Untitled Document
Advertisement Click to advertise with us!

Pit Horror stories

What are some horror stories everyone has from the pit? I have two. The first was we were doing Music Man at my school and we were soo cramped that i nearly had one half of me about to knock over someone's Loree English horn, and shoving the foot of my flute into the person's ear on the other side of me. And when my school did Bye, Bye, Birdie, I had people almost use my music stand as a means to get into the pit while i had four instruments around it( I had picc, flute, clarinet and tenor saxophone, and I coulnd't put the horns anywhere else). The pit was uncovered. Needless to say, I try to only do shows where people don't have to get near my stands especially with the instruments on them) and at the same time, everybody has ample room to get around. But when I played the reed book for Once On This Island, (for two of the shows; the other six or seven I played the flutes) I was the only reed player trying to juggle five instruments( picc, flute, alto flute, soprano saxophone, and clarinet) and stands and still had to make sure not to have personal collision of instruments.
Sounds par for the course so far.

I was in one pit where the guy immediately behind me got creamed by a table which got caught in the closing drape (never use round tables on stage!). He had a mild concussion and his violin was totalled.

I've had bassoon players knock over and total expensive microphones without even an "oops". Stage crew smoking under the stage during a production sending a horn player to the emergency room. Perfume on a section string player causing the oboe player a violent asthma attack which almost got lethal consequences.

Personally, I am a bastard about space in the pit. If you don't give me the bare minimum space, I won't play. I defend every inch aggressively and EVERYBODY knows who will pay to fix any damage to my personal equipment. A bit dramatic I know, but all my stuff (except for one clarinet mouthpiece,:emoji_imp: grrrr) is undamaged from years of playing in pits. (damn, 27 years now!). Stuff happens, but I'm not going to be the guy stuffed.

I still get calls to play even with all that.:cool:
I was talking to Jay Easton IIRC, at the Shrek, the Musical premier in Seattle this summer. He told me of a story of dancers falling into the pit. I've only done two shows, but that was enough for me. The shows went well, but the pay wasn't good and the hours were long.

And then there was the two ruined soprano saxes, one so bad that it couldn't be repaired for less than what I paid for it. Suzy and I have decided to stick to the quartets, jazz combos, and big bands. There's more money in it and the time commitment isn't nearly as crazy long.
The pit for our Community Theater doesn't get paid. We get a free pass, (a $10 value) to give to a spouse/significant other/family member. If it weren't for those my husband would never come to see any of the shows that the girls and I play for.

I've only had one bad pit experience. It was a High School production of "Into the Woods". I was the only adult and they expected me to donate my time. The pit was canceled after 3 rehersals. I was told I would get a show T-Shirt and 2 free passes as a thank you for the time I had invested.
The director canceled the shirt order for the pit, and I never got any passes.
Tammy, your story reminds me that this year Suzy got pulled into helping a high school theater production. So I went to help and every part had three or four kids playing, most of whom could not play their instruments better than my grandson in 7th grade.

The sound was horrible and the director didn't have our music so we read with others. Fortunately we had brought eight different kinds of instruments and moved to the most important part each time. During that one practice session I felt like I was giving lessons to twenty kids.

At the end of the practice I asked if we could get copies of the music and the band teacher explained how she didn't have time to do that. Remember both Suzy and I work too. Then the next practice session was called and was one of the four remaining practice sessions.

It is the first time we've ever walked. But we heard from the Dad who stayed through the show, it was the worst musical experience of his life. And he wouldn't do it again.

I talked to another fellow who is the drummer for our A jazz ensemble and was the drummer for this gig too. He said the good musicians in the high school band wouldn't even consider doing the pit orchestra gig because they had no confidence that the music teacher could pull it off. He also said a lot of the kids were pulled from the Jr. High band because of this. Life's too short to spend time doing that kind of gig.
I actually look forward to doing the pit. The challenge is good for me.
This year it's "Beauty and the Beast".

