STAMFORD – It’s about 2:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, and Jerry Springer is giving a final thought on his TV talk show – a reflection based on the day’s lively guests. He waves goodbye to the applause of the audience, which begins to filter out.
Exit Jerry Springer. Enter Rich Franzino and his crew of stagehands, who have 90 minutes to turn the set of the Springer show to that of the Steve Wilkos show.
The job requires heavy lifting and precision under deadline. Members of the crew – a jovial, jokey bunch – have a backstage choreography all their own. For five years they’ve maneuvered the set swap for those two shows — four shows, these days — on the same stage.
The stage, one of the factors that drew NBCUniversal to the former theater in the first place, lets the operation use the same scene-changing systems of a play.
4 Shows, 1 Stage
The Jerry Springer Show, along with the talk shows of Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos, all taped by NBCUniversal, moved into the Stamford building five years ago after the lease for the Maury Povich studio in New York City ran out.
Richard Ross, senior vice president of production at NBCUniversal, saw an opportunity in Connecticut’s offer of film tax credits and decided to move Maury, along with the Springer and Wilkos shows, from Chicago and New York City, to the Rich Forum Theater, said Vinnie Fusco, general manager and executive producer with NBCUniversal.
In 2012, NBCUniversal added the Trisha Goddard show with British TV personality Goddard addressing family conflicts and issues relevant to women.
The theater is relatively close to New York City, highways and mass transit, as well as downtown Stamford businesses such as hotels, restaurants and florists. And then there is that stage.
“The theater basically has the mechanics to hold more scenery than one talk show,” said Adam Sorota, senior director at NBCUniversal. “Basically the front of one set is the back of another, and the reason why the sets are so big is because when one set’s up it’s blocking and masking the other sets.”
The studio does six set swaps each week, filming five to six episodes of each show in a day and a half. To stay on schedule, the set swap must be carefully timed and carried out.
The studio uses the theater’s fly system — ropes attached to each piece that lift a backdrop and either turn it around or lower a different backdrop onto the stage. The fly system operates on chain motors because the pieces can weigh up to 6,000 pounds each.
The theater’s 90-foot-long stage gives them enough room for movement, unlike other TV studio stages, typically 50 feet long and 50 feet wide.
Nonetheless, the theater needed work to make the transformation. A team of 10 consultants came together to renovate the facility, converting the ballet school on the upper floor to 18 edit rooms — recently upgraded to high definition, adding 900 lights to the studio and air conditioning, all in a matter of 110 days.
While NBC had previously filmed Maury Povich and Sally Jesse Rafael on the same set, four shows on one stage was unheard of, Sorota said.
But thanks to a sequence masterminded by Rich Franzino, head carpenter of the Local 74 union, a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the operation has run smoothly.
The “turning,” or swapping of the sets, is done by 13 stagehands from Local 74, which serves southern Connecticut.
‘Big Game Of Tetris’
For the swap from Jerry Springer to Steve Wilkos, the crew goes through a 51-item checklist and keeps a diagram showing of how the set should look at the end of the 90 minutes.
First, workers clear out the furniture. All the set pieces for all four shows are stored backstage, placed in a rotation from storage to stage.
This day’s swap begins with moving out the stored set pieces of the Wilkos, Povich and Goddard shows to clear the way for Springer’s set to move into storage.
On stage, the backdrop — the biggest set piece, which makes up the wall behind the show — is detached from the side panels and lifted out of view. Then the Steve Wilkos backdrop is lowered. The side panels from the Springer set are then wheeled into storage, and the Wilkos set pieces are rotated onto the stage.
Matt Regney, flyman of the crew, directs traffic — slowing down movement, speeding it up, and navigating some of the trickier maneuvers of moving big pieces around each other.
Regney said his video game skills growing up come in handy. “It’s like a big game of Tetris,” he said.
Five years into the operation, most of the crew has the rhythm of the operation down. Tape markings on the stage — different colors for each show — show where the pieces go.
Once the walls of the new set are in place and the furniture is brought in, crew members bring in the carpet and vacuum it, place the furniture onstage, and sweep and mop the floors.
The swap doesn’t end with the set, though.
Out in the audience seating, the brick walls of the Jerry Springer show lift to reveal the cityscape windows of the Steve Wilkos show. The lighting is switched to a more colorful mix, and even in the hallways backstage, the Jerry Springer posters on the walls are swapped out for Steve Wilkos ones to give the show’s guests the full experience.
The 195 audience members for each episode taping of each show are mostly unique, though a few might carry over from one show to the next.
Producing four shows in one studio brings NBCUniversal a significant cost saving, Fusco said. Though each show has its own creative staff, they share security, technical and administrative personnel.
The transition from using the theater for plays to using it for TV shows has been coordinated by Tom Corbett, facilities production manager for the Stamford Media Center, who NBCUniversal executives joke came with the theater.
Once the set has been turned, the technical staff does audio, video and light checks. They test the cameras and, if it’s a special show, they might do a rehearsal.
They stagehands do a final check and, at 4:30 p.m. Then audience starts to filter in.
The production team starts to warm up the audience — the signal that the hectic 90-minute swap is done for Franzino and his crew.
For that day, at least.