Marble Palace

by Justin Lang
in Feature

Mickey Berra, next to the John F. Kennedy bust in the Performing Arts Grand Foyer outside of the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Mickey Berra, next to the John F. Kennedy bust in the Performing Arts Grand Foyer outside of the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The storied career of Mickey Berra, the vice president of production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Everyone has their own unique and interesting story of how they began their career in show business. One that I was recently introduced to was the story of Mickey Berra, the vice president of production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Berra started in this business early in life, learning about production in a carnival, and worked his way up to running the production department of one of the premier performing arts center in the world.

Getting Started Under the Big Top

 

Mickey Berra holds his pet Sabrina, a lion cub, while playing with his dog Alvin during his early carnival days.
Mickey Berra holds his pet Sabrina, a lion cub, while playing with his dog Alvin during his early carnival days.

Born in Petersburg, Va., George Michael Berra has been Mickey his whole life. “The nurse that helped deliver me said ‘He looks like a Mickey,’ and it stuck for the past 67 years,” jokes Berra.

 

Raised on the carnival circuit in Petersburg Berra worked on almost every aspect of the fairs, from loading and unloading trucks to building set pieces. He enjoyed every minute of it, evidenced by the fact he never finished school, he was having too much fun at the carnival. “I ran off with the carnival without even leaving home!” he jokes.

In 1963 Berra ran away to the theatre, commuting 120 miles north to Washington, D.C. with his brother Tommy, and picking up freelance work in D.C.’s fledgling theatre district with IATSE Local 22. Berra’s uncle Charlie had begun to make a career for himself in D.C. building sets for movies filming in the district. Charlie realized that he needed help and brought Berra on board. His first theatrical gig was as a stagehand at the National Theatre later in 1963.

“It was like going from the midway to Broadway,” Berra says with a laugh. Berra still called Petersburg home, but like all stagehands, he had to go where the work was, making the move to D.C. permanent in 1967. He worked with his brother Tommy to open up Ford’s Theatre in 1968. Eventually Tommy became head of operations there, but theatre was still not Berra’s only source of income. He picked up work on a number of camera crews.

“Back then, it wasn’t like today; it was just a three man crew, the camera man, the talent and little old me, the grip,” says Berra. “I remember once visiting the White House for an interview with President Johnson. I was the grip on the crew with my back to the wall waiting for President Johnson to finish in the Oval Office. Through the crack in the door, I could overhear President Johnson finishing his phone call using some colorful language. It was nerve-racking considering we were next. It was heart stopping.”

Moving to the “Marble Palace”

In 1971, there was a new national culture center opening in Washington, D.C. And it wasn’t going to be just some theatre—It was to be the living memorial to one of the greatest supporters of the arts, and late president, John F. Kennedy.

“They only wanted the best of the best at this new place over near Georgetown. So the local [IATSE Local 22], asked me to come on as a stagehand,” says Berra. On September 8, 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened up with just one of the three main stages ready, the Opera House. “The place was a maze! This section or that section of the building wasn’t complete. Random doors were locked and no one had the key. It was a nightmare trying to get around this new place, the Marble Palace.”

In 1973, Mickey came on full time at the Kennedy Center as the assistant carpenter in the Opera House. Through the years, he worked his way up the ladder, moving from stagehand to head carpenter. “I am so indebted to the former head carpenter of the Opera House, Bobby Tillett Sr.,” says Berra. “He raised us to a degree. He was a great mentor.”

How does a carney move up the ranks in what was quickly becoming one of the most recognized arts center in the world? “Work! My knowledge and experience came from working all of these shows. If I didn’t know what to do, I wasn’t afraid to ask.  That is how I grew and became better at what I did,” says Berra. “I hung out with all of the various stagehands that came through the Kennedy Center with the tours. I would pick things up and listen to what they said.”

It helped that everyone was willing to help, adds Berra. “It’s like a family around here, sometimes literally, but we all treat each other with respect and grow together.”

In 1996, Lawrence J. Wilker, president of the Kennedy Center, and James D. Wolfensohn, the chairman, approached Mickey with a single question.

“They asked me, ‘Why doesn’t the rest of this place run as smoothly as the Opera House?’” explains Berra, warming to the story. “I pointed to the ceiling. ‘See that right there, that’s the problem. You have to knock down that ceiling,’ meaning they had to open the lines of communication.” Three days later, the two returned to Mickey with one more thing, “We want you to knock that ceiling down.”

