The Blue Badge of Courage

When my sister Laura was quite young she told us her dream was to one day get a job as a “puppy holder.” That’s great work if you can find it. For my young self, the dream was getting a job at an amusement park. So many weekends of my childhood were spent down the road from my grandparent’s lake house at Cedar Point Amusement Park with my magic ticket: a season pass. My sisters and I would head over late in the day after the crowds begin to thin and run from ride to ride for hours. It was awesome. Could I ride a roller coaster to work? I would think so. 

Last year was Cedar Point’s 150th Anniversary which didn’t time well with a pandemic. They have postponed the celebration to this coming season and recent online hype brought about this reminiscence. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Cedar Point Amusement Park currently holds the world record for the most rides (71) of any amusement park including 17 roller coasters. Among its distinctions is that it was the first to build 200, 300, and eventually a 400 foot tall roller coaster, each more mind-blowing than the last.

One summer in 1992 I finally landed that job, a technical theater position in the Live Shows division. It took three years of interviewing in person over winter breaks to finally land the gig. Frankly, I wasn’t certain I wanted to interview that last time but I figured I had little to lose. In excruciating detail I recounted everything I had added to my theatrical resume in college since my prior interview. My future boss likely figured that if he didn’t hire me, he would have to hear an even longer story the next year. I kept coming back.

Our show was the first to open the Centennial Theatre, situated near the front of the park, that year. We were a company of 18 – six performers, eight musicians and a technical crew of four. I was in charge of stage lighting. The show was titled It Takes Two – a 25-minute song and dance extravaganza featuring quickly paced medleys of hit songs from yesteryear and today! Like every show in the park, it ended in blaring patriotism, ours being – and I’m not making this up – a song called A Dream With Your Name On It with an altered ending for maximum effect: “America! America! Land of the Freeeeee!” We performed the show 486 times that summer, six times a day, six days a week. 

As far as summer jobs go, it was a sweet gig. Most days, we accomplished our run in a mere five hours in either an early shift (call time: noon) or a late shift (call time: 5pm). Contrast that to the hours of most seasonal park employees, up at dawn for an extremely long day. It was most grueling for the traffic team who had to endure rush hours at both ends of the day, dodging cars no less.

Cedar Point is located on a peninsula on Lake Erie and my dorm, Cedars was located not far from the Marina Entrance. More men lived in this dorm than were enrolled at my college and everyone showered in a single room that was about the size of an IGA grocery store. Of course, I didn’t have to deal with that early morning rush as I worked in the rarefied world of Live Shows.

Cedar Point was likely the first class structure I experienced where I fully appreciated the dynamics. When I arrived I was issued a red name badge, which was worn by roughly 90% of the 3,000+ seasonal employees. Blue badges indicated special skills or management of some kind. Blue badges with first and last names were managers of multiple areas, and black badges were worn by the full-time administration. There were also green badges which were issued to minors, poor souls. The 1998 film Edge of Seventeen shot in and around Sandusky featured a food service team working at a Cedar Point-like park. Set in 1984, they nailed the look – particularly the name badges.

I arrived around mid-May as rehearsals were underway and we began the process of de-mothballing our theater and getting our show on its feet. There was a pizza stand next door to the theater which was handy for those initial longer days. I would jump in line with the park guests for a quick slice. One day Donna, our sound engineer said to me, “Scott, why are you wearing a red badge? You’re a blue badge.” I was? At the time I knew nothing of this colored badge business but I checked with HR and sure enough, I was issued the wrong badge.

Putting on that blue badge, my life was suddenly changed. The next time I went to grab pizza, the manager of the stand waved me over to skip the line and personally take my order. A question posed at the front desk of my dorm was answered in a remarkably different tone – suddenly I was a customer at the Ritz. What was going on?! This was further heightened once our show opened and I was in my uniform which included a tie, a look shared by almost no one in the park – just men who were theater techs or IMAX ushers (and most of the ushers were actually theater techs working extra hours).

