August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dwyer Photography

Considering that the theme of this year’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball is “On the Golden Road,” a nod to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps it’s time we did pay attention to that man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the people behind the curtain. In fact, six volunteers work together on the ball’s production team for nearly the entire year to make certain that the music, the set, the lights, and the words all meld into one seamless production.

All six have full-time jobs outside of the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball.

In M. Michele Phillips’ case, she has several: “Sometimes I’m acting, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m the wine steward at the bistro at Fort Omaha.” As the team’s scriptwriter, it’s up to Phillips to keep track of the massive script, 45 pages that detail the ball’s many players and their movements.

“It’s such a behemoth!” she says. “There are songs that unify the theme; there are quotes that unify it. Sometimes there are procedural things that change, so you can’t even count on the way things have been done in the past.” Phillips adds that the chairperson of the coronation can have a hundred million ideas or none. “So you kind of have to help them, guide them along. Sometimes their ideas are impossible to execute, and sometimes they’re not thinking as big as they could be.”

When those big ideas do come out, Phillips remarks how Jim Othuse, as set and lighting designer for the ball, is always budget conscious but “always comes up with something really spectacular.”

“Getting [the Pages] to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting.” – Patrick Roddy, choreographer

Othuse, scenic and lighting designer at the Omaha Community Playhouse, states that designing the ball’s huge set does get easier over the years; after all, he’s been doing it since 1979. “That was the year the theme was ‘One Thousand and One Knights’,” he recalls. “I was a little unsure as to whether I could handle such a big project; in those days we had lots of scenic elements, far more than we do now.” Thirty-four years later, his favorite part of the job is still figuring out how to fit in each year’s new pieces.

It’s a sentiment he shares with Patrick Roddy, who by day is a dance instructor at Creighton University. As the ball’s choreographer, Roddy’s had to come up with some creative solutions each year, particularly for corralling 50 youngsters during the Page run. “Getting them to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, we decided to get them out onto the runway, which is about 300 feet long. All the pages were bumblebees, and we played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees.’ I gave them some cues for when they should start a big circle. Everybody had not much faith that I could do it. It’s a huge room, there’s so much stimuli, but, by gosh, they did it. They found their little music cues, they found their spots to spread out.”

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Herding people is a task near and dear to the heart of Stephanie Anderson, the stage director. “Let me think, we’ve got princesses and Heartland princesses and pages and governors and councilors and court of honor and performers and orchestra…” Anderson, a veteran actor-director, pauses. “It’s got to be between 100 and 150 people.”

And the majority of the people who will be on stage aren’t used to performing in front of huge crowds, she adds. “You cannot expect that they’ll remember how to hit marks when they’re facing 2,500 people. Suddenly, the lights are on, and it’s deer in the headlights. It’s very unpredictable, and there’s very little you can do about it.” That can just be part of the appeal of the evening. Anderson states that the young pages are adorable because of their unpredictability. Still, it’s a good thing Roddy plans to give them great musical cues again this year, this time with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“We all get along so great. There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time.” – Tom Ware, sound designer

But if we’re talking about music, well, now we’re getting into Chuck Penington’s domain. It’s his life, after all. He’s a professional bass player, as well as president of PANDA Productions, a music production company in Omaha. As the team’s music director, he recalls that his first association with the coronation was in 1974. “At the time, the music director was a guy named Richard Hayman,” Penington says. “He was the orchestrator for Boston Pops Orchestra.” He recalls that, at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball committee had found an old piece called “The Ak-Sar-Ben March,” a commemoration scored for piano, and they wanted to employ Hayman to orchestrate it. “He said he would do it, but he needed a copyist,” Penington remembers. “So I had a great week with Richard Hayman, copying the parts with him. I got to study his scores close up. It was a very nice opportunity for me.”

Sound designer Tom Ware has his own memories of celebrities he’s met thanks to the old Ak-Sar-Ben Stadium where the ball used to be held…specifically the show where Yanni, performing with Chameleon, winked at Ware’s girlfriend. “I made his monitor feedback,” he says a touch proudly. Even though the story showcases his abilities as the typical sound guy twiddling knobs on a board, Ware (owner of Ware House Productions, Inc.) says there’s a bit more to his job for the ball than that. “I personally do the mix for the whole room, but, wow, getting to that point and figuring out what the show needs with regard to the sound, the acoustics? Are there theatrics and extra sounds that need to go along with that? It’s a mix of music and production.”

With such a job description, Ware obviously works closely with Penington and Othuse, and well, everyone else on the team. “We all get along so great,” he says. “There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time. It’s great to see it all culminate in this show. The individuals are greater than the sum of the parts.”

The 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball will be held Oct. 19 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. For more information about the event, visit aksarben.org.

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