For the past 6 years at least one of my daughters has been 'in the hole' with me. Last year it was 2 in the pit with me, and the youngest was on stage.
This year will be sad. My oldest daughter will be moving out of state to join her husband who is in the Air Force probably around the time that we start rehersals. The director is NOT looking forward to finding someone else to fill her spot.
1. The church I was the assistant to the director at for eight years played in a "pit" -- really, just the area below the "stage". I never had a single problem. Sometimes I even had multiple instruments laid out, too.

2. Playing in high school on risers, I do remember the time that a trumpet player got too close to the edge and fell over.

3. I remember singing, on risers, and seeing an alto fall over the side -- and take a couple people with her.

4. I've mentioned my worst performance experience: singing for an Easter concert in a "box" with about 30 other singers. Temps reached 120 degrees F. Not fun.
I've not been in too many pit situations, only about 5 or so, & all of those were during my university days, so that was a little over 20 years ago. I never had a bad experiences. My horns escaped unscathed. So I think I can feel pretty lucky overall.

All the damage that my horns have received (not much really) has come at my own hands, and usually from running the bell into a microphone. So I have some dings in the bells of the horns I use most.

The most instruments I've ever had to juggle is 5, including a bass & curved soprano sax. Yes it was a pain, and not an easy feat to keep every one of them safe, but I managed it with a bit of help.

The closest I've ever come to having a horror story of horn damage was from some black tie function a few year ago with a big dance band that was put together for an evening performance at the Lieutenant-Governor's residence. (The Lieutenant-Governor is the Queen's representative in the province.) The Lieutenant-Governor had been enjoying a wee bit too much bubbly, and was dancing up a storm to In The Mood with an equally impaired dance partner. Unfortunately my horns (I was playing my bari, but my soprano and alto were in a stand beside me) were in the way. I could see the impending disaster, but was powerless to stop it. Luckily an observant non-impaired party goer, saved both my horns, and the Lieutenant-Governor, by grabbing the LG by the elbow and quickly redirecting her.

What was really funny was that a few weeks later I was on a flight and sat next to the Lieutenant-Governor. The Lieutenant-Governor remembered me, and talked the whole time about how much she enjoyed the evening of big band music, dancing, fine wine, & good company. I on the other hand, remembered the evening as the night my Mark VIs were nearly flattened, and the beginnings of my PTSD. :)
Last edited:
In a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I was sitting directly in front of the stage with my back to it. During the scene where Jesus tries to kick all of the wicked people out of the temple, he tossed a small wooden stool from stage right to stage left. It was supposed to go into the wings, but it ended up taking a 90-degree turn and headed right for the front of the stage. While I was playing I suddenly felt a hard bang against the back of my head--the stool had targeted me perfectly. I had a big lump there for a few days.

During a production of West Side Story, I was sitting in the same place. For the rumble scene, they had outfitted the actors with blood packs. Riff was headed toward the front of the stage (and me) when he took the knife right in the chest. The next thing I knew, my back, my hair, and my music were drenched in fake blood!
I subbed in the trumpet section for Brigadoon, so I didn't get a rehearsal. I played 2nd, and the guy playing 1st said he'd let me know where the program deviates from the ink.

During the scene where the village of Brigadoon appears out of the mist, the machine-generated mist floated forward and descended into the pit. For about ten seconds it was like being in a cloud. I couldn't see anything including the chart, and the orchestra kept playing.

The 1st trumpet player said, "I forgot to tell you about that. We all memorized that part of the score and close our eyes. It happens again twice later in the show. Try not to breathe too much of that stuff."
Last edited:
Both AFM and Actor's Equity have been active in the safety and health area regarding the fog effects. That stuff can either be a minor irritant or a significant health hazard, depending on the content of the "oil" used.

