SAVINI TO HELP WITH HAUNTING
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE REVIEW
September 21, 1993
By Cathy Lubenski
Tom Savini, who masterminded the special effects in Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Creepshow and other horror movies, will be transforming the I.C. Light Tent at Station Square into a Haunted Castle Oct. 1-28 for a Halloween Fright Festival.
Savini will be lending the original torsos, dummies, severed heads and other special effects he created for many of his movies to the event.
``It's a thrill for me as a Pittsburgh guy to do something here,'' Savini said at a press conference yesterday in the tent. He brought with him a dummy of Jason from Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter and a severed head as examples of his work.
``I feel lucky that I can live here and still work on movies in New York and Hollywood and Hong Kong. I'm proud to live here,'' said Savini, who operates a special effects factory in Bloomfield.
``The Gore King'' has worked with Stephen King on Creepshow, with George Romero on Dawn of the Dead and others, and directed the recent remake of Night of the Living Dead .
He's appeared five times on ``Late Night with David Letterman,'' demonstrating how his special effects work for and on Letterman.
``I created Jason in the original Friday the 13th movie,'' Savini said, ``and when they said The Final Chapter was going to be the last movie in the series, I wanted to be the one to kill him off.''
The Jason dummy on display at yesterday's press conference showed machete marks on its face after Savini took off its infamous hockey mask.
The Halloween Fright Festival will feature 27 scenes from movies including the 8-foot alien from Alien, Aliens and Alien 3.
``The scenes will be staged in total darkness with both dummies and live people, so you'll never know when someone will jump out at you,'' said Rich Engler of DiCesare Engler, which is promoting the event.
Savini will also be creating special magic illusions for the show.
In addition to Savini's contributions, the event will feature a seance tent where attempts will be made to raise the ``spirit'' of the B-25 that supposedly crashed into the Monongahela River during World War II.
The Amazing Viper Woman will display her 20-foot python, and there will be pumpkin carving and painting, a haunted hayride to the Fort Pitt Bridge and back, amusement rides, Halloween novelty items and a place to rent Halloween costumes and purchase masks and make-up. Food will be sold and Savini will be available Tuesday evenings to sign autographs.
Admission to the Halloween Fright Festival is $8.50 and tickets will be sold only at the door. Discount coupons are available at all Co-Go's stores for Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays.
``This won't be like anything you can see in the suburbs,'' Ed Traversari of DiCesare Engler said.
by Pat DiCesare
This is the story of how the DiCesare-Engler team built the successful month long Halloween show at the IC Light Amphitheatre from the ground up in the 1990s.
HALLOWEEN: CREEP FEST AT STATION SQUARE
In the early nineties I wanted to create new ideas to expand what DiCesare Engler had to offer in entertainment. While we had controlled the rock concert business for decades, I now realized a way to sell more tickets and to provide more entertainment was to promote festivals and events other than concerts. With concerts, you are limited by the availability of the artists. The artists hate to tour, and only do so when forced to due to either a new record release whereby the record company insists upon a tour to promote the new release. But, there was only one copy of the act and only one city was going to get the act. The live in concert business is unlike the movie business, where twenty theatres in the same city would get to exhibit the same film along with every city in the country. If an act decided to tour, thirty days might be as long as they were willing to go out and your city might not always get the show.
HOW ABOUT SPORTING EVENTS?
I had some success in the past doing sporting events. I was very successful along with my friend Sonny Vaccaro in creating The Dapper Dan Roundball Classic. Back in the day, I started to promote wrestling with “Ace” Freeman at the County Field House in Erie. I also did some Bruno Sammartino events in various cities around Pittsburgh.
I was taking karate classes with my youngest son Jacob in the early nineties. One day one of the instructors came to me with a new idea for a sport that he wanted to call “The Tough Man Contest.” His idea was to put anybody into a ring to fight an opponent. It could be a boxer fighting a wrestler or a street fighter against a trained judo expert – it was “anything goes.” It hadn’t been done yet. He wanted me to promote the idea with him and his associate as partners. I did the first one at The War Memorial Arena in Johnstown.
Prior to the start of the show, I went to the dressing room areas and saw the people who were going to fight. I thought for a moment, “This must be how the Roman Gladiators felt when they were fighting to their death in the Coliseum.” The contestants came in all sizes. There were those who were humongous and others who looked so small. I thought “some of these guys are going to get hurt. They have no training.”
I sat at ringside with the time keeper and doctor. When the first fight started, being so close to the ring, I could see the stress in the underdog. After a few seconds, I told the time keeper, “We have to stop this fight. That big guy is going to get killed.” Street fighters thought that just because they were big or could fight at a bar after a few drinks that they could hold their own in the ring. It just wasn’t so. I just prayed that no one got killed. We got through the night with only some bad bruises. But I decided that I didn’t want to be in that part of fight promotions.
Of course it’s big business today, but I have no regrets. I didn’t feel good about promoting that kind thing. I remember that I lost money on that one event, and my partners didn’t want to pay their part of the loss. They, like many others, think that we promoters only make money. They don’t realize that an arena can be packed, but we only make money when all the seats are sold. Most spectators never notice the empty seats. Many times patrons would tell me, “I see you’re sold out tonight.” I want to say to them, “don’t you see those 1,000 empty seats scattered throughout? That ‘s where my profit comes from.” The audience always thought we made a fortune. I wish that was the case.
Fran DeLallo of the very well known DeLallo’s Italian Food Co. started an Italian Festival at Station Square. He ran it for a few years before we were involved with the amphitheatre at Station Square. At the time, the Station Square Amphitheatre was called The Melody Tent and was owned by Chaz Schaldenbrand and Bill Roberts. Chaz owned a men’s clothing store at Station Square. Bill worked in advertising, publicity, and promotion for Arthur Ziegler, who ran the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, which leased Station Square from the railroad. Arthur did an excellent job turning an eyesore into one of the most successful and beautiful parts of the city.
