Mariah Carey’s recent New Year’s Eve performance forced me to recollect one particular production nightmare that I call “Cristal and The Cash Money Millionaires.”
Early in my career, I was the Director of Catering for a large arena and conference center in Downtown Cleveland. In-between corporate and social catering, handling the food service for sporting events at the University, and a growing off-premise catering arm, I managed all the backstage requirements for the dozens of concerts we hosted throughout the year. We had them all from Prince to David Bowie, Sade to Slayer, and Eminem to Tool. The top performers had good tour managers who made my life a bit easier. This wasn’t always the case with newer groups or past-their-prime performers.
Since I’d always believed in having a backup plan, I made it a habit to call venues in which our upcoming artists had just performed to ask their team what I could expect and what last minute needs the entertainers and crew would have. I strived to be overprepared when the first trucks rolled in at 4:00 AM for the load-in. (It’s amazing how you can win over hearts and minds with a really nice spread of coffees and breakfast items.) The tour managers were always surprised to have me greet them onsite before dawn and hand over a copy of the schedule for the day along with notes, updated contracts and a la carte items I had available. The bottom line: I made customer service a priority in an industry segment that was very unfamiliar with the idea of service and being kind to your fellow man.
Our General Manager loved to book holiday shows because he thought we could make nice revenue on otherwise “dark” days. He never realized the challenge we had staffing the venue on these dates or the sheer expense of paying holiday hours to the staff willing to work. (We never made any money on these shows after crunching the labor numbers.) Beyond that, the artists, managers, production staff, union crews, bus drivers, etc. touring on holidays didn’t want to be there. Unless you were in the audience, it was fair to say that nobody wanted to spend their Easter, 4th of July or Thanksgiving with anyone else in the venue.
This brings us to New Year’s Eve 2001 where we were slated to host Ja Rule, Ludacris, Jadakiss, The Cash Money Millionaires (Juvenile, Turk, BG and a very young Lil’ Wayne), and Petey Pablo. For the most part, hip hop shows were easy. The acts showed up late, left early, and had zero budgets for backstage items. We looked the other way when they brought in their own bottles of liquor.
This particular tour was managed AND promoted by two very young, very inexperienced guys out of Miami. The first sign of trouble was when they tried to pay me in cash for extra items and insisted that “no paperwork was necessary.” We didn’t operate that way, and I knew it was going to be a long day if they started off with this practice. Around noon, I got a call from the General Manager telling me to come to his office. As I arrived, he was telling the two young promoters, “Rick can find anything in this city… you just name it!”
Since it was New Year’s Eve, the promoters wanted to supply all their artists with Cristal champagne to have on stage during each performance. Remember, this was 2001, and Jay Z had made Cristal THE only beverage that mattered. So much so that it was nearly impossible to find it with months of notice. Finding it on New Year’s Eve? Not in Cleveland. Not in stores. But… I left the office with orders to get at least ten bottles of it with $1500.00 in petty cash. Unfortunately, EACH bottled retailed for $2000.00 at that time, but, since I’d never bought a bottle of it before, I was clueless about the nightmare that lay ahead.
Four hours and seven stores later, I found the last two bottles of Cristal in the city. I had tried restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and country clubs only to come up empty-handed. No one would part with them. This particular suburban wine store was my last hope. As I stepped up to the counter to make my purchase, a woman behind me remarked that I must have a very special party to attend. I told her that they were for a concert, and I wasn’t going to enjoy them personally. Big mistake. She lost her marbles and tried to physically remove me from the store ranting about “no appreciation for fine champagne” and “I will prevent you from making a huge mistake!” The store manager had to calm her down and explain that it was my right to purchase whatever I wanted. This went on for at least ten minutes, and all that time all I could think of was getting back to make sure things were still in order. When it came time to finally pay, the clerk rang up the bottles to the tune of $2000.00. Each. Remember when I said I had $1500.00 in petty cash? Yes, I was $2500.00 short, and the store was unwilling to split the payment over cash and card. Guess who got to max out his credit card at the young age of 23 on alcohol that I wouldn’t even consume? At least a dozen thirsty rappers were going to crucify me for showing up with just two paltry bottles of Cristal. The entire situation made me uncomfortable to say the least.