While working for OSHA, I and one of my staff investigated a fatality at the Houston Grand Opera house in downtown Houston. (A large scenery flat fell and crushed a stagehand while it was being moved with inadequate rigging. (They used rock climbing gear instead of properly tested and assembled wire rope and snatch blocks). During the course of the investigation, the safety and health rep for the stagehand's union (ITEME, or something like that) came down to look after the bargaining unit's rights, and we all got to talk over lunch on a number of occasions.

She (a woman who has actually authored a book on theatrical safety) said that she got more complaints from her membership over stage fog than over any other issue. And, her people (stagehands) are usually working above the level where it is present, not in the thick of it (it is heavier than air) like musicians in the orchestra pit.

The arguments that management (the theaters) always advanced was that there was no other way to "fake" fog that was as safe as the "smoke" systems currently in use. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide generated from dry ice (the way used in the "old days") have some thermal safety issues with the handling of the dry ice itself, but (most importantly for musicians) the vapor/gas is heavier than air, and would quickly fill up an orchestra pit to packing house kill pit levels. (CO2 is not poisonous per se; instead, it displaces the lighter than CO2 oxygen, and removes it from the intake zone of the human body.) Regular smoke (from fires of some kind) has all sorts of other issues (in addition to making the audience weepy and cough), and "real" fog (high humidity combined with a cool temperature environment) just can't be created indoors with standard building elements.

She countered that they don't recreate people being crushed by falling heavy objects like helicopters due to "concerns", so just why is fog so significant that it has to be recreated at any cost? (At that point, I covered some of the stagecraft in Miss Saigon, where a very heavy piece of scenery (a helicopter) is maneuvered above the company assembled - we all got a good laugh out of her experiences with that show on Broadway.) In the end, the whole fog/smoke thing is basically at an impasse.

The main problem (legally) with stage fog is that the contaminant is not covered by any federal standard. If they used CO2 (as in the old days), there is a standard, but one that is still set pretty high. And, just because something is irritating or uncomfortable, it does not mean that there is a law or rule against it.

As a musician, I've only been exposed to stage smoke/fog on one occasion, this during the "The Loving River" scene in The Pirates of Penzance. (This was well before I started my career in safety and health, by the way.) It wasn't pleasant, but we managed to get through it all without anyone coughing very much or passing out. Still, I'd not want to do it again.

In my experience (some forty odd years of performing in theatrical settings, on and off, the most significant hazard has to be poorly secured lighting equipment. I've been close when a light can came crashing to the floor, and (unlike those used to light musical setups) those theatrical fixtures are heavy stuff. Standard practice with theatrical fixtures is to both clamp and safety chain or cable the light to the mounting rail. In college or amateur theatrical stuff, this is very often omitted, and they do not take kindly to criticism of their stagecraft. I have learned to stay clear of all such stuff, just in case.
Last edited:
I have several aerosol cans of that stuff. The warnings on the can are scary.

"Use only in 15x15 or larger room area with exhaust of propellant vapors near the floor. If used on floor, prevent residue by covering floor...Spray away from people, furniture, curtains and food...Extremely flammable...Do not puncture or incinerate container. Do not store above 120 degrees F. Avoid all spark or open flames. Keep out of reach of children...Do not expose persons directly with spray from this container."

You can buy it online for about ten bucks a can. http://www.citcfx.com/product_fantasy_fx_01.php

They use it on disco dance floors, so I suppose it's safe to breathe. Yeah, right. Then you read this:

Well, when reading the material safety data sheet (MSDS) on an item, it is important to keep focused on the intent of that sheet. Many manufacturers use them as a way of trying to escape liability - hence the horror warnings - but that route has not been found viable in court cases as of Jan 3, 2007 (my retirement date - all bets are off subsequent to that time as I no longer have a reason to keep up with the regulations and laws).

However, there are many very hazardous materials that (when properly used) can be rubbed up against quite safely. That's why all of that boiling point, flash point and other numeric data is included in Section 2 of the forms. Similarly, there are supposed to be instructions in Section 4 (I think - my memory ain't what it once was) as to how to safely use the stuff.