I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped by another employee who blurted out, “Where do you work?!” as if I was an undiscovered species from another planet. There was no question that in seasonal employee terms, I had found myself in a fortunate place: short days with no early mornings and an air-conditioned work space. And what little contact I had with the public only occurred when manning the doors five minutes before each show and for the two minutes or so it took for the audience to leave. Any skills I had developed to do this kind of work aside, it was a terrific situation to find myself in and I felt well compensated. An additional luxury was my grandparent’s lake house a mere mile away. I could saunter along the beach to get there if so inclined.

This sentiment of gratitude was shared by the cast and musicians as well. Many seasonal performers were stuck outside on the midway in the hot sun (or rain). I soon appreciated that these were the most sought after contracts and consequently we had an extraordinarily talented group. I was the second youngest person in the company and came to understand that I likely couldn’t land this gig during initial attempts due to low turnover. Many of the performers were seasoned pros who played cruise ships in the winter season (and you should hear those stories).

I loved the It Takes Two company and that was fortunate because we had a lot of downtime between shows. We got to know each other, members of other companies, as well as the many ragtag Live Shows employees which included roving park characters and assorted talent. Many of these folks would teach free classes in the evenings. I brushed off my high school tap shoes for one series of classes and ultimately fell in with the juggling cabal led by a guy who I assume is a Guinness record holder by now. All of that down time between shows was perfect for learning how to juggle. By summer’s end I was juggling clubs like a circus pro.

Here’s the other secret about doing a show 486 times. While it is true that we needed to stick to the script and keep things professional… some artistic liberties needed to be taken to keep things fresh. Upon confirmation that no one from the head office was in the audience, we occasionally staged “themed” shows. Either by way of a single word that the performers would interject into their lyrics and banter as cleverly as possible, or perhaps there might just be an overarching theme. The trick is that everything had to remain absolutely seamless and not all companies could pull this off. A Madonna-themed show opened unexpectedly with one performer broadcasting to the audience Come on girls… You believe in love? ‘Cause we’ve got something to sing about it. And it goes something like this.” It was perfect.

However, as the summer droned on we did start getting a bit punchy. I mean, how many times can you watch Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do I Do For You arranged as a duet with an accompanying love ballet? (Answer: 486 plus rehearsals) One late night on headsets during our penultimate day of shows things hit a bit of a climax.

Mary Helen: I’m so bored I think I’m going to tie myself up by the ropes that hoist this curtain.

Donna: I’m so bored, I think I’ll plug in and electrocute myself on this sound board.

Scott: I’m so bored, I think I’ll jump out of this light booth.

Mary Helen: Well, if you’re going to do that, Scott – at least let me get you a shiny cape to wear. 

And that was when I decided to do, quite possibly, the most stupid thing I’d ever done in my life – courageously jump out of a light booth during a live performance wearing a shiny cape (provided by our costumer) in the fight against our common enemy: monotony. 

The planning began immediately! We decided that – just in case – I should probably perform this stunt during the final show of the evening. There’s a nice two minute dance break with no light cues in the middle of the show. Our stage manager, Lisa wasn’t so certain about this but she wasn’t going to pull rank. Besides, the band is jamming so loudly during that moment that there’s not a chance anyone would hear me land.

When the moment came, with a surge of adrenaline I climbed up and over the grate (meant to keep anyone from doing such a thing) and jumped. I landed with a thud catching myself hard with my right hand but I was OK. The floor below the booth was a ramp from the entrance of the theater up to the house – not an ideal landing spot but I didn’t fall over. 

I scrambled back up the ladder to my booth and thought to myself – holy crap, I just did that. Lisa soon joined me up there for our typical series of double spot cues. That was really funny, Scott – are you sure you’re OK? Yep!

But as the double spot cues continued and the adrenaline slipped away, I began to notice a pain in my right arm. Hopefully nothing, I thought. But after Lisa left and the show rambled to a close I feared that I may have actually injured myself.

The performers took their bows and I met Lisa by the two sets of double doors which we opened like always. We stood in the small lobby between those two sets of double doors as the crowd began to leave on either side of us. Scott, are you sure you’re OK because you’re looking quite pale AND BLACKOUT.

The next thing I remember hearing was a voice, as if I were asleep. Then I thought, no… I’m on my headset talking to someone. Scott! Scott! the voice said. Who is it? I responded, my eyes still closed. It’s Lisa!!! she shrieked. I came to. I guess I passed out there for a second, huh? I was sitting on the floor up against the wall, the crowd now gone. Yes, you did!