Tension filled the air as I arrived back at the building. Problems had evolved between group managers, and the promoters were nowhere to be found. Doors were in two hours, and the artists were en route. I locked the Cristal in my office to keep it safe until the promoters paid for it. I immediately called the General Manager on my radio so I could get the money situation straightened out. The first thing he asked for was the petty cash back. I explained that he should sign it over to me since I wasn’t able to use it and spent money out of my own pocket to make this miracle happen. He agreed that would work and asked for the receipt. I dug in to my pocket and came up with nothing. No shred of a receipt. After having completed this miracle mission in the name of customer service, the GM told me I’d have to return to the store and get a duplicate receipt or wait a month until I got my credit card statement to submit the expense. With that, he took the cash back, picked up a call on his cell phone, and walked away.
At that moment I imagined going into my office, grabbing the bottles and smashing them on the ground in millions of expensive shards. I didn’t, but that was my mindset. The only thing I could do was be professional, do my job, and deliver the bottles to the client.
I grabbed the bottles and began my long walk to the production office where the promoters were in the midst of counting and organizing what appeared to be a quarter of a million dollars in cash, a portion of the door money for the show. I presented the Cristal to them explaining these were the only two bottles left in the whole city. I also handed them the invoice and asked them to settle it with a credit card. One of them tried to pay me in cash, but I reminded him, per our earlier conversation, that I needed a card to run to keep it all clean. Both claimed not to have a credit card and were insistent that they made a deal with the General Manager to use cash. Rather than do so, I grabbed the champagne and told them that the General Manager could make the arrangements with them in person.
Big mistake. I got reamed for not letting the clients get their way even though it was the GM’s policy to not take cash and get everything in writing with a receipt. Remember how I was going to have to wait sixty to ninety days for my credit card reimbursement? He took the bottles from me and stormed off in the direction of the lower concourse where backstage was housed. I figured I was safe for the time being and went on with my work.
The first hour of the show was pretty uneventful, and I started to let some of my staff start heading home. I retained my key supervisors knowing that I could count on them to be my eyes and ears for the rest of the long night ahead. It was early into the second hour that my radio and cell phone started erupting…
“WHERE IS THE @#$%! CRISTAL?!?!?! SOMEONE TRACK DOWN TURNER! HE WAS THE LAST ONE TO HAVE THE BOTTLES!”
This, of course, was the GM yelling over the radio to anyone working. It was one of the more unprofessional things I encountered early in my career…
I arrived in the production office to the promoters, GM and five pretty scary security guys ranting and raving. “We spent $4k on that champagne, and it’s gone! Where did you put it? Why wasn’t it locked up? Who signed for it?” I calmly explained that the last time I saw the Cristal the GM was walking it down to production. Every pair of eyes in the room locked on the GM. He explained that he was headed down, and one of “your guys” – meaning a catering person – took them from him for delivery. I asked how long ago this happened, and he explained “about 30 minutes ago.” The GM said that a catering staff member in a tuxedo asked him if he “wanted him to take them.” My staff did not wear tuxedos at concerts, only Galas and social events.
As I was explaining that my staff was long gone save for two to three key people and they were dressed casually, he nearly jumped out of his skin and screamed, “That’s him right there!” Sure enough, one of the Cash Money Millionaires’ “Posse” walked by carrying two empty bottles of Cristal and wearing an ironic tee shirt resembling a full tuxedo. It was immediately clear that the GM wasn’t paying attention and didn’t follow his own set of checks and balances. The random champagne consumer asked if he could take the champagne, and got it. Unfortunately he was asked to leave, the promoters didn’t pay for the champagne, and the GM refused to admit mistake or apologize. Did I get reimbursed? Eventually.
This production nightmare taught me the importance of professionalism and following event policy. We’ve all encountered something in our careers that has been eye opening and perhaps taught us to “never do or be that.” This was certainly my experience. Cooler heads always prevail, and I’ll never lose sight of that lesson. Oh, and always take cell phone pictures of your receipts!!!
Rick Turner is an Account Executive with Extraordinary Events. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.