Santa Monica native Jonathan Marks describes his career as a TV stage manager as mostly accidental. It started after he “fell for a beautiful woman who introduced me to [producer] Woody Fraser,” Marks chuckles. “He thought I’d be good in production.”
But what followed was anything but happenstance for Marks, whose credits include some of the most successful live and live-to-tape shows on TV, including So You Think You Can Dance, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Price Is Right, and Let’s Make a Deal.
“Stage managers are the hub of everything [in live TV],” says Marks. “We interface with the host, the producers, director, and entire crew. If I see there isn’t a two-channel prompter onstage, or we need a cheat monitor for graphics because the host is looking in that direction—those are things only experience can bring.”
Human psychology (Marks’ college major) is another big factor, especially in his favorite genre—game shows. “We had a gal from Virginia who won $500,000 on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and then went for one million dollars,” Marks remembers. “But she blanked on the question, ‘who broke the sound barrier in an airplane?’
“It was incredibly challenging, because [the director] didn’t have enough shots of her winning the money, so it was up to me to ask her to recreate all of those moments in pickups—minutes after she had lost.”
Experience also paid off handling the many high-profile musicians who regularly visited Ellen. Marks recounts one such moment when lights needed to be changed between David Bowie numbers, and Marks was asked “to vamp” during the transition.
“I knew that big rock stars always bring their own video person to check how they look when they’re sitting in the chair onstage,” Marks explains. “So I sent David’s [video] guy into the booth to tweak our best monitor, while I sat in Ellen’s chair next to Bowie to help them set it up. Pretty cool job when you get to make small talk with David Bowie for two minutes, right?”
Marks also takes pride in on-set efficiency, especially on iconic TV franchises. In an age of prizes displayed on graphics, The Price Is Right, and its sister show, Let’s Make a Deal, are unique. “We still give live prizes—Maseratis, dining room sets, you name it—all have to be cued on-camera and moved offstage.
“I’ve done more than 50 shows,” Marks concludes, “but The Price Is Right is by far the most complex. No two shows are ever the same.”