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Behind the Curtain

We go to movies, we attend games at Aloha Stadium, we catch the latest musicals by our local theater groups. Behind each of these experiences are the unsung heroes. The technical directors, the ushers, the costume designers who work long and hard so that the stars shine and we, the audience, are thrilled. Devoted craftspeople behind the curtain make it all happen. Here are their stories.


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Mary Lewis

Neil Blaisdell Center productions manager

On any given day at the neil blaisdell center, there could be a basketball game in the arena, a symphony performance at the concert hall, a car show in the exhibition hall, a sample sale in one of the meeting rooms and a seminar in another. And there’s just one person managing it all.

Mary Lewis has been the productions manager for the city-operated Blaisdell Center and Waikiki Shell for 18 years. She employs one full-time assistant and about 140 part-timers, ranging from ushers to security guards to event technicians. Her job is to handle the logistics for every act, performance, concert or event that’s booked at one of the four venues. One day, this could mean scheduling, on another, finding a forklift.

“It’s a constant shifting of gears,” says Lewis, whose background is theater set and lighting design. “Multitasking is an overused word, but in productions it’s what you do. You always have six things in your head and you always know where to find the cheapest gaffe tape.”

One of the most challenging productions Lewis has worked on was the 12-week run of the hit musical The Lion King at the concert hall in 2007. She had to figure out how to fit a cast of 40 and a slew of sets, costumes and masks—normally stored in a basement—somewhere off-stage. “We’re on a rock. We don’t have basements,” Lewis says. “We don’t have that luxury.”

Contractors had to create aisles, put up new curtains and install doors. They even figured out a way to lift scenes into the ceiling for extra storage. And while most people envy her job because of her access to Hawaii’s best shows, Lewis insists there’s nothing glamorous about it. “Elton John was here three nights in a row and what did I hear? The last song of the last day of the last encore,” she says. “And I was lucky just to hear that.”   

Photo by: David Croxford


Leilani Tan

Cherry Blossom Festival contestant coordinator

When the 12 Cherry Blossom Festival Queen hopefuls make their first public appearance this month, the experience won’t be that daunting. Not when the contestants—Japanese-American women between 18 and 26—have spent the past four months preparing for this appearance, one of several leading up to Festival Ball, where they’ll don expensive, formal kimono and judges pick a new queen and court.

The pageant is just one day in a preparation process that lasts seven months and includes more than a dozen cultural classes ranging from taiko drumming to public speaking. “I think many people are under the impression that the festival is only a pageant held on one night,” says Leilani Tan who, as contestant coordinator, is responsible for overseeing this process. “The festival is a series of many events … Festival Ball is just a small piece of the pie.”

In her role—which can seem a cross between supervisor and Mom—Tan plans the entire contestant experience from scheduling classes and fittings to finding appearance dresses and pageant gowns. But it’s not just planning and paperwork. Tan, herself a former Narcissus Queen, advises the contestants on their speeches, critiques their interviewing skills, quizzes them on current events and keeps extra pantyhose on hand just in case. “Managing a group of young women who are all vying for the title of Cherry Blossom Queen is no small task,” says Tan, 34, a deputy prosecuting attorney. “Luckily, I've been able to escape any real drama thus far.”

The best part, she says, is seeing the transformation from timid strangers to confident women who appreciate their culture and can execute a five-point turn in a kimono. “The ride often starts out very bumpy, but I’ve found that because expectations are set very high, most will rise to that level,” Tan says. “When they reflect back, they, too, are amazed at how much they have changed in such a short period of time.”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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