‘Idol’ Tracker: Meet the circus master
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Even by the tumultuous standards of life in the Idoldome, Wednesday’s gathering for the ceremonial removal of Ramiele Malubay was circus-like beyond and above expectations. First the group rendition of “9 to 5” wandering into the crowd and onto Simon’s desk kicked the night off with a lively festival atmosphere. But quickly the mood pendulum swung the other way, as Brooke White, upon learning she was in the bottom three, broke into hysterical convulsions the minute the show went to break and had to be consoled by seemingly the entire production staff before she could take her place again.
Then, during the next break, someone in the mosh pit –- reportedly a young woman –- standing directly in front of the stools where Ramiele and Kristy Lee Cook awaited their fates collapsed. With two minutes to air, medics raced into the room, through the crowd and to the ailing victim. As the precious seconds until air time ticked by, the stricken woman finally managed to get to her feet and was helped out with just over a minute to air. And then finally, upon hearing her fate, Ramiele herself broke down completely. As her good-bye video aired, her fellow contestants and the crew huddled around to try and get her into shape for her looming good-bye song, which she managed to get through, before being assisted off stage herself.
And all of this happening live –- or just off camera –- before the largest weekly audience in television.
But at every taping in the Idoldome, whatever disaster may threaten entertainment’s reigning colossus, riding herd on it all, calling out orders to the crew, to the cast and to the audience over the loudspeaker, presiding as the circus master of the whole affair is one pixie-faced, gum-chewing woman striding the stage in a sweatshirt and drooping “hobo hat” calling the shots in a sassy nasal drawl suggestive of a film noir gangland moll.
But for Debbie Williams, pictured below, the stage manager of ‘American Idol’ since its second episode, the environment of a circus literally feels like home. Born to a pair of medal-winning ice skaters touring the nation with an ice show, Williams learned how to skate and joined the show at age 2, spending the next 13 years on the road with Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice. “It was always chaotic as a child,” she recalls. “But you learn to be a good observer and you learn to handle people and a lot of things very early.”
Eventually transitioning from skating to dance, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s after being offered a job on the ‘Donny and Marie Show,’ which, after the series ended, led her to seeking a somewhat more stable career in television working as a production coordinator. Starting out on the Casey Kasem show ‘American Top 10,’ Williams grew into producing, and then after the birth of her son led her to seek even more stable work in stage management, she eventually became the only woman member of the very small group of six or so people who produce America’s giant television spectacles. (Her credits include the awards-show triple crown -- the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys -- not to mention the MTV Video Music Awards and assorted Victoria’s Secret specials.)
But her place in history really took shape in 2002 when she received a call from a friend telling her that a new show was being produced by Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, dancers like herself, and asking if she was interested in a regular job. Williams recalls: “We thought it was just a silly little summer series. We had no idea what it was. I mean, if you take a look at the tapes back then, it was a little show. I didn’t understand it. We started on that little stage, and in the beginning, we started with a piano player. And they just walked out and sang to the piano, you know? And it was very raw. And I kind of was looking at it going, what is this?”
Williams says the presence of judge Simon Cowell was one of the first things that made her see something was going on here. “When I saw that, I went, OK. That’s very different for American TV. Nobody said the truth. And so I thought OK, that’s the hook.”
As the first season progressed, “we started seeing kids camping around the studio as we were coming into work,” she said. But it wasn’t until after the end of the first season, when the show taped a special episode in Las Vegas, that Williams realized she was part of a phenomenon. “I said to Ryan that night, ‘This is going to be weird.’ You know, at home we have a fan base, but I wonder if they’ll have to fill this house. And all of the sudden, he and I are up by the prompter and they let the doors open to MGM Grand, that big, big, big arena. And people were coming in dressed like Kelly with the signs. I looked at him and I went, ‘Holy Toledo!’ ”
Six years later, Williams finds herself each week supervising a gargantuan thousand-balls-in-the-air machine as it moves towards Tuesday’s show time. “For me, basically, the show is my deal,” she says, meaning the stage show itself, rather than the song recordings, the taped segments, the endorsements or appearances or PR matters that occupy many of the lives in the ‘Idol’ empire. For Williams, preparing for the Tuesday performance show, followed by the Wednesday results show, is a three-day fight against the clock.
“We come in on Mondays. We listen to the music. The kids get to rehearse the music with [bandleader Rickey Minor]. If there’s any problem musically, that’s the time to fix it. Because we don’t have any other time. Once we get there on Tuesday, every second is scheduled.”
She continues describing her routine. “It’s all preparatory work. You’re just preparing your script, preparing your run-down, preparing everything. So that by the time you hit the shoot days, there’s nothing left to question.”
What keeps the show feeling spontaneous in Season 7, however, is the ability of the perfectly calibrated machine to dismantle itself and put itself back together again on the whims and instincts of producers Lythgoe and Warwick, working with Williams. “On ‘Idol’ there’s always stuff left to question,’ she said. ‘That’s what I love about it because it’s kind of a free-for-all in that if instinctually something happens in rehearsal and Nigel wants to change it, everybody just goes with the flow. We have changed that show 15 minutes before we go on air. ... You’ve got really good technical people there. And everybody can spin on a dime.”
She recalls a recent episode in which the ability of the massive production to adjust to circumstances was put to the test. In one of the early Top 24 round episodes, David Cook was scheduled to go on stage next, when in the commercial break immediately before his appearance, it was discovered that his amp wasn’t working.
