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Before retirement, one last tour through every hidden nook of the Straz Center

TAMPA — The explosions set off fire alarms through downtown Tampa.

The arsonist was David Copperfield, who spent three weeks perfecting a 30-foot fireball in the parking lot of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts for a television special. The magician had hired the special effects man from Lethal Weapon to design the blast.

Mike Chamoun, the Straz's point man for all things backstage, watched apprehensively.

"I had to make a decision," said Chamoun, the Straz's director of productions services. "Are we going to blow this place up? Am I going to have a job tomorrow? Or am I going to be dead, and it doesn't matter anyway?"

He raised the lights as high as they would go, popped open hatches to let smoke escape and held his breath.

The stunt went off without incident. Chamoun, 69, told the story Tuesday to a group gathered for the last of his famous Straz tours. He has given the tour hundreds of times to donors, politicians, student groups and community leaders. He recently did the same for Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny.

After 25 years, Chamoun is set to retire. His last day is Sept. 29. Before he left, he agreed to one last tour.

Some people who pass through the Straz, such as contract construction workers who supplement Broadway shows, expect to work 8 to 5. Not Chamoun.

Chamoun grew up in Ybor City and learned his trade early. He belongs to Local 321 of the Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees, of which his grandfather was a charter member.

He has always thrived on adrenaline, on making high-stakes decisions. Before the Straz, he was director of operations for the Florida Orchestra, a period that seeded a love of fine music.

That only deepened at the Straz, a complex of five theaters hosting more than 1,500 events a year, including the largest local selection of Broadway shows. It's big enough to allow performers their own changing areas. It can rotate four towering sets for each act of an opera.

In the early years, Chamoun worked 22-hour days and more, rigging lights and set pieces, even making props. He soon became the decisionmaker, the buck-stops-here man, negotiating with wary fire marshals and petulant performers. When it comes to getting around Murphy's Law, he is Alan Dershowitz.

And like a lawyer, he knows all the secrets.

"People got so excited by Miss Saigon, with the helicopter," he said. "They wanted to know, 'How did you get a helicopter in there?' We didn't get a helicopter. It was just a Plexiglas bubble with a frame. The blade itself was nothing but a piece of rope with a rubber ball on the end. As it would spin and we had the lighting on it, you can get that whole illusion because of the shadows and stuff, and the sound effects."

The first stop, a musicians' lounge crowded with couches and chairs, brought back the memory of a violin soloist, a "harmless guy but in his own world," who hitchhiked to gigs with a $386,000 violin. An executive stumbled on him sleeping in the lounge and thought a homeless person had broken in.

Next came the "costume gondolas," a row of closets on casters to store costumes. He opened the door to the prop room, stuffed with bells and candlesticks, a snare drum and a rotary phone.

Of all the surprises, a basement area in what they call "the pits" might take the prize. Some of the hall's seats are permanently clustered in "chair wagons," which can be raised or lowered, and moved backward or forward.

The vertical movement happens because of jacks, each of which can bear 50,000 pounds. But every so often, one of the brass alloy gears goes bad. That's a big deal. You can't just go to Home Depot and replace gears like that, which cost $4,000 each. Chamoun researched manufacturers and found one in Ontario. He orders the gears months in advance, so he can have a couple on hand.

A concrete hallway below the complex is wide enough to evacuate crowds from the Straz within minutes. That happened at least once, after a worker accidentally bumped into a fire alarm midway through The Phantom of the Opera.

In Ferguson Hall, he told of getting a call on a Friday afternoon. An executive vice president from ABC News was on the other end, asking if the network could use the hall for an episode of Nightline. The Secret Service and FBI arrived before it was revealed that Ted Koppel's guest would be President Bill Clinton.

He led the group 122 steps to the zenith of the hall, walking on a metal grid, where cables attached to things like that falling chandelier in Phantom pass over pulleys. Tour guests stepped gingerly on the grid, the stage visible between the spaces 70 feet down.

"Don't look down," Chamoun said.

The tour ended more than three hours later — the longest ever given, Chamoun said. Toward the end, several of his listeners were discreetly shifting from foot to foot or stretching their backs. As a reward to the dozen who had stayed to the end, he opened one last door.

"I don't usually show this to most people," he said, pulling a bottle of vodka from a storage room. He's a bourbon man himself, so it's not for him. The 100-proof vodka makes an ideal freshener for musty costumes. It's an industry standard for wardrobe staff, who put the vodka in spritzer bottles.

"You go to ABC Liquor and buy the cheapest one they have."

• • •

After a career averting crises or powering through them, Chamoun said he is ready to settle down. Maybe he will write a book about his experiences, like people keep telling him to.

Then again, Chamoun still holds his Local 321 union card. He has maintained his relationship with the orchestra, which he said might be hiring for an outdoor concert.

And a guy like him never really stops working. Perhaps there are other theaters that might want his help.

"Maybe the Tampa Theatre production manager needs a day off," he said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Request a tour

The Straz Center offers tours to the public, though not at the detailed level of Chamoun's tours. To schedule one, call the patron services department at (813) 222-1062 or visit strazcenter.org.

Before retirement, one last tour through every hidden nook of the Straz Center 09/15/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2016 10:35pm]
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