Wilbur Graham Jr., Head Carpenter on Broadway (R. O. C. U.)
By Liam Klenk
Wilbur Graham Jr. is the Head Carpenter of The Longacre Theatre on Broadway, in New York City. The Philadelphia schooled native has been doing stage work and technical management for almost fifty years. This article is part of our series introducing members of Roadies of Color United. Wilbur Graham Jr., who usually much prefers staying out of the limelight, shares some stories of his life backstage with us.
I am not the out-front guy. Apart from personal preference, this is also an essential element of our job backstage: to bring the magic to life without being seen by the audience. If we are noticed, then there is a problem.
I have always loved my backstage out-of-sight situation. I also demand that of my team.
Initially, I started out in broadcasting in 1967 at Rutgers University in Camden NJ. As a broadcaster, I moved to and worked in various places.
Then, I moved to Denver Colorado, At KBPI-FM. I went by the name of Jay R. Baggs (Bro. Baggs) for short and the handle stuck for my Broadcasting career. Many people back in the day, didn’t know my given name. They only knew me as “Bro. Baggs”, taken from the Jazz Musician, Milt Jackson of the MJQ!
I am now 73 years old. We’re talking broadcasting in 1969.
After Denver, I worked in Indianapolis, for WTLC from 1972-74. For a while, I also worked at WLWI Channel 13 in Indianapolis, where David Letterman started as a weatherman and booth announcer. I was his floor director (now they call them stage managers).
When I was in Denver back in the Seventies, Philip Bailey and I worked in the same night club. I remember Philip and Larry Dunn going out to audition for Earth Wind & Fire.
Many people I know work for Earth Wind & Fire. I have never sat down and told this story. How a few band members went out to audition in California back then. Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn got the job. The others came back to Denver.
I was still doing radio in Denver at KBPI-FM, and I think I broke their album on the air on my midnight to 6am overnight show. We had a big party. I am still a huge Earth Wind & Fire fan. Always have been.
In 1974, Jackson State University was developing a Mass Communication Department with a Broadcasting Radio Station.
I got involved in the technical side and helped develop the Radio Station and its Jazz Format. We started out as a 10-Watt station which was allowed for educational purposes only: WJSUFM.
We put a 25ft tower and antenna on a the 90ft administration building and ended up with a range of 22 miles. It was a little bit amazing for the university. We even had complaints from other radio stations that we were over our range.
WJSUFM still exists. They now have a 100K Watt transmitter. The radio station is also on the web and thus now accessible from everywhere on the globe.
Helping to build up that radio station was a great step in my learning and education. A kind of stretching of my technical skills in broadcasting.
After Jackson State University, I moved down to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1977, to work at another radio station, WTAM-FM, in Gulfport.
While I was there, they opened the Mississippi Coast Colosseum. A friend of mine knew I had some technical skills. And asked if I wanted to sign a pledge card for the union, Local # 674 Biloxi/Gulfport.
That was the first time I signed a pledge card for the union, in 1976. I was an active charter member of Local # 674 from 1976 until I came to Philadelphia in 1981.
By that time, I had been just about everywhere. Traveled around the world.
After a rough beginning in Philadelphia and difficulties finding a job, I got a production job at the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia. I was part of the production team which did basketball, hockey, and concert load-ins and load-outs.
Then, one Saturday in 1983, I went to Atlantic City, about an hour and twenty minutes from Philadelphia. I am on this date and we’re walking along the boardwalk and all of a sudden, I see a big hole in the ground.
There was a fence surrounding the site with a sign saying, “The future home of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. Applications are now being accepted”, opening March, 1984.
So, in the middle of my experience at the Spectrum, I put in an application for the Trump Plaza Casino, in February 1984. In March, I was hired as a stage technician.
I had applied for the technical supervisor job. I got the position as a stagehand in their carpentry area. That was the opening.
Four years later, in 1988, I became the technical supervisor of carpentry. I supervised a crew of eighteen. And was responsible for all the areas. Lighting, stage carpentry, you name it.
It was a bit different at the casino because we did not have departmental lines of responsibility. If you were a stage tech you were expected to know a bit of all of it and what had to be done.
Our department was responsible for setting up press conferences and box office events.
I did all the Mike Tyson fights up until Don King lost his license in the late Nineties. I supervised all set-ups with three other department supervisors and the entire marketing team.
Overall, I spent twenty years at the Trump Plaza. In total, we did three hundred plus shows.
It started with Sammy Davis Jr. Complete 8 days with Sammy and Guest, as we called it. We did Rich Little and Bettie Page. George Kirby, Mickey Gilley, Lou Rawls, Rip Daniels, and Gladys Knight.
And that was just our opening week.
Other than doing the shows with Sammy Davis Jr., I did Bill Cosby, Roger Whitaker, The Temptations, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anker, Jerry Vale, Jeffery Osborn, Anita Baker and Penn & Teller … we could go on and on.
Some of these people became closer to me than just performers.
When we would get together there would be times when we would have BBQs. We used to play softball with Gladys Knight and her band. I remember one time we were playing between shows and Bubba Knight decided he was gonna slide into second base. But our lighting tech, Bob Wiechecki, did not give up the base. As Bubba slid in, he hit the base and broke his arm. He went to the hospital, but that night Bubba Knight still did the performance with a sling on his left arm. Gladys’s band and road crew could really play softball and with Gladys pitching no one wanted to hit any line drives at Gladys.
I was at ringside when Mike Tyson walked across the ring and knocked his opponent out with the first punch. I remember, he was booed. Because some people went to get a hot dog. They heard the bell, rushed back for the beginning of the fight. Only to find out that this was already the second bell and the fight was over.