Backstage Sessions: Butch Servilio

I am so excited to introduce you to one of my favorite people on Broadway: Butch Servilio. I first met Butch in 2016 on a random September Saturday. My best friend LJ and I were wandering around the theater district inbetween shows and happened to bump into one of our swing dresser friends. She was working at The Lion King that day and offered to give us a tour. While we were admiring the puppets backstage, Butch Servilio appeared. Butch is the Head of Automation at The Lion King and a long time Local One member. He generously invited us to check out Pride Rock and the automation underneath the stage. As Butch entertained us with hilarious stories from the show, I warned him he was never going to be able to get rid of us. The cherry on top to that perfect afternoon was when we realized Butch is the father of one of our favorite Aladdin stagehands, Marshall. Butch is one of those personable people you'd want to hang out with on a porch in rocking chairs all day. He has a mischievous and hilarious sense of humor and makes you feel at home. Getting to know Butch has been one of the major highlights of my Broadway experience and I am so excited to share this interview with you!

Teale: Butch, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me today. You're one of my favorite people that I've met on Broadway.

Butch: I didn't agree.

T: I just cornered you.

B: That's it [laughter].

T: So, how long have you been a stagehand?

B: Well, let's see now. That's got to be 28 years. I was a builder, land developer, born and raised. I had my own business. I made millions. I lost it all. I had four kids at the time. I actually became Mr. Mom for two years, at which point somebody called me up and said, "Look, you want two weeks' worth of work in a theater?" I saw that automation was the way to go, found out who the automation godfather was, which was Pete Feller. I went to work for him and learned what I could, and here I am.

T: That's amazing! And now both your sons are in the business.

B: I try to talk them out of it, but they don't listen.

T: That's so cool!

B: You’ve got to remember, the hours suck.

T: Yeah, really long hours. But I feel like you bring so much joy to people's lives, because the funny little things you do backstage.

B: Well, it's more of when you're not actually doing a show. I have a couple of tear-jerky stories I'll share with you later.

T: So what was the first show you ever worked on?

B: Geez. There was one before Miss Saigon, but--

T: Is the helicopter amazing?

B: The whole show is amazing. They did a wonderful job. And some of the stuff that they cut out-- when they first did the tech, the helicopter lands on a pad, a big box on stage, and there was a fan in the box. So the thought was the helicopter would come in, they'd turn on these fans, and it would just blow all this air onto the audience so it would feel like the helicopter was actually coming in. Theaters are very dusty. The first time they did it, it was basically just a big puff of smoke. They cut the fans.

T: Oh, that's a funny story.

B: Yeah. That happens a lot when you're tech-ing a show. I did another show and they had a fake horse in it. The mane of the horse was made of candy, and in the mouth of the horse was this little paddle. Originally, the thought was for the horse to spit candy out on to the audience. Well, the first time they used peppermint hard candy. They were like bullets shooting out into the audience. We eventually wound up with marshmallows, individually wrapped marshmallows. Which my son Marshall, at a very young age, sat at home and wrapped them all for wages. It was pretty fun.

T: I love cute little stories like that! What's your favorite show that you've ever worked on?

B: That's a tough one. I don't know if I really have a favorite. I mean, I have a favorite theater, which was the Little Theater, the Helen Hayes Theater right across the street. One of the reasons was because we would do bomb after bomb after bomb. So we were always doing a new show. New people, new experiences. That was a lot of fun. Long running shows, not so much. I think I told you, it's the same show eight times a week. Literally the same.

T: So, when a show closes and leaves the crew stays with the house?

B: No. When a show closes, you're out of a job. And you, not the union, not anybody else, has to find a new job. There are only three people that stay with the theater and that's the head electrician, prop master, and carpenter.

T: Got it.

B: Everybody else is out on the street.

T: Wow

B: That's why there is no seniority, no job security in this business. So if you ever hear, "Oh, stagehands make lots of money." Well, first of all, we put in so many hours. We're working two or three jobs. Second of all, we have zero job security. Zero.

T: From the outside, people always say, "Oh, they make so much money. They have it made. Local One is the best."

B: I will put in a 60-hour week without any overtime. Because of the way it's structured. So when somebody says that, you tell them to go spend a week with a stagehand and then let them say it again. They won’t say it again. Well, like this week. I'm in for three rehearsals, a work call. So basically, here at noon, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. We have two shows on Saturday. We have two shows on Sunday. That's my week. So what do I have for personal life? Not a lot.