Chaz and Bill did a good job promoting events at the tent with what little they had. They knew that it was a full time job that needed attention and money. They came to DiCesare Engler to see if we would promote some of our concerts there. At first we weren’t too interested, however Rich Engler found some shows that he thought might work. We thought the outdoors might be an attraction even though at the time it was just a tent. After we did a few shows, Chaz and Bill were so happy that they wanted us to join them as partners. Eventually we bought them out and expanded the facility, and my job became to turn it into what became known as the IC Light Amphitheatre (and later Chevrolet Amphitheatre). Arthur Zeigler was very happy with us because we created revenue in the form of parking fees. Needless to say, the retailers and the restaurant owners were glad with the traffic we created.
The key to financial success for the amphitheatre was getting sponsorship money. To get that meant that we had to create many more events at the new facility yet to be named. We, of course, would change the name from The Melody Amphitheatre to a sponsor’s name. The sponsor had to pay us enough to put their name on the venue. In exchange, the title sponsor would get a guarantee of so many shows or events per season. This left us with the task of creating more events.
Rich and I were often at odds each season over the number of dates we should promote. Through the efforts of Joe O’Donnell , who sold sponsorships, The Pittsburgh Brewing Company paid us $225,000 a year for naming rights. That’s, of course, how it got the name IC Light Amphitheatre. In addition, we had to guarantee the brewery that we would do a minimum of 20 shows a season, which was feasible. We were very careful to book shows that we thought could make money. In addition to ticket sales we also had the concessions. T Shirts and beer sales were a big part of the bottom line. It was alright if we lost money on some of the shows because we had extra income from the beer sales and the sponsorship money. That’s where the real money is. The trick was not to do more than twenty shows unless it was a real blockbuster. Rich understood this. However, he was always being pressured by agents when they needed an open date filled for an artist. It was fine if it was an established act that could sell tickets. Too often the pressure was exerted by the agent to get a new unproven act the date. We were at great risk to lose money.
THE RIB FESTIVAL
One day we got a call from a small promoter from Cleveland who told us that he had done a successful Rib Festival at the stadium in Cleveland and asked if we would want to be his partner in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium. The manager of the stadium at the time was Jimmy Sacco. I had given Jimmy his start in the business when his uncle Sammy who was a ticket taker at the Civic Arena and whom I liked very much said to me one night at the arena during a show, “Pat, I want you to take my young nephew under your wing and teach him this business. Can you give him a job”? “Sure Sammy, anything I can do for you I will. What is he doing now”, I asked. “Nothing. He knows nothing. He’s my sister’s boy. You take care of him, OK?” he said . Having Sammy in my corner at the arena wasn’t a bad idea. I could depend on him letting me know if anyone at the arena was trying to pull something over on me. Sammy was a well liked guy by everyone, and I was glad to have him on my side. I gave Jimmy a small job as a security person who worked our shows. I eventually made him head of security. From there he went on to the arena then to Three Rivers Stadium and he is now with the Steelers at Heinz Field as the GM of the Stadium.
We knew if we wanted to make money at the stadium with an event it would be difficult because there are so many unions to deal with and they made the costs escalate. The Stadium was the most expensive place to hold an event. You have a greater potential to lose big if you don’t draw large crowds. Breaking even is a challenge. I did the first concerts at the stadium and was well aware of the many problems that I didn’t have at other facilities. But fortunately, this event would be outside of the stadium.
We met with Jimmy Sacco and told him of the plans for the Rib Fest. He liked the idea of a non sporting event. It made him look good to the Stadium Board. But we told him, “Jimmy in order for us to do this event here, we have to keep our expenses low and have ways to increase our income.” We went on to tell him, “Give us a break with the rent and create a way that we can share in your concessions.” He knew what he had to do and he came up with an acceptable deal. We did the event on a hot summer weekend. Rich booked some great bands for each night. Ed Traversari did a great job promoting the event. Radio stations, especially WDVE and John Cigna at KDKA radio, loved to have Ed come in to the studio and do live interviews. Ed knew how to reach these guys. Not only did he have interesting tidbits of information, he also would bring a sampling of great tasting ribs for the on air personality and the staff.
In addition to having great entertainment, the real hook was having great rib vendors. Our partner knew all the best rib guys from all over the country and based on his success in Cleveland, these guys were willing to try Pittsburgh which up until now was an unproven rib market. We learned that the best rib guys came from the South in states like Texas and North Carolina. The real professionals had their trade down to every little detail. Their set up was a show in itself. This made it easier for Ed to get the TV stations to come to the event to cover it. The Rib Fest was very successful .
“WHAT DO YOU DO FOR HALLOWEEN?”
The Rib Fest ran a long weekend Friday and Saturday from noon until midnight and noon until around 8pm on Sunday. Everyone was tired when it was over. We had the book work left to do so we told our Cleveland partners we would do the final settlement in our office on Monday. However that evening while at the stadium waiting for the event to end, our Cleveland partner said to me, “What do you do for Halloween?”
I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “Don’t you do any Halloween event?”
“No.” All the little towns have Halloween fund raiser events. It seems there are a lot of places for people to go already.”
“That’s just the point, if you did a big event for the month of October and promote it the way we did the Rib Festival, you could be successful. You think about it and if you want me as a partner, I will be glad to help you.” he said.