Lisa walked me back to my dorm and I promised to get a professional opinion on what was going on with my arm. But, I couldn’t go to the park medical office. You see, the way Cedar Point keeps its employees from bailing on their contract during the last few weeks of summer is by paying them a weekly bonus which accrues all summer long. You get your bonus when you fulfill your contract. I had a notable amount of money on the line that I couldn’t risk.

I called my buddy who played a midway character, Link Bogey: Professional Mini Golfer, to drive me to the local emergency room. He hadn’t driven all summer and wasn’t sure about driving my car but I convinced him that since I was passing out, he was the better bet. Somehow, the folks at the emergency room knew I was a Cedar Point employee. I told them the incident did not occur on park property. I had jumped off a large rock on the beach after hours – yeah, that’s what happened. A scan showed that I’d torn the cartilage in my lower arm between the radius and ulna. There was nothing to be done about it. It would just be painful for a few weeks and eventually heal itself. 

At least I won’t have to explain a cast to the cast the next day, our final day of shows. It was a happy occasion to be sure, with many park employees coming by. The teenage girls who were season pass holders and the closest thing we had to groupies brought flowers for the cast and ran to secure front row seats for the final show. At curtain call, the performers acknowledged the entire company. It was lovely.

My boss came by too. He thanked me for a wonderful season and indicated he would like me to come back next summer if I was interested. And with that he shook my hand vigorously – and in the most astounding theatrical performance of my life, I did not wince. My bonus was secure.

I wasn’t planning on returning. That summer was terrific fun but waking up to tens of thousands of people each day does grate on a person. And sadly, I had come to discover that you in fact can not ride a roller coaster to work. In fact you can’t ride anything to work including the cable cars which actually do transport people from here to there. They broke down once with performers trapped in the air and two shows had to be canceled until they got the ride working again. The latest employee rule was created as my childhood hopes were dashed. The real world can be cruel.

Years later I was attending the pre-Broadway run of Spamalot in Chicago. The curtain went up and I spotted Greg, a performer from our show immediately. I was thrilled to see him in such a high profile musical. He deserved it – everyone in our cast was extraordinarily talented. You can’t watch someone perform 486 times (plus rehearsals!) and not instantly recognize them in any future context, even all of these years later. Seeing Greg, I knew it was true – there really is a dream out there with your name on it. 

Big finish: America! America! Land of the freeeeee!

Anecdotes that didn’t make the cut:

  • A thought-provoking look at the “ballyhoo” double spotlight maneuver
  • What really happens in Berenstein Bear Land after the park closes. (Hint: knock loudly at the Spooky Old Tree before entering)
  • How all of that money gets transported off site at day’s end
  • Sending a performer into the audience to serenade my sister in full spotlight
  • How I’m convinced I can teach anyone to juggle
  • Getting busted for adding the auditorium disco lights to a sequence
  • The time my grandmother came to the show with a purse full of fried chicken she had just swiped for me at the annual chaussée residents appreciation dinner (basically a picnic held for locals along the beach for putting up with the traffic).

If you didn’t click the “name badges” link above, I’ve included a few photos on that page.

3 thoughts on “The Blue Badge of Courage

  1. Dan Laskin

    Absolutely delightful! Thanks for sharing. OK Scott, post-pandemic I will sign up for juggling lessons. I can juggle three tennis balls reasonably well, but that’s it.

    Reply
  2. Andrea Bucey

    This was AWESOME! I initially thought it was going to include something about the Sodom and Gommorah (sp?) which is rumored to be part of the dorm living. I am so glad it didn’t. Helps me continue to hold onto my halcyon memories of what I once regarded as the best place ever! Still love Cedar Point to this day and ogle at the beautiful homes enroute (rear entrance!). You were so lucky indeed! XO

    Reply
  3. David Pilgrim

    This had me smiling the whole way! I loved this! I did think you might have broken your arm, but I did laugh out loud at the thought of you…with that cape…making that jump. I’m glad it’s healed now. 🤣

    Reply

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