T: Who is the coolest celebrity that you've met?

B: There have been a couple. Celebrities is a tough one because a lot of people would think differently. For instance, Paul McCartney is down-to-earth type of guy. I've never been star struck, with one exception: meeting Lena Horne. She was just magnetic. I've met dozens and dozens, and the best way I could respond to that is I'm told on many occasions to leave the talent alone [laughter]. It's like Paul McCartney. I've met him several times and the last time I met him, "Oh, now I got to call you Sir Paul." That type of thing. So it's tough to say. I would say, actually Jonathan Pryce is my favorite. I did Miss Saigon with him. After he left Saigon, he actually became even a bigger star. He was doing a lot of HBO stuff and about three years later-- now all we did is, we never went out for drinks or anything. We would just BS on the stage and about three years later, after he left the show I'm walking down the street and I hear across the street "Butch!" Jonathan Pryce. But I mean, Nathan Lane, before he was big. I used to go to a bar with him once in a while. And now, I don't know if he's too big to even know who we are, or-- you know. It's different things like that. Everybody's different. Matthew Broderick is a very soft-spoken young man. The list goes on. You've met a few.

T: Yeah. I’ve met a few. I met Matthew Broderick. It's funny because you get so used to just being backstage and you're so at home. So when I've seen celebrities come through, I don't ever get star struck.

B: Only once. Only once. I was sitting down here with Christie Brinkley. We were doing a special in the theater. And we were just BSing, and I'm staring at her, and I'm staring-- she goes, "You're staring at my smile, aren't you?" I said, "Well, you haven't taken it off." She says, "It doesn't come off." She just constantly has that smile. She's been doing it for so many years. I bet you she's actually 60 years old.

T: That's cool. What is about this job that makes you come back every day? The paycheck [laughter]?

B: Believe it or not, not as much. You have to love what you do, a little. I do love what I do. I've always taken pride in anything that I do. So maybe that's why I've always, thank goodness, been successful with whatever I've done.

T: Have you been at The Lion King for the entire run?

B: No. I came three years after they actually opened up.

T: Were they still at the New Amsterdam or were they already in the Minskoff?

B: They were over at the New Am. I was actually driving home one night-- I don't know if you're familiar with the Meadowlands. I was on the Turnpike-- New Jersey Turnpike. And this car pulled up alongside of me and kind of like, what the hell? And I look over at Drew. And, he said "I got some work for you." And I'm like, "No, thanks. I'm busy." And he goes, "No, no, permanent spot,". And so I wound up here.

T: How long have you known Drew? (Drew Siccardi is the Head Carpenter at the New Amsterdam Theatre. You might remember him from my Snapchat stories when I worked at Aladdin. I absolutely adore him.)

B: Probably 28 years. I never worked with him or for him. But we were friends and acquaintances through all the years. I mean, we worked up at the (scene) shop a little bit together, but he would come in and go back out again. But I never bothered approaching him for work. I feel funny about asking friends. See, most of the guys in our business are related, and that's how they get their work. I was a black sheep because I didn't have any relatives in the business. One of the advices I give to people is just pound on doors until they get tired of you pounding on their door and give you work.

T: Has there been a best day that you've had at this show that sticks out in your memory?

B: Not as much at the show as the things that are associated with it. You have to understand that it kind of carries a little bit of celebrity status working for The Lion King. I have been known to drag poor people off the street and bring them backstage, and it has made their day. I was telling you before about my “oh my gosh girl”. One time I come out between shows, and there's a little eight year old girl standing outside the stage door with her Playbill. She said "Mommy. I didn't get anybody's autograph." So I turned to the mom, and said, "Come with me." And I brought her backstage. And everything was, "Oh, my gosh [laughter]. Oh, my gosh." Well, they come back every year from Philadelphia to say hello to Mr. Butch. Her mom told me that her best friend had passed away six months prior to me bringing her off the street - her Grandma, okay - and that she went into a shell. She didn't smile. She didn't talk to people. She just withdrew because she was that upset about grandma passing, until I gave her that backstage tour. Doesn't it warm your heart?

T: Yes. I'm going to cry. I love that story.