Since we had started doing extra non concert events, I paid special attention to what he had to say. At the time, I belonged to an organization called The International Festival Association. Festival promoters from all over the world were members. Each year they would have a convention and discuss festival ideas. I had made a few acquaintances at these conventions and kept in touch with them. I made a lot of contacts through the IFA and I was able to purchase a lot of “how to” books for producing and promoting a Halloween event. Although most of the events being done were small, I knew that if we got into it, it would have to be on a much larger scale.
That Monday after the Rib Fest we settled our account with our partner. He was very happy because the event was successful and we all made a lot of money. He asked about doing the Halloween show in Pittsburgh. He thought he would come in and do the event on his own if we didn’t do it. I had to tell him that the partnership could not continue and, we would look into doing a Halloween show on our own. We had to be protective of our territory. We were not interested in developing an outside promoter in Pittsburgh. If he wanted to do another city as partners, we would consider that but I told him not to think that we would continue to let him be our partner here.
Rich, Ed and I all liked the idea of doing an event at the tent for the month of October. We didn’t do anything in the way of concerts there at that time because it was too cold. I went to Arthur Zeigler with the idea. Since Arthur ran all of Station Square for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, he had to approve of any show that we did at that facility before we announced the show. If he didn’t like the act or idea, we couldn’t play it. He was more than fair about letting us play what we presented. He usually wanted me personally to present the names of the artist because I gave him my word that I would never bring anything into Station Square that would cause him any embarrassment or property damage to his tenants or his real estate. He believed me because he knew that I owned real estate and had tenants and I knew what he was up against. I meant that and took it very seriously. One time Rich came to me and said ”I have a chance to book this act for a concert at Station Square, but you better go to see Arthur and allay his fears first”.
I said, “How bad is the act?”
I knew Rich would never bring in a controversial act. “There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just their name – “Bare Naked Ladies.” You are going to have to explain that they are not like their name implies.” I did have a face to face meeting with Arthur and assured him that it would be a reputable show.
Now I had to explain Halloween to him. I was reluctant to even talk with Arthur about Halloween. I had nothing to work with at the time but ideas that were still in our heads. When he and I met to go over our concept of the Halloween plans, I was surprised at how easy it was. He immediately said, “You will draw huge crowds. You have to figure a way to get them in and out quickly. Show me your security plan and how you will handle the crowds. This will be big. I know because I let a charitable group do something years ago and they couldn’t handle the crowds. They weren’t organized. They had all volunteer help that didn’t always show up when they were needed. After a couple of years, they dropped their plans. I think it was too much work and aggravation and not enough money.” After hearing that, I was really excited about doing the event. But, now what? We had an idea but nothing else. We had no idea of what we should do. We were in the middle of doing all the concerts that we had set for the summer. This took most of our time. However, I decided no matter how busy I was that this was an idea worth devoting time to.
PULLING THE DICESARE-ENGLER TEAM TOGETHER
Rich, Ed and I met again to discuss the feasibility of producing the event. After we decided that we liked the idea, I called for another meeting at our conference room at our office on Penn Avenue. In attendance were Monica Pacharis who was considered my assistant, but she was much more than that. She was capable of doing any event on her own. Hours meant nothing to her and she had creative ideas. Michael Stienmetz was one of our in house stagehands, who was creative and had good ideas. He worked very closely with me in creating and setting up the Thrift Drug Celebration of Lights at Hartwood Acres - another very successful promotion idea that I had created “out of my head on the spur of the moment”. Mike proved to be creative in coming up with original ideas. In addition, he introduced me to several students and faculty members of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh whom we employed to join our team. My son Patrick, who was doing very successful sports card show promotions and was much more in tune with Halloween than I was. He had great ideas. We also had Sheldon Sorber, who originally was our limo driver for the acts until we found out he knew how to do electrical work. He was also a great aide at The Thrift Drug Celebration of Lights Show at Hartwood Acres. Time meant nothing to him. I knew I could depend on him to work outside in the snow changing burned out bulbs or power outages whenever that happened. He was a real asset. Bill Backa was our sponsorship sales person. My brother Joe was our box office manager along with his wife Fran and Joe Smetana. I knew if we had to keep the lines moving quickly, Joe could get it done. People loved working for Joe. He knew we had to get our patrons from waiting in the long lines outside our facility and get them inside quickly. Barton Wooley was Ed’s assistant and a great PR person. Usually, it was difficult to get this many people together for a meeting. I knew the meeting could go on for hours and nobody wanted that to happen. We were all busy. We had shows coming up and everyone would want to get out of the meeting quickly. That wasn’t going to be the situation.
We got all of these people together, and I opened up the meeting by explaining what we wanted to do. We let everyone have their say about what part they were expected to play and what contribution they could make. Everyone had good ideas and thought we should explore the possibility of doing the event. We knew we needed other meetings and I said I would meet with each individual separately. I had given them an outline of the meeting and a brief explanation of what I was expecting from each of them. I needed to know if everyone thought that we could do well. Can the show at least break even? I also needed to figure out when the show should open and what the ticket price should be.
Everyone was convinced that we should do the show and that it would do well. I could feel the excitement in the room. I felt the same way at this team meeting as I did when I presented the idea to Arthur. This excitement that was created was good for the team. I could smell success based on their enthusiasm. They thought the ticket prices could be between $7.50 and $10 so that families could come. The most critical thing was the starting date and we all thought it should run through the month of October and we must start advertising starting at the beginning of September as a WDVE “Presents.” It would be up to Ed to convince WDVE.
SEPTEMBER: FESTIVAL SEASON AT STATION SQUARE
Generally, the way we ended the summer season was by finishing the month of August with concerts. The month of September was dedicated to festivals. We normally didn’t book concerts in between the festival dates unless it was a real winner because we had to get set up for each festival and they were each set up differently.
