Veteran stagehand exits Pittsburgh theater scene after four decades
After 40 years as an IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 3 stagehand and 25 years as the house carpenter at the Benedum Center, Kenny Brannigan, 57, is retiring to make way for the next generation of stagehands.
“I think we’re at the point where the kids need to learn and need to take it up,” says Brannigan, who believes it’s time for new talent to take over. “I was doing this in my 30s, and the guys doing it now, I really like.”
The job title is deceptive.
As house carpenter, the Duquesne Heights native supervises and coordinates technical activity involving the stage: loading in and hanging scenic elements and equipment, making sure everything runs smoothly during performances, and then, taking it all down and packing it back into trucks after the run is over.
“I’m like a traffic cop. I make sure everything is prioritized. I’m in charge of the scenery and the flies (the area above the stage floor where scenery and lights hang), what happens and when,” he says. “It’s about the big picture.”
A successor has yet to be named.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” says Christopher Evans, the Benedum’s sound engineer who has worked alongside Brannigan for 25 years. “He’s the leader, the boss of the stage. … Kenny is a real theater person. He loves the business. … He wants to take care of the people on stage. He shows considerable skill and compassion for those performers.”
In high school, Brannigan briefly considered becoming an air-traffic controller. But a career as a stagehand was almost inevitable.
“My family’s life was wrapped around what goes on in theater,” he says. “It gets you. It’s a bug. Plus, I grew up with it.”
Brannigans have been working Pittsburgh backstages for more than a century. The walls of Brannigan’s Benedum basement office display photos of union picnics and parades that illustrate the history of Pittsburgh theater, Brannigan’s family and Local 3.
His great uncle John Brannigan was an assistant electrician at the New Duquesne Theatre in 1910. During the years, Brannigan’s three great uncles, his father, his uncle, his brother and an assortment of cousins and their kids have joined the union and worked backstage.
Brannigan still remembers his first job call.
In 1971, he was 17 and a high-school senior when his dad took him along to help fill out a work call that was short on crew members to load a huge show — “Disney on Parade” — into the Civic Arena.
The call started at 3 p.m. Sunday and Brannigan didn’t leave until 7:30 p.m. Monday.
When Brannigan had to explain why he skipped school, the principal asked him what he planned to do with his life.
“This is what I am going to do with my life,” Brannigan responded.
Brannigan learned a lot of his trade at the New Nixon Theatre where his dad, Kenneth Robert Sr., was house carpenter.
“Dad was smart enough to send me to the fly floor (above the stage). He said, ‘Just watch.’ You could sit on a rail and learn by watching what everybody was doing,” he says. “I learned a lot of what I have up there.”
Later, Brannigan’s son, Kenneth III, who is also a lawyer, and his daughter, Kelli, joined the family profession.
Brannigan wasn’t initially happy about her choice, says Kelli Brannigan, who’s now the head electrician for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the assistant electrician for Pittsburgh Opera, and a stagehand.
She was studying to be a medical assistant when she told her dad she wanted to join the union.
“He said ‘ no!’ ” she says, laughing. “He probably thought I didn’t have what it takes. Yet, 16 years later, here I am.”
After she joined the union, Brannigan mentored her.
“He’s always taken time to show me everything he possibly could, everything I would have a problem with both here and at home,” she says. “He’s rough on me, only because I’m his daughter. I’m glad he was because I learned so much because of that. … He’s one of the wisest men I know.”
Many days Kelli and her dad drive to work together.
But time spent together on the job doesn’t always make up for the downside of working in the theater. You miss out on holiday meals, weddings and other special occasions, Brannigan says.
He recalls being at the wedding of a cousin when Brannigan and his brother, David, were dating women they would later marry.
“We were dancing, eating — and then, all the men looked at their watches, stood up, kissed their wives and left to go do the show. My Aunt Thelma got the girls (we were dating) together at a table and said, ‘Get used to it. This is the way it’s going to be.’ ”
The trade-off, Brannigan says, is the people you work long hours with become your second family.
Dennis, Brannigan and Evans have worked together on almost a daily basis for 25 years since they were hired for their positions while the former Stanley Theater was being transformed into the 2,890-seat Benedum Center.
“If you don’t love the business, you can’t participate because it kind of consumes you,” Evans says.
“I spend more time with Will (Wilbur Dennis, the Benedum Center’s stage electrician) than I do with my wife, and I’ve been with him longer— 40 years,” Brannigan says.
“He and I are like the same brain with two different bodies,” says Dennis, who adds that they finish each others’ sentences and often don’t need words to communicate. “There can be a chaotic hub-bub of what’s going on onstage, and we can hear each other through it.”
Now that he’s retiring, Brannigan hopes to trade in those 80- to 100-hour work weeks for things he missed, like day trips to Fallingwater or Laurel Caverns.
“I haven’t been to the History Center, and it’s just up the street. I would like to get up in the morning and say to Jane: ‘Let’s drive to Meadville for lunch,’ ” he says.
A lifelong musical-theater fan with a special fondness for “Wicked,” he also hopes to see shows from a seat, rather than the wings.
But he’s not sure how that will go.
He recalls watching Cirque du Soleil’s “O” from front-row balcony seats in Las Vegas: “It just blew me away,” he says. But, ever the stage technician, his attention focused on analyzing how they created the show’s spectacular effects.
“I’d rather watch a situation comedy or TV drama, because then, I’m not looking for mistakes,” he says.
He points out that, though he’s leaving the Benedum, he plans to stay connected.
“I will be around to answer questions and give them a few pointers,” he says.
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.