B: So, I have those occasions. I have a couple of stories. There was one day a few years back, I met three boys with grandma, and I dragged them back. Well, it turned on the youngest of the three boys to theater and he became an actor. He actually has a paying job. He's playing the Mayor of Munchkin land in Philadelphia on The Wizard of Oz.

T: Oh my gosh.

B: They came all the way over here just last week because the Mom wanted to meet me and say thanks for getting her son involved in acting. Of course I said," Don't blame me!” So there are a lot of different stories like that. Those are the ones that really turn me on. You do a little good. I've got letters of thankfulness. And I could travel anyplace in the world and I'm sure there's somebody there that I know, that I've given a tour to. So, that’s me.

T: I love that. You have the biggest heart.

T: Okay, so my final question is--

B: Final. Oh, thank God.

T: I know. Looking back, is there a piece of advice you would give your twenty-five year old self?

B: I have been a builder, a millionaire, a pauper buying dented cans for four kids. The way I live my life is I don't care if you believe in heaven, reincarnation, or whatever other after life you might think of. Nobody's been able to show me proof yet, so I try to go with -  until they show me something, I'm going to go based on the theory that we go around once, and I'm going to smile every day that I can. And they've made it tough, but I've got some good people around me, the wife, the kids. I was a builder. I did not marry a stagehand. Anybody's who involved with a stagehand has to sacrifice quite a bit. My daughter still mentions that I didn't make her sixth grade graduation. I didn't even know there was one. Stuff like that, you know, because you're in the theater all the time. You give up a lot. You sacrifice a lot, being in the theater.

T: Yeah. But you supported your family and created this amazing life for them and brought so much joy to others.

B: My wife wound up supporting the family for a while there too. And it's my family. I'm very proud of my family. To give you an example of my family, my youngest son was in college up in Albany when we got a call that he was in the hospital. We didn't know what was going on. I was in the theater! We were doing a paint call on a Monday, and I literally ran out of here, okay? Grabbed the wife and we went up to Albany because we didn't know what was going on. My one kid was out in Long Island, I think the other one was West Virginia, and another one in Kentucky. Within 24 hours, they were all home. That's my family.

T: I love that.

B: They're very good. Well, you've met my son, did you meet both my sons?

T: Yes!

B: Well, you can see. They're good people. Nobody wrote a book on how to raise these bastards [laughter]. I feel that we did a pretty good job, and thank goodness they've picked up on it and they ran with the ball.

B: When you say, "Would I change anything back at 25?" It's tough looking back. When you ponder on what could have been, it'll consume you like no tomorrow, so just roll. Just roll with it. I mean, we're looking at retirement now. It's a scary proposition. My wife was getting all nervous and jerky, and I said, "Honey if we move to the mountains of West Virginia...? She stopped and she looked and she said, "And we'd still be happy. So what's the big deal? We'll make it through."

T: I love that. That was such good advice. Thank you so much for telling me these stories. Yay.

B: My pleasure. My life, it's very secretive. Shhh [laughter].

Fun Facts

  • Butch's daughter got married on the Minskoff Theatre stage!

  • Broadway shows worked on: Dozens of shows - The list is long, everything from Miss Siagon to Sunset to The Lion King. It would take me days to come up with a very long list.

  • Benefits and concerts worked on in the Minskoff Theatre: Average of 4 per year, so about 40 in 10 years. 

  • Birthday: July 28

  • Favorite band: Many bands, not one in particular. I like variety. Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, "The Band"

  • Favorite movie: Forrest Gump is up there.

  • Favorite place in Manhattan: Riverside

  • Resides in: New Jersey

  • Life moto: Smile at least once a day.

  • Favorite quote: Honesty the best.

  • Favorite NYC restaurant: In a city like New York, you want one favorite restaurant?! Uncle Nicks.

 Exploring the automation department underneath the stage.

Exploring the automation department underneath the stage.

 Signatures of people who have visited Butch backstage at the Minskoff Theatre.

Signatures of people who have visited Butch backstage at the Minskoff Theatre.

 Kaleigh and Butch meeting backstage. February 2017. 

Kaleigh and Butch meeting backstage. February 2017. 

 Sitting on Pride rock with Butch the first day we met. september 2016.

Sitting on Pride rock with Butch the first day we met. september 2016.