Friday through Monday of every Labor Day weekend was reserved for The Italian Festival, the next weekend was The German Festival, and the third weekend was the Irish Festival. This meant if we wanted to open for Halloween on October 1 that we would have to build our show in ten days. Is that possible? I knew I would have to make it work, but it was going to be a challenge.
We had to come up with the ideas , get plans drawn, line up the subcontractors, which included carpenters, electricians, plumbers, sound and light technicians, fireproofing, artists, painters, creative people, wardrobe personnel, make up department and general laborers. In addition, a department had to be organized to obtain props and decorations. Used furniture had to be purchased and stored until ready. Scenes had to be created and built.
BUILDING THE SHOW
By August, we still had no plans sketched out for the Halloween Event. That meant that I had almost 9 weeks before opening night on October 1st, but only about six weeks to create the ideas for the show, put them on paper draw the plans, have the artists sketch the scenes, create a storyboard for at least 30 to 40 scary scenes. The storyboards would give us an idea of what furniture, fixtures and equipment would be needed. I could allow two weeks to decide what the show should be and consist of and another two weeks to gather all the equipment, materials, and supplies. This would take us to the first of September. Now we would have to build the show, but we couldn’t get onto the lot until the Irish Fest was over and that meant another three weeks.
I knew the only way we could bring everything together was by working 24 hours a day. We needed to have 3 crews if necessary. We had our regular guys that we used for concerts who could work, but I didn’t have three crews. If I found them, who would be willing to work at midnight until 8 in the morning and on weekends? It seemed impossible to get this show ready.
During this time, I was doing an addition on my home in Greensburg. Bill Barnes and his son Bill who lived near me were good skilled finish carpenters. I liked Bill and his son and their work. They worked fulltime for Maronda Homes and were quite busy. They were doing me a favor by working at my house. I think they liked working for me because of show business. I immediately thought that they would be great for building our sets. I mentioned it to Bill and he at first turned me down. “I just don’t have any time. Maronda keeps me busy. I took this time off for you. They didn’t like that.” Bill said. “I’d like to see the job first,” he continued. One thing I learned was that every guy who does remodeling work starts out with, “I have to see the job first.”
“No problem Bill. Why don’t you bring your wife, your son, and his friend down to see a concert this weekend and I can show you what I mean,” I said.
“Ok, I’ll talk to the wife,” he said. They came to the show and they fell in love with “showbiz.” He was hooked. “OK, I will tell Maronda I need a week off. When do you need me to start?” he said.
“Well Bill, that’s another story. I only have a few days for you to build these rooms and some scenes. You see I have all these shows in September. Do you think you could get me guys to work around the clock for a few weeks?” I asked.
“Around the clock and on weekends are you crazy, nobody will do that. I can’t do that.” he yelled.
“Yeah, I was afraid of that.” I said. “But how much time can you give me and how many days?” I asked.
“You know it takes me about an hour and a half just to get here.” he said.
“I drive it every day,” I said.
“You know you’re crazy,” he said.
“Yeah, I’ve been told that, too, but I need you Bill. Can you help me out?” I begged. After a period of silence, he looked at his wife and she nodded her head and he said, ”Yeah, I’m probably crazy too but we’ll help you.”
ACTORS WANTED – DICESARE-ENGLER
By now, I had to answer the question, “What is this show all about?” What did we have and what could we make it? Ed put an ad out “Actors wanted-DiCesare Engler.” We got inundated with calls immediately. I took a lot of the phone calls and interviewed these people.
“What do you have going on? is this a movie, a play, or musical?” I would be asked.
“Well, yeah but it is a Halloween show,” I said.
“Yeah what’s the story about?” they would ask?
“Look, it’s a fright show - A Haunted House. Do you want to be in it? It pays minimum wage.” I said equally as disgusted as some of these aspiring actors.
“Well OK, but what’s my part?” they would ask.
"What would you like it to be?” I asked. I was looking for people who were into Halloween and fright. I was desperate and looking for suggestions. Many of them got so excited to be involved that they enjoyed trying to create ideas. They knew fright movies and offered great suggestions.
WHAT’S MY BUDGET?
Someone suggested that I hire a consultant who could take over the mundane work that I was faced with regarding creating the script and scenes for the show and the haunted houses and all the other attractions that we should offer. It should be someone with experience who had done this before.
I said to the person offering this advice. “It sounds like this might be worthwhile. Do you know of such a person?”
“Yes, would you like to talk to him?” she said.
“Sure, what experience does he have?” I asked.
“A very successful haunted house in the North Hills.” she said.
“Ok get him here ASAP.” I said excitedly. The next day the person came to my office with a portfolio that was very impressive. He displayed drawings of several scenes and explained them. Then he asked, “What is your budget?”
I repeated, ”My budget?”
“Yes,” he said. “I want to know what your budget is and that way I can tell you what my fee will be for putting this show on from today until the end of October. I will conceive the show, build it, and run the event. You won’t have to do one thing. Leave everything to me.”
I asked, “Your fee? Exactly what did you have in mind?”
“I want 20% of the budget and I want the opportunity to make at least $50,000 for my work. You will make a lot of money and I deserve my share,” he said rather confidently.
I said, ”Let me see if I understand the math. If you want $50,000 and that’s 20% - you feel that I need a $250,000 budget.”
“Yes that’s correct, of course you will have your rent, advertising, payroll, utilities, and that is all extra.” he said.
“Yes, I understand. Yes that is all extra,” I said as I got up out of my chair and walked towards the easels that he had displayed his drawings. As I gathered his drawings and walked toward him with one hand extended to shake his and returning his drawings, I said, “Thanks very much for coming in, but I don’t think we can do any business.”
