Throwback Thursday: Riding in an Elevator with James Earl Jones
I remember the rush of excitement when the decision was made. We were hiring Darth Vader.
My freshman year of high school, I played bass with the New Jersey Youth Symphony, a
group that made money hand-over-fist for allowing children the privilege of playing community organization that ensured that musically-inclined children would be able to play the classics, regardless of what their school offered1. For a President’s Day concert, we were playing Lincoln Portrait, an orchestral work by my favorite2 composer, Aaron Copeland (also the composer of “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”). The piece is for orchestra & narrator, and we were all set to use somebody from the local NPR station.
But then, James Earl Jones was available. My memory here is all funky, because I really want to say that he was in the middle of filming Coming to America, but the timing simply doesn’t work out. This was February of 1993, years after Coming to America was released. So, if you happen to know what Terrence Mann was doing in New York City in February of 1993, I’d love to know how we got him.
How isn’t important, though – he had a late scheduling snafu and *poof* he was available to us. We hired him.
The actual performance went well. No major screw-ups that I noticed from the group, and I, personally, didn’t come in 2 measures early after a long period of rest like I normally did. The narration, obviously, was magnificent. While we never managed a rehearsal with Mr. Jones, he had obviously performed the piece before & was absolutely in sync with the orchestra. We received a standing ovation.
Now, I am not a patient person. Well, that’s not entirely true – I can be quite patient, but I loathe waiting in lines. The school that we performed at was three stories, the performance hall was actually in the basement – the main entrance was actually up the stairs. I notice a service elevator off from the beaten path when we were heading into the auditorium that I made a B-line for. While kids were queuing up near the “not as scary” elevators, I got right in. As soon as I went to hit the button, though, I heard “can you hold that for me?” in a rich baritone.
I rode on a rickety elevator, going up two floors, alongside the god that gave voice to Darth Vader. I remember him saying something like “I like to find the quiet way out of a room, too” and chuckling as I tried to reconcile the fact that I was listening to Darth Vader chuckle while actively not peeing my pants.
What’s funny is that I’m somebody who is immensely comfortable in front of a group. Part of why I’m so successful at my job is that I’ll say my piece (and I can be quite well spoken) without regard for who is at the table. Ultra technical crowd? Great. CEO of the company? Makes no difference. I just don’t seize, no matter the company.
But this one time, I did. I blame his Jedi Mind Powers.
1 If it sounds like I don’t like the New Jersey Youth Symphony, you’re right on. They kicked me out when I couldn’t make a concert’s dress rehearsal because I was playing a jazz band concert that same evening. Despite their insistence that “school events should always come first,” that apparently only applied to actual classes. That, in itself, was fine – they didn’t want me to play a concert, so I didn’t play the concert – and, with that, I just quit the group. I’d leave it at that, but in the first rehearsal of the next season, they talked about how important “full commitment” was and then proceeded to talk about the bass player they had to make the difficult decision to ask to sit out a concert because he couldn’t make up his mind between a the symphony and other commitments.
On top of all of this, enrollment in the symphony wasn’t cheap (depending on which level you were in, enrollment was between $120 and $400 a year, if memory serves), the suggested donation at concerts was $20 per ticket and we threw PBS-type pledge drives (play a pops concert, but interrupt between each song about how important donations were to making things run). The thing is, we rehearsed in schools & churches that didn’t charge us rent. I believe we had to rent out the performance halls, but we nearly packed every performance (seriously, 100+ kids each brining two parents, a sibling or two, and a grandparent . . . that will pack most any auditorium), so the “suggested donations” should have more than paid for themselves. I’m pretty sure that the conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony was making a very comfortable six-figure salary, leading an orchestra that rehearsed for 3 hours a week.
2 Not actually my favorite. I despise the vast majority of Aaron Copeland’s music