Mesa Musings: Lighting cage provides best seat for Smothers Brothers

It was the spring of 1963 — 49 years ago.

The Smothers Brothers blazed incandescent on the national college concert circuit. They visited my campus, Orange Coast College, for a concert that year.

I was 18, my buddy, Joe, 19. Ten months later, I was in the U.S. Army and Joe was in the Navy. But, for the moment, we wallowed in the convivial environs of "college-student life." We were carefree — and broke!

Tommy and "Little" Dickie Smothers weren't much older than we were, 26 and 24, respectively.

The singers-musicians-comedians performed folk music and had already achieved cult status. They appeared regularly on national television, and within a couple of years, would have their own weekly national comedy series on CBS. They welcomed such big-name artists to their show as George Harrison, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.

In 1963, they were appearing in clubs and selling out venues on campuses nationwide. By then, they'd recorded four best-selling albums. Joe and I knew their routines by heart.

Their shtick was this: They'd sing folk songs, but would get drawn into hilarious family spats during virtually every number. Tommy's signature line was, "Mom always liked you best." He played the "slow" brother, while Dick was the cerebral one.

Their performance in OCC's 1,200-seat auditorium (now called the Robert B. Moore Theater) sold out. Tickets, as I recall, went for 10 bucks a pop — not exactly chump-change for college students of the day!

Joe and I were huge Smothers Brothers fans but couldn't scrape up a sawbuck ($10 bill) between us. We desperately wanted to attend the concert.

What to do?

We were drama students, and one of our fellow thespians worked as a part-time lighting technician in the auditorium. It just so happened he was scheduled to run the lightboard for the Friday evening performance.

He agreed to sneak us in.

The theater was closed just before noon the day of the performance, and the doors wouldn't be opened again until an hour before curtain, which was set for 8 p.m.

Just after the building's closure, we slipped into the house. Founding OCC president, Basil Peterson — a no-nonsense administrator who was then in his 15th year at the helm — would surely have expelled us on the spot had he discovered our maneuver. Thankfully, he was none the wiser.

Our friend opened a stage door for us about 12:30 p.m. He had work to do, and couldn't risk being seen with us. The theater department chairman, who was a great guy, would have nailed our sorry hides to the wall had he discovered our presence.

After being granted building access, we scurried up a ladder on the side of the stage and delicately made our way across scaffolding above the auditorium's false ceiling and into a lighting cage just above the third or fourth row of seats. It provided a perfect "luxury box" perspective of the stage.

We brought a transistor radio with us, as well as cards, sandwiches, chips and soft drinks. We feasted as we awaited the crowd's arrival. The doors opened at 7 p.m., and the house was packed by 7:30.

The curtain went up on Tommy and Dickie, and the adoring crowd exploded. The duo was superb, and we howled throughout the performance from our perch in the ceiling.

After the show, we climbed down the ladder and made our way backstage to an almost-empty greenroom where we were able to meet the brothers personally.

Tom and Dick autographed our programs and talked with us about our college experience. They also told us a bit about the rigors of touring and of show business in general. They couldn't have been nicer.

It was an evening I've never forgotten.

And now that I've come clean after all these decades, I'm finally prepared to make good on my 49-year-old freebie. I'm going to donate a couple of sawbucks to OCC's foundation as restitution for my misdeeds.

It's the least I can do!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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