I thought to myself. “A $250,000 budget plus all the “extras?” I was starting to realize just how much will have to go into this project. So, I got busy to see what this is going to cost us and how we were going to make it happen. I called Ed. “You can get all the advertising with very little money can’t you?” I asked?
“Yes, I will try.” He said. I never like it when someone says, “I will try.” To me, that sounds like an excuse something like, “Well if I get it done fine. And if I can’t, well you can’t blame me because I only said I would try.”
But Ed was good at what he did and I knew that he could do it. I asked, “How much and when do we have to pay?”
“Maybe $25,000 all in – max. No problem, we can pay after the show”, he said. OK I thought. I’m not worried about utilities. I wasn’t worried about paying the rent because there wasn’t any. The deal we made with Arthur was so long as we brought him parking revenue and customers for his tenants, we wouldn’t have to pay any rent. Our big expense was building the show. We needed building materials and labor that had to be paid as we used them. We then needed furnishings for all the rooms.
I had a meeting with our in house stagehands Mike Steinmetz, Bob Cook, Larry and Sheldon Sorber. They assured me that “we could build this ‘out of spit’ - it won’t cost you anything. “ Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I thought if we could build the show for $50,000, it might fit into our budget until we get on sale. We did that a lot in the concert business. We would put a show on sale perhaps six months in advance. If the show was hot and sold out, we had use of that money until that date played. We would then put the next show on sale. Fortunately, we had a lot of shows going at one time. We created our own banking system using our box office.
Time was running out. I had wasted two weeks just spinning my wheels. I started interviewing actors and artists. We saw a lot more Art Institute of Pittsburgh students who were eager to get involved. One by one I would have them come to my office, sit across from my desk, and listen to their ideas.
“I have this great scare scene. We set up a kitchen. It’s totally dark and when you walk near the refrigerator the door pops open. The light comes on. And I jump out at you. Or I could have a sensor on the oven and the oven door pops open and you see a live head being roasted in the oven. Or we do both!” he would say with excitement.
“It’s great I love it.” I pulled $100 bill from my pocket and said, “Here’s a hundred bucks for your materials . In addition I’ll hire you as the actor.” I said.
“You want me to do that for a $100? How am I going to do that?” he asked.
“I don’t know? Don’t you have some old furniture around or know someone who wants to get rid of their old appliances?” I said. A couple days later, he came back in and said, “I got everything I needed for my scene. I have a refrigerator, stove, tables and chairs.”
“Wow. How did you get all that for a hundred bucks? How much did it cost?” I asked. “Nothing.” he said proudly.
“Nothing. How did you do that?” I asked.
“I knew some people who had these and wanted to throw them out. They are perfect.” He said. That’s the way it went. Everyone that was a part of the show came up with a lot of the props that we needed on their own. We didn’t have to spend a lot of money.
TOM SAVINI’S HAUNTED CASTLE
I had a meeting with Tom Savini in my office. We had decided to hire Tom as a consultant. Tom was famous for making body parts for directors like George Romero who was famous for “Night of The Living Dead.” When I first met Tom, I thought he was really weird. But that really didn’t bother me. I liked that he looked as though he could have been a character in a horror film. He made me feel like he was dedicated to his profession. He came in with a girl whom I assumed was his girlfriend. She looked like she could have been an actress in a horror film as well. She reminded me of “Morticia Adams.” I didn’t know much about him, buy I knew he was successful in his industry.
After we greeted each other, Tom wasted no time. “OK what do you guys have here? What do you want to do? Right now I am doing a Haunted House for a guy in Boston who has the biggest show in the country. He will do a million dollars worth of business this season. He has 3 haunted houses, a hay ride, maze, kiddie land, a midway. He keeps me busy. You are lucky that I happen to be home for a few days,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. My fee with him is $12,000. I will get you guys my props, my name, and give you all the ideas you want for $6,000. But I can’t give you much if any time. Let’s not waste any time, you know my credits, we don’t need to go through that, I’m in a hurry. What do you want to do?” he said. “With me you will have one complete house you can call it ‘The Nightmare Castle’ ?” he said.
“We’ll pay you at the end of the show.” I said.
“No, I want a 50% deposit and a signed contract.” he said.
“A grand now and we’ll pay you a grand each week. You’ll have the six before the end of the run. But, I would like to see what we are getting and what you will be doing for us before you leave for Boston.” I said.
“Fine, you can come up to my studio now if you would like. It’s in Bloomfield, only a few minutes from here.” he said.
I went with Tom and was very impressed. He had containers full of “body parts” that he used for different movies. The most impressive work was “Alien.” Tom knew his business and I was glad to have him on our side. If we needed him and couldn’t contact him, he always managed to return our calls. He was a gentleman. I felt grateful that he was from Pittsburgh.
Tom told us everything that made the guy in Boston successful. He gave us great suggestions. He thought we should have at least 3 haunted houses. We billed our show as Tom Savini’s Haunted Castle. We named one of the other haunted houses the “Nightmare Castle,” which was nothing more than a maze that was totally dark with hidden actors who jumped out at you at each corner. “Cockroach Cavern” which had crunching ‘things’ under people’s feet as they walked was the third one. As you walked through this area, you felt like you were walking on cockroaches and squiggly things. We also had “Kiddie Krypt” for children with good witches and happy ghosts. In addition we would have a hay ride called “Psycho Path” located in the back parking lot, which was naturally very dark. My son Patrick ran this part of the show. He chased the hay ride with a chainsaw with no chain. Everyone was afraid of the noise of the chainsaw. There were at least a dozen scary scenes on the hayride with our actors portraying different “crazies” and Halloween characters such as a mad scientist, Gorillas, and Frankenstien. We brought in several farm wagons with hay and a couple of farm tractors that pulled the wagons. It was a favorite.