As a stage hand attempted to bring the equipment to life, at 40 seconds to air, he told Williams: “‘It’s not going to happen.’ So, Ryan goes running up to the Red Room and I say to my stage manager up there: ‘Don’t have him talk to David Cook. Have him talk to Michael [Johns].’ And I say to the AD in the booth, ‘He’s talking to Michael. We’re doing Michael next.’ So, then everybody starts going into their mode. Everybody’s done live TV before knows exactly what to do: teleprompter was changing the phone number, the Chiron girl was changing the phone number. Michael didn’t know this was happening. So, all of a sudden Ryan’s interviewing Michael, which he wasn’t supposed to do. All of the sudden we go to Michael’s tape, which the tape people put in place right away. And Spencer, my stage manager, comes and says, ‘Michael you’re going on now.’ He says, ‘What do you mean? It’s David.’ Meanwhile, during this there’s a guitar amp on stage I’m trying to get off. We’re on the air. The prop crew isn’t there. Somebody said, ‘I picked the amp up but I don’t think I did. I don’t even remember it.’ ‘
And amazingly the show went on and the audience at home noticed not a thing amiss.
Watching the show in the Idoldome each week, seeing Debbie stride across the stage, generally standing about half an inch out of the camera’s line, unflappably ride herd over steadycam crashes, wandering contestants, screaming crowds and a remorseless clock ticking toward the show’s inexorable end, is like watching a dancer at work, effortlessly, and with seeming total ease and grace, gently placing each element in its place just in the nick of time. A commonly awe-inspiring phenomenon is how she magically transforms the Idoldome, which 30 seconds before air time seems a scene of total pandemonium, and seconds later is restored to Buddha-like serenity and focus.
“You have to learn,” she tells, “to be unflappable no matter who you’re dealing with, and always to have a back-up plan. Always be thinking of, ‘If this goes wrong, what am I going to do?’ That’s what live TV is about. You always have a backup plan in your head.”
Thinking about all the disasters she’s had to confront, Williams continues: “Oh my God! There’s nine million different stories. I mean, sometimes it’s the judges getting there late or sometimes there’s a wardrobe snafu. It’s usually about judges. That’s usually the drama going on. Whatever it might be, whether they’re late, where are they, they’re en route. They’re on La Brea or they’re here. You know, we have phone calls, people calling them trying to find out where they are. That’s our biggest challenge, getting those judges in those seats at the top of the show.”
Williams, Lythgoe and Warwick’s biggest accomplishment may be keeping the spontaneity in a show that, after this many seasons of this much success, by all rights should have calcified into an iron-clad formula. To a remarkable degree, ‘Idol’ is still able to make fun of itself and revel in its mistakes. “No one is more of a kidder than Nigel or Ken,” Williams said. “Everything they do, they have a sense of humor. That is my motto in life. If I can’t have a sense of humor about it, then I don’t want to do it. So they have a sense of humor in addition to being really professional and really good. And so we laugh a lot. We have fun. There are serious times. There are times when people get pissed off. You know, we can get mad at each other and then we hug and kiss and make up and go back to work. And it’s that kind of place. And I really haven’t had that experience in a production situation maybe ever.”
What Williams describes as the best part of her job, however, is working with the handful of young people every year who make it up to the stage as contestants. It’s a relationship she describes as something of a mentoring in show business. “We use our time with them to try to teach them the ways, how to be respectful to a crew. No matter how low somebody comes on a food chain, they’re there working to make you look good. Treat everybody like a person and don’t get caught up in your own fame and your own thing.”
The process each week, as Williams tells it, involves trying to gently give the contestants pointers as they work on the performances while leaving the power in their hands. “We try to help them and guide them so that things work properly for camera. Some kids may come out there and they just start pacing because they think they should pace when they sing. And so between the two singing teachers and myself, I’ll go up to them and say, maybe you don’t need to pace so much. You know, movement for movement’s sake doesn’t mean anything. We try to help them with that because some of them know exactly what they want to do and some of them don’t. Some of them have a little more experience, some of them don’t. So, it’s our job to kind of help them with that and make them look as good as we can.”
However, she continues, “we don’t ever impose, you know because that’s a big part of the judging. That they’ve made the choice. It always has to be their choice and we just -- if we see something that can help it a little bit -- we suggest. But we don’t ever tell.”
Asked if she knows who is going to make it each year, Williams sighs about the difficulty of picking the winners from each year’s group. “We have the dark horses every year when they come in and you don’t even really notice them. Kelly was like that. Carrie was like that. You could have thrown a rock on me, there’s no way I would have thought Carrie would be in this place. She was so quiet and she was so under current and she kind of came out of her shell and grew as the competition was happening. Kelly, the same thing.”
Asked what she thinks of this year’s group, Williams gushes: “This is a very close group. These are kids that like each other and they’re pals and some of the older ones are motherly to the younger ones. From the Top 24, this was a really good group of kids. And they’re fun to be around and they’re nice and they are a little more comfortable. They all have a little more of an idea of what they want to do, which is great. They have a sense of themselves.”
Williams describes with maternal pride the feeling of joy she gets when a former contestant comes back to perform, having transformed himself or herself from a nervous little unknown into a true professional entertainer. “I think in my heart, I’m a teacher. I love that part of it. And you know, [vocal coaches] Dorian and Byrd and I, we always say we wish we could infuse these kids with everything that we know through all the years that we’ve done what we do. We try to teach them so quickly there. But I like that part of it and, most of all, I like watching the evolution and the growth of these kids.”
-- Richard Rushfield
(Photos courtesy Debbie Williams, Fox)