Behind the music
Job at Bass Performance Hall allows alumnus to rub elbows with celebrities

by Sherry Wodraska Neaves

Don Fearing ('77 BS) and view of the Bass Performance Hall dome.

Before the angels trumpeted over downtown Fort Worth; before artists climbed towering scaffolds to paint the dome; before even a shovelful of dirt was turned for the foundation, Don Fearing knew he wanted to work at the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall.

"About four years before the hall opened, I saw that it was coming and it really struck my interest, " the 1977 mechanical engineering alumnus said. He went to Paul Beard, who was already on board as the hall's managing director, and told him, "I'd like to be your director of operations."

Beard was puzzled at the early request, so Fearing just asked to be kept in mind when the right time came.

"I drove by three years later, when the hall was under construction, and called Paul again. 'I don't know if you remember me,'I said, and he immediately came back with, 'Yes, I have your résumé. Come on in, now's the time.' So, I got to be there during the construction, to see how everything was built and how it all came together."

Today, Fearing is operations director, overseeing all the physical engineering and production components—heating, air-conditioning, lights and sound (whatever clicks, hums or buzzes, he says), as well as security and housekeeping.

"He essentially made that job at Bass Hall. He had the gumption to go out and get it," said UTA mechanical engineering Professor Tom Lawley, for whom Fearing worked in the University's solar energy research facility. "It's true that very few buildings actually hire professional engineers to do that job. Most just have a building superintendent. But that place is so unique, it makes every kind of sense in the world to have him there."

Brushes with greatness

Being there—backstage at a premiere performance venue—puts Fearing in the middle of the action. He was there when "18-wheelers by the dozen" rolled Phantom of the Opera into Fort Worth. He watched as technicians settled a life-sized helicopter on a huge hydraulic arm for Miss Saigon. He whisked Van Cliburn competition finalists in and out the back way so they could avoid crowds and maintain their intense concentration.   Don Fearing ('77 BS) and view of the Bass Performance Hall from the stage.
As director of operations, Fearing oversees whatever "clicks, hums or buzzes," including Bass Hall's vaunted sound system.

And he shared some genuine Texas cuisine with comedian Bill Cosby.

"You get to meet a lot of interesting people," he said. "My favorite is Bill Cosby. Last time he was here, we were sitting in his dressing room eating hot dogs and gourmet chili."

The job offers other perks as well. When Beauty and the Beast came to Bass Hall, Fearing invited a group of friends and family to the show. While they all visited in the Green Room, "Beauty" came in to meet and talk with them, an introduction not available to just anyone.

Don Fearing ('77 BS) and view of the Bass Performance Hall house lights.
Even when Fearing and his crew return home, one single bulb—the ghost light—always burns at the front of the stage.

Sometimes Fearing himself is impressed by the engineering prowess on display at the hall. Like the time a production of Romeo and Juliet on ice turned the stage into a skating rink.

"It was quite an engineering challenge," he said. "They put down a black plastic rink on the stage, then filled it with about 10,000 pounds of ice.

All night long they had a chiller running a glycol solution through it, and by morning, they had a solid ice rink." One day later, the rink was packed up and gone.

Perfecting the hall's vaunted acoustics posed another major challenge. The 50-ton Shaper, an enormous sound shell used for the Fort Worth Symphony and other non-amplified performances, was commissioned for the hall and designed by world-renowned sound guru Christopher Jaffe. During its June performance, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir simply turned off the microphones and, with the Shaper in place, let the voices soar.

"Tony Bennett did the same thing when he was here," Fearing said. "He had the sound tech turn off the mike for one number and sang without the amplification. Then he said, 'It's good to see that they got it right.' "

This summer, Fearing and the technical staff began upgrading the sound system. As the technology has improved, they've already outgrown the first approach.

"The goal is for every seat in the house to hear intelligible sound exactly the same way," he said.

Rigged for success

Fearing wants nothing but the best every time the doors open. And they open a lot. Bass Hall hosts more than 340 performances per year, sometimes as many as four in one day. The Performing Arts Fort Worth Children's Education Program brings about 70,000 area school children each year to enjoy free performances by the hall's resident companies. In addition, the venue hosts corporate meetings and wedding receptions and is the backdrop for many a bridal portrait.

Now and then Fearing gets in the picture, too, if only in a peripheral way.

"The ballet invited me to be an honorary stagehand for Nutcracker. I was stationed on the fly rail (a side platform high above the stage) and made 'snow.' You roll the canvas bags filled with 'snow' very slowly between two truss batons and just let the flakes drift down. The other stagehands told me about a guy who accidentally let go too fast and dumped it all over the dancers on stage. They were stumbling into each other, covered with the stuff. So now it's a tradition: Every year at the last performance of Nutcracker, the stagehands avalanche the dancers."

Looking up (way up) from center stage, Fearing and technical director Steven Truitt can see the ceiling, more than 90 feet above. Technicians work up there on the grid, checking out the machinery, including the enormous winches that raise and lower the Shaper. Curtains, curtains and more curtains fill the backstage area, kept under control by more than 92 linesets of rigging.

"One of the oldest backstage traditions involves the rigging," Truitt noted. "The first stagehands were sailors, and a lot of the terminology carries over."

Such traditions play an important role at Bass Hall, and all theaters.

Posted near the rigging, Woody, another backstage memento, watches over Fearing, Truitt and all the hall operations. Woody is a mannequin head that once guarded the fly rail at the Tarrant County Convention Center's JFK Theater. Hall stagehands brought Woody with them to oversee their new home. They also brought in a stage brace from downtown Fort Worth's old Majestic Theater.

And even when Fearing and the crew head home, the lights never completely go out. One bare bulb, the ghost light, always burns at the front of the stage.


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