Infamous Gigs: The Bar Mitzvah in the Elevator

Last week you will remember that I told you all about the time my a cappella group was hired to sing at a Billy Joel-themed wedding, and that it was, shall we say, an adventure. I don’t know how much we got out of it, artistically speaking anyway, but what we did get out of it was a large check, as well as an invitation to what is most definitely the weirdest gig I have ever done. Ever. Within the group we now just call it “the elevator gig,” or just “the elevators,” and here is what happened.

One of the guests at the Billy Joel-themed slip ‘n’ slide Broadway dog wedding was so impressed with our performance as back up doo-woppers, that they got my number and called me up and asked if we would sing at their son’s bar mitzvah. And because they were offering us an absurd amount of money, of course I said yes.

The first thing you need to know about this bar mitzvah is that, even though we were a Washington, D.C.-based a cappella, it was happening in New York City. But don’t worry! The family was not only paying us lots of money, they were also renting us a van to drive up there. Road trip! We were very lucky, of course, that this event was taking place in such an artistically barren and bereft place as NYC. If there had been any local musicians living anywhere near that place, I’m sure they would have been hired, rather than carting us hundreds of miles up the coast. But again, it was New York City. No musicians there at all. It was up to us to save the day.

The second thing you need to know about this bar mitzvah is that its theme was “The Beach Boys.” Not being Jewish myself, I was unaware that it is customary to have religious ceremonies loosely constructed around boy bands from the 60s, but it was made very clear to me that only Beach Boys songs should be performed, preferably about surfing. So I got work arranging some tunes, but I was limited in the complexity of the arrangements because, though there were 8 group members, I could only arrange for 4 voices. We had to sing in two quartets because all eight of us were not going to fit in the elevator.

There is a very important third thing that you need to know about this bar mitzvah, and that is the fact that it was taking place on the top floor of a very tall building, and the 30-45 second elevator ride was much too long for those guests to go without entertainment (obviously), so we had been hired to sing in two quartets, one in each elevator, as the guests rode up and down, to and from the party. We were not allowed into the party itself (obviously), but it was our job to sing about surfing to a bunch of old New York Jews in an enclosed metal box. So pretty standard.

Boy, some of those Beach Boys songs are actually fairly complex, harmonically. My options were going to be limited. In the end I chose two songs, Fun, Fun, Fun and Surfin’, only one of which was about surfing, for their simplicity and quartetableness. We ran over them in rehearsals, trying out different combinations of 4 singers, until we settled on our two groups, and then we got into a van and drove north. Other than going the wrong way, getting slightly lost, and shouting at each other a lot, the drive went very well. We arrived just exactly a hair after right on time, and so began what I can only describe as the most bizarre evening ever.

To begin with, these elevators were somewhat, um, how can I put this, normal-sized. I mean, they were not tiny, but a quartet of people took up at least a third of the space, and there was also an elevator operator in there too, for pressing buttons and whatnot. So guests are walking into an almost half-full elevator already, and there we would be. “Doo doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo doo doo doo doo, Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, Ba na na na NA na na na, Ba na na na NA na na na, Ba na na na na na na na, Ba na na na na na na na, Ba na na na Doo doo doo doo, doo doo dooooo doo doo doo doo, Doo dih doooo dih dooo (da da da da da), Well, she got her Daddy’s car, and she…”

DING!

And the elevator would arrive, and the terrified/annoyed guest would get out quickly, and we would stop singing, and the doors would close, and we would travel back down in silence, until the doors opened again and we would start over. “Doo doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo DOO doo doo doo doo doo doo…” It was like being in a very strange and frustrating time loop. And it was bad enough when there were only one or two people in that elevator with us, but as the actual start time for the party drew closer, the traffic flow increased. And if you know anything about people and elevators, you know that they do not like to wait for them. They smooshed themselves in there pretty well, so at times we were crushed up against the back wall of the elevator, literally singing directly into people’s ears. “SURFIN’! (ba dip dip da dip) SURFIN! (ba dip dip da dip)”

The people were not always thrilled to have us there on their trip upwards. We got a lot of sideways glances, short comments, and direct pleas to stop singing. Ha! Too bad for you, party guests, but we are being paid to do this! This is our job! So we are going to sing and have fun, whether you like it or not! Throw the shade! We will just sing LOUDER!

“If Steve doesn’t go to college,” I recall one woman saying fearfully with a tilt of her head, “he’s going to end up like one of these people!” That shows what she knows. College is where I learned about a cappella music. If she wants to keep Steve out of the a cappella business, then she should steer him far away from college! It is a well-documented fact that every singer in those elevators that day had a college degree. Welcome to America.

At the end of the gig, I had to enter the belly of the beast. Though I knew that we were not allowed off of the elevators at the top, we hadn’t been paid yet, and I needed to find that check guy with the check. What I saw when I entered that room truly took my breath away. Wallpapering the entire room were larger-than-life-sized black and white photographs of the bar mitzvah boy, but with red accents. A jazz pianist was playing in one corner, while a larger jazz ensemble played the opposite end of the room. People in tuxes carried trays of food around to people, and I couldn’t have told you what any of those food items were. Nothing I could afford, that’s for sure. This was a classy event. No wonder we had kept getting the stink-eye from all of the guests as we bleated in their faces in our khakis and button-downs. We had all been to college, but had we learned nothing?! We did not belong here! I found the father, got the check, and headed back down those elevators one final time. We did not get any other gigs from guests at that bar mitzvah, I can assure you.

As the gig drew to a close, we finally met the bar mitzvah boy. He was one of the last people to arrive, and he actually did seem to like us. He was a Beach Boys fan, luckily, and we got to sing for him and a few of his friends as they puttered nervously around the lobby, delaying that inevitable entrance into adulthood that awaited them at the top of those elevators. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know if he had a fun time at his bar matzvah. I don’t know if Steve ever went to college. But I do know that I have never sung professionally in an elevator again. Probably for several good reasons.

Posted in A Cappella, Bar Mitzvah, Beach Boys, Elevator, Music, New York, Singing, Throwback Thursday.

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