After 30 years, Mickey retired from Local 22 and became the director of production at the Kennedy Center. Eventually he was promoted into his current position, VP of production.

Loving the Work

 

Mickey Berra lends his face for a new make-up artist to practice.
Mickey Berra lends his face for a new make-up artist to practice.

The Kennedy Center is one of the busiest PAC’s in the world. There are more than 2,800 events held every year on its nine stages and in its myriad of event rooms and plazas. But it’s also more than just a PAC. The Kennedy Center is also a memorial of President Kennedy, with visiting exhibits and more in its Hall of Nations, Hall of States and almost every other public space the Center has to offer. And Berra is in charge of every single production aspect in the entire 1.5 million square-foot facility. From the latest Broadway tour in the Opera House to the visiting museum exhibit in the Hall of Nations, Berra manages it all.

 

“I live and play in the greatest sandbox in the world. I get to play with all these great people from around the world,” says Berra. And his responsibilities are not limited to day-to-day operations of the Kennedy Center. In 2012 alone, he visited five continents preparing international tours and exhibits to travel and present at the Kennedy Center.

“I juggle three balls here at the Kennedy Center: Time, Space and Money,” says Berra. “We put shows in and out quicker than any place around the world.  I have the greatest family here as I grew up with them and hired almost every single one of them. We know what everyone is capable of doing and we pride ourselves on our abilities.”

Quick turnarounds are the norm for the Kennedy Center. Loading out 26 trucks in a night while loading in a new show from another set of trucks so they can open the doors for the first performance the following night happens on a regular basis.

Being the boss, Berra knows how to get answers. “When a truck shows up, anyone can ask me any question, and I’ll be able to answer it. Because I know where to go to get that answer.” Even with 28 stagehands on staff throughout the various houses in the Kennedy Center, 12 production managers, multiple coordinators and his expanded team, Berra knows every single person that works in the Kennedy Center. If he doesn’t have the answer, he knows who will. “It’s a way of life, it’s not a job. I love what I do,” he adds.

Advancements in Technology

 

Mickey Berra working in his office at the Kennedy Center (1978).
Mickey Berra working in his office at the Kennedy Center (1978).

As technology changes, so has the Kennedy Center.  “When I first started, one of my jobs was pushing something on to the stage with a stick. They told me, ‘Don’t let them see your hands!’” jokes Berra.

 

Through out his career, Berra has seen the Center move beyond sticks and embrace technology. One of the first notable changes came in 1986 with the out-of-town tryouts of Les Misérables at the Center. “Many of the stagehands were used to hand cranks and manual turntables. Les Mis was the first show where stage automation came into play not just at the Kennedy Center, but in our industry,” says Berra, adding that the technology Les Mis used was somewhat confusing. “The automation system used targets and presets. Looking at that control panel, I thought we were firing missiles!” he jokes.

The advancements in technology continued when The Phantom of the Opera opened at the Kennedy Center during the 1990-1991 season. “Every theatre that the tour of The Phantom of the Opera went to has been left in better condition than when the tour came in due to all of the advanced steel and engineering required to make that chandelier fall on cue, safely, every night,” says Berra.

The Kennedy Center continues that tradition, constantly researching and investing in new technologies to raise the bar theatrically and make things safer. Recently, the Kennedy Center invested in more than 200 LED Fresnel fixtures to add greater color options to the various houses. “It’s about saving time, money productivity efficiency and safety. With LEDs, there is no more changing lamps or replacing gel. So our stagehands can now focus on something else.”

Luckiest man in Show Business

Throughout his career in Washington, Berra has watched the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. change nine times.  His role at the Kennedy Center has allowed him the great opportunity to meet every one of the Presidents, along with countless celebrities and politicians during his 40 years at the Center.

“I am the luckiest man in show business! If I’d known life was this good, I would have gotten older quicker,” he quips. But the Kennedy Center isn’t all he does. In 1996, Berra worked as the Staging Director for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympics. “It was something to offer guidance to Muhammad Ali when he was lighting the Olympic flame! It was a great honor to be apart of such an event.”

Berra credits his success to his brother Tommy and his uncle Charlie for affording him the early opportunities in his career. When asked about advice for future stagehands Berra says this: “Stay in school. No one can follow this wonderful path that I led. Today’s technology and practices requires a knowledge that can’t be learned on the job.”