It’s mid-morning, and longtime CSO stage manager Kelly Kerins sits quietly in his backstage office at Symphony Center. In three days, he will retire.
Daniel Kelly Kerins joined the Orchestra Hall stage crew in 1991 and has served as stage manager for the last 20 years. It’s no small job. A symphony concert might consist of three or four different masterworks from the classical music canon, each requiring a different number of chairs and stands onstage in different configurations. A Mozart piano concerto demands a 9-foot, 1,000-pound instrument front and center, and the stage set for a small, Classical-era orchestra. The Mozart might be followed by a Bruckner symphony — strike the piano and reset the stage for 90 instrumentalists. The various combinations are endless, and it’s the crew’s job to reset the stage — chairs, stands, pianos, harps, percussion, etc. — in only minutes. For two decades, it’s been Kerins, with an unerring eye for detail, who has carefully overseen all this.
“People ask us how we can break everything down to a small chamber ensemble and then grow it back to a full orchestra in so little time,” he says. “We’re no different than the musicians. We need rehearsals. As the musicians are rehearsing the music, we’re rehearsing the stage changes. We spike-mark the different set-ups with colored tape. We do this for each piece. If it seems like we’re always looking at our feet — we are. We’re going for a mark. Without those marks, we’re only guessing.”
Though Kerins has never studied music, his years as CSO stage manager have given him more than a nodding acquaintance with the orchestral repertoire. “I don’t know a note of music but from doing this all these years, I know Mahler 7 has full woodwind sections and offstage percussion. I know Mahler 1 has two sets of timps, and The Rite of Spring is massive — five, five, five and five in the woodwinds [five flutes, five oboes, five clarinets, five bassoons]. And it requires two tubas! A lot of this stuff is just in my brain.”
That wasn’t always the case. Like anyone in a new job, he had to negotiate a learning curve. “The first few years were really tough. I had to draw on every bit of experience. Not only did I have to know what was happening on the stage, I was the guy who had to make out the schedules, go to all the production meetings, and I was the guy who had to put together all the tour needs.”
In her message announcing Kerins’ retirement to the CSOA staff, Heidi Lukas, the CSO’s longtime director of operations, singled out his many achievements. “During Kelly‘s time here, he has worked with three music directors, countless guest conductors and every major artist,” she wrote. “His responsibilities have been wide-ranging — from in-the-moment production to short- and long-term planning and scheduling. His talent for multi-tasking and eye for detail, both on and off the stage, have set a high standard in our industry and will continue to serve as an example for many years to come. It would be impossible to calculate how many rehearsals, concerts and other events Kelly has managed over the years, but of course it’s in the thousands. Add to that over 50 international and domestic tours, as well as numerous run-outs and other off-site performances — there’s no doubt that Kelly has given his all time and time again to ensure smooth and successful concerts. His dedication to our organization, to his crew and to the musicians of the orchestra has been simply extraordinary, and he will be greatly missed. At the same time, I am so pleased for him to have more time for himself and to share with his wife, Roz.”
Looking back, Kerins envisioned a different path for his life. Even though his father and grandfather were stagehands, it was not apparent that he’d follow in their footsteps. “I started apprenticing as a stagehand out of high school, but it was the last thing I wanted to do because it was work,” he says with a grin. “So I went off to Western Illinois University and majored in political science and minored in history. After I graduated, my dad asked me what I was going to do for employment.”
It was a tough question for the young grad, who answered with a vague, “I’m not sure.” His father, though, was certain and strongly recommended Kelly follow in the footsteps of the previous two generations of Kerins men.
“I spent three years at Lyric [Opera of Chicago] where I learned the basics of technical theater,” he says. In 1984, he worked on a renovation of the Shubert Theatre (now known as the CIBC Theatre). He also put in 10 weeks of 10-hour days renovating the historic Chicago Theatre. “We pulled the whole fly floor out while the other trades were working in there. When we finished, they hired me as the prop man. I opened the Chicago Theatre with [concerts by] Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin” in 1986.
Some of the many shows he worked before coming to the CSO include “42nd Street,” “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Dream Girls,” but it is “Les Misérables” that holds special significance for him. It was on that show that he met his future wife, Rosalyn Rahn, who played Madame Thénardier on the first national tour.
In 1991, Kerins joined the CSO stage crew, and in 1999, then-stage manager Bill Hogan retired. “Management asked if anybody on the crew wanted to interview,” he recalls. “Two other guys were interested, so each of us were assigned three weeks of stage managing. They hired me in November of that year, but without having eight previous years of experience on the crew, watching every move the stage manager made, there was no way I could have done this job. And to be honest, nobody could do this job unless they had the greatest stagehands in the world. These guys have made it all possible.”
One of those colleagues, Christopher Lewis, who started working at Symphony Center in 1999, has succeeded Kerins as stage manager.
“You know,” Kerins adds, “for a kid growing up in the suburbs, this has been a dream. Being the stage manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been an honor bestowed on me that I don’t really have words for.”
Kelly Kerins’ last day at the CSO was in mid-December. On that day, he was presented with a framed print of the orchestra, signed by the musicians, and a plaque acknowledging his 27 years of dedicated service. Early in January, Kerins, his wife, Roz, and their three cats moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., to enjoy their retirement.
TOP: Kelly Kerins, in his office backstage at Symphony Center in December, describes his years with the CSO a dream and an honor. | Photo: Jack Zimmerman