Using the Force

A lovely Spring day. The Chicago Sinfonietta‘s annual gala benefit. Raising much-needed not-for-profit funds. And to help? None other than James Earl Jones. The voice that gave size and soul to that most feared of film villains. He’s also helped out CNN, Verizon, and SBC. But that’s not why I’m in the picture…

James Earl Jones and me

James Earl Jones and me

As Operations Manager for the orchestra, I handle a fair number of technical issues. This time, I’m responsible for attaching a lavaliere microphone to the lapel of Mr. Jones’ jacket. (I also took care of a few other things, but this was the most interesting. By far.) And so, I’ll set the scene:

The lobby of the Hilton Chicago’s International Ballroom. The silent auction has ended, and a few patrons are jealously guarding their winnings (a football signed by a former Chicago Bear, a painting by a vaguely famous local artist, trips for two to a vacation home in Michigan, etc.). Through the doors, seated at 43 large round tables, are approximately 430 dinner guests enjoying the rest of their salmon and listening to a mini-concert of the Sinfonietta. Paul Freeman conducting.

The Maestro ends a Brahms Hungarian Dance with characteristic flair. Time for him to receive the Founder’s Award. Because he founded the orchestra. He’ll soon unwrap a small, wooden case containing a hand-carved baton, picked out by the office staff.

James Earl Jones appears on the escalator. Escorted by his lovely assistant Fionna Feehan (smart, redhead, studious glasses, Irish descent, sharp smile, beautiful) and our General Manager Tom De Walle.

I reach into a pocket of my tux and pull out a small microphone with a clip, its cord gently coiled around a small radio transmitter. I flip a switch on the transmitter. A faint click, followed by a more reverberant ‘boom’ can be heard over the sound system. To those in the ballroom, listening to Maestro Freeman accept his award (is he telling that joke again?), this ‘boom’ probably sounds quite innocent.

To me, it is dangerous. This thing is hot.

I quickly flip the switch again. Quiet. Good. I glance up to the booth, but can’t see Jim, the engineer. I would love to tell him to cut this audio channel. My gaze drops.

“Oh, hello Fionna… Mr. Jones… how are you this evening? I have your mic…”

A polite response. A handshake. He is extremely gracious and kind.

“I’ll just clip it on your lapel here…” I’m so cool.

“Wherever you need it is fine.” Wow, that voice is a little overwhelming. Not loud. In fact, surprisingly soft… in an all-encompassing-velvet-luxury-motor-vehicle sort of way.

“I should warn you that this mic is hot. So, uh, sir, please be, uh, quiet, until I talk to the, uh, guy in the booth.” I’m so not cool.

An understanding nod. A true professional.

I flip the switch back on—faint click… reverberant boom—and slip the transmitter into an inside pocket. “Nice vest.”

Nice vest?! This idiotic comment is repeating itself in my head as I walk toward the phone. The special phone. The phone in the wall behind a metal panel that Jim showed me earlier in the day. “You can use this to call me up in the booth; just pick it up and it automatically rings up there.” Got it.

The next few seconds are a bit hazy. Did Maestro just sneeze?

I remember that Mr. Jones had mentioned something that afternoon about having a slight cold. Nothing to worry about. I didn’t. He didn’t. Fionna didn’t.

It was more of a cough, really. A cough-to-avoid-completely-sneezing-while-covering-one’s-face-with-a-handkerchief sort of cough.

And amplified over the hotel’s sound system? A very loud, reverberant cough. Muffled only by a handkerchief that arrived too late.

I freeze about two feet from the special phone which might as well be on the other side of the hotel at this moment. I spin around. Mr. Jones looks up, surprise in his eyes (was that me?). Then a smile. And a slightly apologetic shrug.

I am not about to have my windpipe crushed from across the room. For this I am grateful.