Ed and Rich thought it would be great to have some carnival rides. I talked to Swank Amusement who said they normally put their rides in storage after Labor Day. But, the guy agreed to leave 3 or 4 rides out of storage and bring to Station Square for the month if we would let him have his games and some food items. I wanted a Ferris Wheel. It was great publicity since it could be seen from the parkway. When people saw it in motion, they knew something was going on in Station Square. We also had a Tilt A Whirl, a large swing and a kiddie ride. Swank brought the rides in for $3,500 for the month. We called this the “Monster Midway”.
We had other attractions like “Drown A Clown.” He was perched up on a seat above a large tub of water. For a buck, you got three baseballs and a chance to “Dunk the Clown.” To motivate people, he would hurl insulting remarks as you walked be. He had a lot of experience and knew how to irritate people into wanting to spend their money. Whenever a heavy set woman walked by, he would say, “No more Happy Meals for you -ha ha ha.” Instantly, she came up with a buck.
WE CAN SLEEP IN NOVEMBER
We finally were getting done with the festivals. The Irish Festival was the last one. Sunday was the last day of the Irish Festival. Usually, the crowds left around 7. Some of the vendors were starting to pack up. I had a crew of about 20 general laborers who were available to assist any of the Festival vendors pack and get out early. The cleaners were there to sweep and empty trash. As patrons got up from their tables, our workers folded the tables and chairs and loaded them into trailer trucks that were behind the gates in the back parking lots. I had purchased four trailer trucks that my friend John Shasko made available to me in order to store all of our equipment during the off season.
We needed more space for the new sets we made for Halloween. As we made the sets during September, we stored them in these trailers until we were ready to set them in place. We then drove the trailers right to where we needed them. By 10pm we had the amphitheatre completely cleared of anything from the Irish Festival. Now we could begin construction. You would think that these workers would be tired at this late hour, but that wasn’t the case. Nobody complained and everyone was eager to build. People like Bob Cook and his side kick Larry who were two of our stagehands were my main guys to get things rolling. Bill Barnes and his son Bill and their crew got moving building the walls. The first thing I did was get spray paint and sprayed the floor exactly where I knew that the being built would be located. With Bill Barnes help and the drawings that we had, we laid out the houses. Sheldon Sorber knew where he had to run the power. Mike Steinmetz got some special effects people and sound guys and started installation. We needed the walls to go up quickly. We pushed Bill, and when he couldn’t go fast enough the other guys started to contribute their efforts to getting the walls up. By morning we made some great headway. The guys were tired. Some slept for a few hours in the dressing rooms, some in their cars. No one complained or wanted to go home at this point. We continued working through the day and into the night. With all the lights on, people would come over and ask, “What are you doing?”
We would answer, “Do you want to work?” We hired anyone we could.
Others would come up to us and say, “Is this where the Halloween show is going to be? Can I get a job?”
“Can you breathe? Start carrying this pile of plywood that’s on the truck in to the middle of the tent.” I said. After five days, Bill had most of the rooms built. He was tired and said he would have to be leaving.
I said, “Bill, you can’t leave me now. Just stay through the weekend.” He moaned and groaned for awhile and he reluctantly agreed. We painted every wall black. Anybody and everybody painted plywood which was used for our walls black. After they were put in place, the artist would paint scenes on the walls and those that were in charge of creating their “scary scene” were given the go-ahead to “get it done.” The art students loved it. We had some complaints, but for the most part things were going well. It was an enormous amount of work with very little time, but I always knew we could do it. When someone would come up and say, “We open up in 2 days. We are never going to be ready.” I told them, “Every opening night is like this. You work on the show right up to the time the doors open. Don’t worry.” In addition I would tell them, “We are going to open tomorrow whether we are ready or not. We will keep all the lights off and when our patrons come in, we will scare them with actors. That’s their job to scare even if we didn’t have all the props or scenes completed. It’s the actors who are going to create the scare. We can always finish up what we don’t get done when tonight’s show is over until tomorrow night’s show.” One of the actors yelled out, “Don’t worry. We can sleep in November.”
“LET’S GO ON WITH THE SHOW”
“It’s showtime,” someone yelled out.
“I am still painting!” someone else yelled. The tent was about 5,000 square feet of space and with all the rooms and hallways we created. You couldn’t hear from one end to another.
The person in charge of costumes ran around shouting “All of you workers who are actors - get to the wardrobe rooms and get dressed.” There were to be separate dressing rooms for the guys and girls, but no one seemed to care. Everyone was too nervous to think about that. The make up person shouted similar instructions followed by the person in charge of the actors.
My brother Joe came running to get me he was in his costume and at first I didn’t recognize him and when he saw me he said, “They’re in a line from our box office down to the Sheraton Hotel. You better do something quick or Arthur is going to be on you.”
“Yeah, we are going to take them in fast Joe. Let me get a mask on and give me a roll of tickets and Kathy will go with me. I am going to go down the line outside and sell tickets. Can you get all four windows open now? Start selling and let them get into the midway and form another line to get inside,” I said.
“Actors, get into your places the doors are going to open in two minutes,” I yelled.
“God damn it Pat, I’m still painting.” Bob said.
“I don’t have the sound hooked up. These lights won’t stay on. Where’s Sheldon when you need him?” Mike yelled.
“I’m up on the roof tying this tent down. Do you want it falling on people? Where’s my mask?” he yelled.
