"I liken my job to that of a wedding planner,” observes stage manager Arthur Lewis, whose 25-year career has included live broadcasts of the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Olympic Games. “It’s always someone’s biggest night, whether it’s Hollywood or country music. They’ve got one chance to get their message across, and it has to be flawless. My job is to care as much about that night as they do, crews and performers alike, and guide them every step of the way.”
Even when that path sometimes leads to the most pressure-packed location on the planet—a live performance in the East Room of the White House.
“For Burt Bacharach’s recent Gershwin Prize,” Lewis recounts, “an agreement was made with the White House that Stevie Wonder would be the one to introduce President Obama to the stage. Stevie has an elaborate prompting system with an assistant, using a microphone and earpiece. I told the assistant we needed to set the presidential lectern right after Stevie sings, and he shouldn’t make the introduction until I gave him the cue. As the stagehands and I walked onto the stage with the lectern, I saw Stevie making the introduction. The president looked at me like, ‘I know Stevie was early. Should I come down?’ And I gave him a nod that it was OK, just as I ducked out of camera range.”
Lewis started his career working days as an NBC page, and nights learning stage-managing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I joined the Directors Guild in 1986 when I became a staff stage manager at NBC,” Lewis recalls. “I was in the dugout for Game 7 when the Mets won the 1986 World Series, and did everything from soaps to daytime talk shows.”
In 1992, Lewis worked his first live performance/awards show, the Tonys, and found his professional niche. Career highlights include working the Grammys at Madison Square Garden and having just nine minutes to set the stage for the New York Philharmonic’s joint performance with Coldplay. “It only worked once and that was when we were live on air,” Lewis chuckles.
“For the first Apollo Hall of Fame show, I was with [honoree] Richard Pryor. Everyone was crowding around as he arrived, very excited, and I had to gently steer him away, providing a rundown of the show and walking him to his dressing room. I was speaking fast about cues, placement, etc., and then finally stopped and asked, ‘Mr. Pryor. Do you have any questions?’ He was breathing really hard and said, ‘Yes, I do. Can I sit down?’”