COLUMN: A smoke - but no mirrors - performance at U-M's Hill Auditorium
Editor's note: A typo in the story has been corrected.
Badges really do open a lot of doors that otherwise would not be opened. Some doors open to unspeakable horror, but other doors open to magic.
One evening in April 1984, the doors to Hill Auditorium were opened, and three Ann Arbor Police officers found themselves performing with Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted that evening by Ormandy’s Assistant Musical Director William Smith. Smith was conducting because the aging Eugene Ormandy had recently suffered a heart attack.
According to Sara Billmann of the University Musical Society (UMS), the performance was part of a 102-year tradition (1894-1995) at the University of Michigan called the May Festival. A May Festival in April?
"That’s right," Billmann explained, "because the students are gone by May."
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The Philadelphia Orchestra performed during the University Musical Society’s May Festival for 49 years. In 1984, the orchestra needed several special instruments for their rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Hill Auditorium, being an enclosed venue, cannons would be out of the question for the piece’s finale, so the conductor asked the UMS to find some fellows who could safely handle firearms. A UMS member knew a charming scallywag with a big smile and unique laugh who was a policeman; perhaps he could help.
The officer the UMS enlisted, we’ll call "Leroy." Leroy was and still is a very fun-loving guy. The parties and antics at Leroy’s "Dunmore Hilton" are a part of the Ann Arbor Police Department’s lore that belong in a book and not the G-rated pages of annarbor.com. This request by the UMS was right up Leroy’s alley.
Leroy, never the department conformist, saw no need to notify the department of this rather unique request. This would be an off-duty, under-the-radar, "better to beg forgiveness than ask permission" activity. Leroy selected two other fun-loving, cool under pressure department rowdies: “Disco” and “Jinx.”
Jinx would serve as the armorer for the performance. Jinx, I was told, owned a suit of armor, which has nothing to do with being an armorer but is unique. Jinx, although still alive and well, also owns the most unique tombstone in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Jinx’s monument is the black marble cube, standing on its point, with an Ann Arbor Police Department Badge and his dates of service on the face next to Geddes Road.
Jinx supplied three shotguns. He re-loaded his own shotgun shells, so he loaded some heavy black powder blank rounds for the 12 gauge shotguns. The shotguns would be fired into 55-gallon steel drums in the wings behind the stage.
Black powder is very smoky and makes a loud, low KA-BOOOM when fired. The steel drums would reverberate and contain the blasts for what was hoped to be a crowd-pleasing approximation of canon fire during the finale of the piece.
Disco was selected not just because he and Leroy were pals, but because no matter what happened, it was good to have Disco around. Disco was a great cop who got himself in some rather dangerous and outlandish predicaments. He could always get himself and other officers out of danger and then smooth talk the bosses out of being cranky.
Disco joked about getting in several department shooting incidents and never hitting anyone — that would be a plus at Hill Auditorium. Disco once shot a robber, but the bullet went through the bandit and was not recovered. The bandit claimed it was not a cop who shot him — he was just minding his own business and was himself a victim, shot during another robbery — no one bought the impossible coincidence, and the bandit went to prison.
The Saturday before the concert, the officer "musicians" practiced their portion of the piece in Hill Auditorium. Their position off stage was perfect. It was far enough away that it did not deafen the professional musicians but close enough that the audience could enjoy the effect. They chose a position near the back door behind the stage. It sounded great, and the winds swept the black powder smoke out of the back door during rehearsal.
Everything was set for the big performance. Hill Auditorium was filled with concertgoers eager to enjoy the finale of the May Festival, and the police "musicians" were poised to add their special effect during the grand finale. The officers would fire 15 rounds. Leroy, Disco and Jinx would each fire five rounds into their respective steel barrels.
The piece went off without a hitch. The Philadelphia Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece 1812 Overture was flawless. The officers timing of the "cannon fire" was impeccable.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Smith conducting or his police accompanists, Mother Nature had decided to add her own signature to the piece. Between rehearsal and performance time, the wind had shifted 180 degrees.
The officers were initially elated that they had done their part. They smiled at each other, proud of their achievement and the great story they could tell in years to come.
It was about then they realize that it was quite a bit smokier than in rehearsal. Instead of blowing the smoke out of the auditorium, the wind was blowing all the smoke into Hill Auditorium. After removing their ear protection they wondered aloud with each other if Hill Auditorium had smoke detectors and if so would they activate the fire suppression system — that is the sprinkler system.
Things went from bad to worse when a stagehand said the conductor was ordering them out onto stage. The officers were expecting Mr. Smith to yell at them about the smoke.
Each officer clicked off in their mind the reasons discipline would not be too harsh from police command. Let’s see: Off duty, privately owned shotguns, not acting in a “police” capacity, not “officially” acting on behalf of the department probably just a written warning or couple of days suspension — worse if the sprinklers soaked the crowd and orchestra.
Leroy told me when the stagehand dragged him, Disco and Jinx out onto the stage, time stood still. They walked out and he saw the tremendous clouds of smoke still rising in the crowded auditorium. Leroy said it was surreal. The smoke hung in three or four layers as he looked out from the stage. The smoke was much worse than he thought!
Then Leroy, Disco and Jinx noticed the crowd. They were all standing, but they were not fleeing for the exits — they were clapping and cheering. The police cannoneers and the Philadelphia Orchestra were receiving a standing ovation in Hill Auditorium!
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.