Everyone was shouting and in panic. “People, don’t worry everything is going to be fine. The audience won’t have any idea that we are not ready. Actors do your job and scare them. We are open people. Let’s get on with the show,” I yelled out.
SHOWBIZ – “ALWAYS A GAMBLE”
That was it, we opened the doors. I didn’t have a chance to figure “our break even point,” which is something I always knew whenever I did a show. I was too caught up in the construction. But I knew that the sets we were building, which was the major expense, would be good for several years. We could use all the walls, sound and lights, special effects, costumes, trailers, etc over and over year after year. The big expense was the actors – just because we had so many of them. We employed almost 200 people a night who worked 6 to 8 hours per night. We didn’t want them to work more than 40 hours per week. That meant we needed at least 150 workers. I did a “back of an envelope” calculation before I took the numbers to our in house accountant Bill Proper. Bill was a good guy who could crunch the numbers. I figured we needed around 800 paid admissions per night. We charged $8.50. But that was a very rough number. I did wonder if we could do that every night for 30 nights. That would be 24,000 paid admissions just to break even. I thought to myself, “That’s a lot of people. Am I doing the right thing?” That’s the way the promotion business is – always a gamble. You never know if you are going to make money. But I did have a good feeling for this show and that’s one thing I would always go with - instinct. That’s what got me through the music business. I had good ears and if I felt good about a new record or artist, I knew I could make money.
We were open at 7pm and would close at 11pm during the week and midnight on weekends. With all the excitement and problem solving and dealing with all the uncertainties, the night flew by. We had no real problems or complaints and it looked like people were really enjoying themselves. We could tell by the number of screams coming from the tent if people were enjoying it. From time to time, Rich would say, ”I don’t hear enough screams. I’m going into the Nightmare Castle and see if these actors are at their position.” He would put on his mask and go in to check on them. We all wore a costume and we all checked on the actors. Scaring people can be tedious and boring for some after several hours. For those people, you have to keep them on their toes. Others love to scare people. We had a few actors who had contests with other actors to see who could make more people ‘pee’ themselves.
One of the favorite attractions was our fortune teller. For only $5.00 she would tell you the future. The first night of the show our beverage manager Gordon Sauers went into her tent for a “reading.” When she was done telling him of his “fortune,” he said to her, ”Can you tell me what number is going to hit on the lottery tomorrow?”
“Yes, play 846.” she said. He went to the box office and told my brother Joe what she had said. The next day, Gordon played the number but Joe didn’t. At 7pm that night, since everyone in the box office playes the lottery they were all tuned in to the lottery announcement.
About 8 that night, I stopped in to the box office and Joe said to me, “I’m so damned mad at myself.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked?
“That damn fortune teller gave Gordon the number to play and it hit – straight,” he said.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“I didn’t play it,” he said. Gordon went back to the fortune teller that night and had his fortune told again, and again when he was finished he asked the fortune teller, “Can you give the lottery winner for tomorrow?” Again, she gave him the number to play. Gordon came to the box office and told Joe, Frannie, and Joe Smetana the number that the fortune teller gave him. The next night I stopped in the box office and again Joe was upset.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“Oh it’s that damned fortune teller. She gave Gordon a number to play today. I figured she could never give him the numbers that were going to hit two nights in a row, so I didn’t play it and it hit – straight.” The next night Gordon went to the fortune teller and got a number again. Joe wasn’t taking any chances and he played the number. Everyone in the box office did. The number didn’t hit. I guess she’s human after all.
Later in the night, I went into the box office and said to my brother Joe, “How are we doing?” He always knew at all times down to the last nickel what we had sold and the gross amount of dollars. “We’ll do 4,000 paid.” he said.
“What? You mean we have 4000 people in there?” I asked.
“Sure, what do you think?” he said. I knew it was crowded and there were a lot of lines inside the tent waiting to get in different attractions or rides, but my mind was set on the 800 people to breakeven. This was fantastic. I thought, “This couldn’t continue.” People were going to try us out first. If the word was good, they would tell others and we would do well.
We got through the first night even though we weren’t completely finished. We had a tent where all the actors gathered to dress or do make up and just to take a break. At the end of that night everyone gathered there to change from their costume back into street clothes. I went to the tent and when I saw all of them. I was surprised. They were over worked and tired, but no one complained. They were celebrating and congratulating themselves. They had this competition among themselves over who could make the audience more frightened. I sat among them and listened and then I said, “We are having some pizza delivered any minute now. I want to thank you for doing a great job. Not only as actors, but as artists and creators for the sets. You know we are not done building. Who wants to work tomorrow starting at 9 We have to finish building the show?”
Someone yelled out, “The wall in my room fell down, it needs repaired.”
Someone else yelled, “My lights aren’t working right.”
I said, ”We will fix those things. Does anyone want to come in tomorrow morning at 9 to do these things?”
It seemed everyone wanted to help. They all said, “Count me in, I’ll be here.”
Sheldon came up to me and said, “You know, I have been sleeping here every night and now that we are open, don’t you think you will need a night watch man?”
“Why, yes, I suppose you are right.” I said.
“I’d like to do that. I could repair anything that needs to be done and my dog and I could watch the place.” he said.
“But, where would you sleep?” I asked.
“In my truck.” he said. The next day, I bought a camper and had it delivered to the tent. When it was delivered, I called Sheldon to come to my office. When he walked into my office, he said, “Whose camper is that out front?” I threw the keys at him and said, “It’s yours, the night watch man and his dog has to sleep somewhere.” A big smile came over his face.
