of trial and error for him to reach this point.

The error came early on: "I was planning on going to law school, and I realized one day I just hated it."

After a course correction, he ended up with a master's degree in scenery design and took a job in Niagara Falls, N.Y. "That was too cold for a Texas boy," said the Big Spring, Texas, native.

He eventually landed in Lexington on May 5, 1983. "It was Derbytime; the dogwoods were blooming." The symbolism was clear: Put down roots here.

Nevertheless, moving around — whether it's scenery on stage or entire productions from town to town — has played a big role in Holloway's life. He has been a stagehand for hundreds of traveling shows, and he still carries his union card with his memories.

"You get wonderful geography lessons when you're a roadie, and everyone expects you to be bad, so you can be a little bad," he says, smiling.

Touring with the likes of "nutty, funny" Robert Goulet in Camelot meant he witnessed the gutsy epitome of show-must-go-on-manship.

"He had this hernia, and stuff was pooching out of it, but he had to do the show. His wife and his dresser helped him use a plastic luggage tag and electric tape to hold it in, and he did the show like that."

It's hard to top that kind of experience, but for Holloway, the favorite part of his work is coming up Thursday.

"I love opening night and seeing how it all works out with the audience."

So he'll watch as the employees at Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory punch the time clock he built and as love, with the help of the Amalgamated Shirt and Pajama Workers of America, finds a way to get them the extra 7½ cents they deserve.

If you see him after the show, just sing out, "Hey there" — you'll probably already be humming the tune.