Arena is not vertically challenged

October 24, 2008
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Calling this show “huge” may fall a tad short of being an apt description, at least height wise. Towering might be better. But despite the loftiness of “Walking with Dinosaurs — The Live Experience,” the event isn’t too tall of a task for the SMG staging crew at Van Andel Arena to handle.

When the dinosaurs roam the arena floor for eight shows from Dec. 10-14, these massive creatures will be life size. That means the brontosaurus will be 45 feet tall, or a bit taller than many of the three-story buildings that make up much of downtown.

“It’s going to rank right up there — right up there in the top 10 in size — in certainly what it’s going to take up in the arena, given that the performers are all of prehistoric size,” said Jim Watt, SMG assistant general manager for the arena and DeVos Place, with a hearty laugh.

Not only is “Walking with Dinosaurs” a big show inside the arena, it’s a big one outside too. Watt said it takes 26 semi-trailers to lug all of the radio-controlled, robotic creations and the prehistoric scenery, which is up to 18 trucks more than many of the larger shows use.

“Typically, eight to 16 (trucks) is a decent, good-sized production for shows, and for family shows, you’re looking at much fewer trucks than that,” said Watt.

“So truck-wise, it’s a good, large show.”

Finding parking for all those semis in a tight urban setting like the arena’s can be a challenge. But Watt said parking the rigs shouldn’t be a problem. About 14 will be parked in the building’s loading dock area and in the horseshoe-shaped lot behind the arena. Others will sit on the east and west sides of the arena.

“Then we will work with Parking Services to locate some of the trucks off-site,” he said.

Watt said it will take the show’s crew and the SMG staff a day and a half to unload the semis, set the rigging and move the equipment and scenery into the building. Surprisingly, though, it will only take about five hours to dismantle the production and load everything back onto the trucks.

“Touring is amazing,” said Watt. “They have to have it (down to a science) with the way they book the shows.”

As for the show, it will use the entire arena floor and air space — and then some. Watt said there is enough clearance to fit the tallest of the dinosaurs, the brontosaurus — also known as the Apatosaurus and thunder lizard — in the arena. The scoreboard that sits over center ice for hockey games is movable and will be raised within the steel beams that are about 60 feet above the floor.

Watt said the show’s backstage area is huge and so the staging will be pushed forward, meaning some seats will have to be pulled out. The first three rows from the hockey boards are removable and some of those sections will be taken out for the event. So will the retractable seats at the arena’s south end.

In addition, the first six rows of seats in the lower bowl will not be sold for the show. If anyone sat in those seats, they wouldn’t be able to see much and they’d probably end up with a sore neck from having to look up at the dinosaurs.

“They take up a lot of space. They’re big guys,” said Watt of the dinosaurs.

As a gauge to try to determine how big those “guys” really are, SMG Director of Finance Chris Machuta said earlier that only 5,800 of the arena’s seats will be sold for the show. In contrast, a concert can seat nearly 12,000.

Watt said the production will need about 100 more stagehands and technicians above the tour’s crew to get the arena and the show set up. Those additional workers will come from IATSE Local 26, a Grand Rapids-based labor organization.

“As show’s go, that’s a good number. On your average show, it could be from 30 to 70 people. So 100 local stagehands — that’s a large call for us,” he said.

“One of the things the facility does for the community is that extra employment, and sometimes people forget about that. We can have anywhere from 300 to 500 temp employees working on any given event, and this one will be up there in the higher number.”

Before booking “Walking with Dinosaurs,” Watt said that 18 months ago, SMG began scouting the performance in other buildings to make sure the event would fit inside the arena and that the logistics would work.

“We’ve been after this one for about a year and a half. There aren’t very many shows out there — maybe once every three or four years — that we actually send people out to visit a show or a production, and this is one of the ones,” said Watt.

“Personally, I think it’s going to be one of the best shows we’re going to have this year and possibly in many.”

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