On the weekends we would do 4,000 people per night. The best night we had was a Friday the week before Halloween when we did over 5,000 people. As we got to the week before Halloween the attendance died down because the local Haunted Houses opened and they drew the locals away from us. But when it was all over we had about 50,000 patrons, grossed about $350,000, and netted over $100,000. The show was over. Now we had to tear it down, put it in the trailer trucks, and store it for a year when we get to do it over again. During October I went to a few other Haunted Houses just to compare them to ours. After seeing our competition, I was convinced we had done a great job. I did go to the one in Boston and it was fantastic. I became friends with the guy who produced the event thanks to Tom Savini. He taught me a lot about the business and we began to trade some scene ideas. He grossed into the millions of dollars and was open all year. You could have your birthday party or any other type of event including your wedding, anytime of the year there. It was the most fantastic place.
LET’S TAKE THE SHOW ON THE ROAD
At the end of our event, I immediately began planning for the next season. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. I decided to take the show on the road. I called some of the other concert promoters in other cities to see if there was any interest in promoting a Halloween show. My proposal was that we would split the expenses and income fifty/fifty. I would plan exactly what we did in Pittsburgh and our out of town partners would copy what we did. I would stay in contact with them daily. We had three interested cities. Larry Magid and Allan Spivak were the promoters in Philadelphia – Electric Factory. They were good promoters. I spoke with Allan. He seemed interested. I spent a few days looking for sites with him in Philadelphia. I spoke with one of his competitors who had an excellent facility. Our concept at Station Square in Pittsburgh was what I called “the cattle call.” We herded masses of people through our haunted house as fast as we could. Here, the promoter wanted only four people in at a time. He was very particular that each group of four experienced the whole show before he brought in another group of four. I thought artistically this was great, but you couldn’t make any money because you can’t get enough people through. He always had long lines waiting to get in, but at the end of the night, he hardly grossed any money. I found a great site that consisted of an abandoned church with acres of land and an adjacent graveyard. I was able to rent it. I wanted to do the show on that site, but was unable to get a permit. Allan found a site. It wasn’t the best, but we thought it would work.
Mario Tambellini, my brother Joe’s son in law knew through Joe that we had done well in Pittsburgh. He wanted to do the event in Orange County, CA. He found a site at the Orange County Fairgrounds. He knew that the amusement park in Orange County did a Haunted House and was charging $33 per person. They limited their attendance to only 30,000 people. We went to see it. We got there two hours ahead of time so that we could get in. They sold tickets in advance and sold out. Could you imagine that they grossed $1,000,000 a night? I wanted to see that show. It was the greatest show, second to the one in Boston. But it started wheels turning for me to go to Kwennywood and Hershey.
Monica Pacharis went to Baltimore and found a location with a concert promoter that we knew. We now had three sites and decided that might be enough. We worked on all four shows throughout the year. We knew we had to change some of the houses and the scenes for Pittsburgh. We couldn’t come back with the same show. People would expect to see something different. We did make some small changes. When it came time to open up for the 1994 season, we were ready. Opening night in each city was exciting we were nervous about the out of town shows. Monica stayed in Baltimore. I went to Philadelphia and Mario was on his own in Orange County. At the end of the night we called in to Pittsburgh. Philadelphia was the highest grossing city followed by Baltimore then Pittsburgh and Orange County. Even though these cities where grossing more dollars than Pittsburgh, we still netted the most in Pittsburgh because the expenses were much higher than Pittsburgh. To begin with, in Pittsburgh, we didn’t pay any rent to Station Square. The other cities had high rents and labor costs. Mario had no leverage with a radio station. He had a huge area to cover but he couldn’t afford the advertising budget that was needed. Our name meant a lot in Pittsburgh and people believed that since it was a DiCesare Engler Production that it would be good. We had to prove ourselves in Orange County. We didn’t have the clout with colleges and the “art” schools. We couldn’t get the dedication. People came to the event but we couldn’t make any money out of town.
THERE’S NO BETTER PLACE FOR DICESARE-ENGLER THAN PITTSBURGH
We continued to do well in Pittsburgh. After the 1994 season, having lost money in the three out of town cities, we decided to forget the road show and stay with Pittsburgh. I did visit Harry Henninger at Kennywood and the people at Hershey Park where we did do concerts about producing a Fright Festival as well as a Light Show and an amphitheatre as partners at their parks. There was no interest. Both of them said that they put everything away each season and that it was too hard to get help once the school year began. My enthusiasm for the business fell on deaf ears. However, years later, they both started doing a very successful Halloween show.
Each year we tried to improve the show and change it. The show ran successfully until we sold the business to SFX. Afterwards, attendance started to decrease. I think mainly because no one really was in charge of it. When we had it, Rich, Ed, and I devoted an enormous amount of time and constantly tried to improve the show and learn more about it. We cared about Pittsburgh and our customers. Clear Channel bought the business from SFX and I don’t think they cared about Halloween. They were a large public corporation that couldn’t run like we did at DiCesare Engler. Our people loved working on the show. They were dedicated. That wasn’t happening at Clear Channel.
The Civic Arena tried getting into the act. They saw what we were doing and thought they could take that away from us. They spent a lot of money on expensive scenes, but they didn’t have what we did, and that was dedication from the employees. Our people thought they were a part of the whole show from the decision making process on down. And, they were. I would frequently hear a stagehand or an usher say in passing, “When we did Bruce Springsteen at the stadium. . . ” They talked as though it was their show. I always liked that.
When Kennywood finally decided to open their Halloween show, the show at Station Square dwindled. People want to see something new and exciting. We gave them excitement for the 6 years we all ran it as DiCesare Engler. But like everything, people change with the times. What seemed exciting in 1993 was getting stale in 1999. I was ready to let go of the reins. Someone else could take it over. Someone else could dream of creating the new fright.