Regardless of all of this, there are a few items that might surprise you when you learn all of the details about them. And, those details are often not that hard to discern once you start looking.

For example, we clarinet players regularly rub up against a substance (grenadilla wood) that has been shown to cause cancers when left in prolonged contact with human skin. This isn't too widely known, and the hazard is deemed quite small (being about as likely to cause cancerous growth as common salt), but the problem does exist.

Conversely, some of the substances in everyday use in the home are actually wrath of God materials. Take automotive wheel cleaner for a good example. Some brands of this stuff use hydrofluoric acid as the active cleaning agent, yet you would be hard pressed to figure it out from reading the label on the cans. Only on the MSDS is it clearly articulated, and few bother to read the MSDS. Hydrofluoric acid, even in dilute solutions, eats through the skin and then attacks the bone structure within the body, not something that you would expect from a semi-household product.

We deal with hazardous materials by either isolating them from our contact, or by isolating us from contact with them. The lead (a very small percentage, to be sure) that goes into musical instrument manufacturer is a strong nerve toxin, but in our horns it is bound up in alloys or in solder that should not come into contact with a weak acid (like saliva) that could coax it out in the form of a soluble salt.

The carbon dioxide heavy atmosphere that would exist if all of the gas from a typical soda fountain setup were liberated at once is kept bound up in a system of pressure lines and a B bottle that contain and confine it quite nicely.

The theatrical fog that started all of this conversation (which is really a liquid version of what is called a fume in metals - both are finely divided particles) in its aerosol can (itself a safety measure) is, when dispensed around the feet of the actors, quite safe to use. (It's the same as wading through 1' deep water - harmless as long as not inhaled.)

The problems generally arise when stuff is used in a fashion which was unintended by the producer of the stuff. One could argue that you would expect a heavier than air suspension of particles would cascade off of a stage and settle in the orchestra pit, and we know that it can happen from our personal experience, but the producers of the stuff very likely never thought about orchestra pits (or even musical theater) when they sent the stuff out. And, in any event, the can's warnings clearly state the intended use; the manufacturer would be off the hook here due to their warning, and the liability (which is what this is all about in the end) would devolve on the "end users", the theater that chose to use the stuff in a situation where the producer specified otherwise.

In such a case (looking at it from both a product and legal liability standpoint again), the production company (i.e., the theater or whoever was operating the production within the theater) would be in violation of several sections of §29 CFR 1910.1200, specifically those calling for proper use of the materials as listed on the MSDS and (under paragraph (g)) the training of those who are exposed to the stuff. (This would cover the actors, the stage crew, and the musicians in the orchestra pit.)

Penalties for violations for these sections would range from $1,000 (for a low end, other than serious violation) all the way up to circa $7,000 (for a first time, serious violation). Most likely, the penalty would fall in the $5,000 range.

None of this has any bearing on the product liability issue, though. OSHA fines the employer, while worker's compensation compensates (duh!) the worker. That fight, in a state-operated system full of loopholes and legal tricks, is much less promising. All you can do is to file your claim and see what happens. I always urge people who feel that their workplace is injuring them or making them sick to file under the process, because if you don't and later the problem becomes more severe, you are up the creek without a paddle.

There was one semi-theatrical case a few years back involving the stuff being used to blow a "bubble floor" in a dance club (the whole dance floor fills up with tiny bubbles in a foam, and the dancers somehow have a good time dancing in it all) where the propellant of choice for the foam making machines was propane. (They ran out of the pressurized nitrogen intended for the use, and substituted airbrush propellant cans (filled with propane) instead.)

As you might imagine, the propane-inflated foam and the cigarettes of the patrons did not mix very well.

All in all, none of this is as hazardous as working in a foundry or a steel mill or a wooden door factory, but still hazardous (and all the worse by being unexpected).
As a 16 year member of IATSE (stagehands union), I can tell you many, many horror stories--some of them my own--about the dangers of working on stage. The fog is is the least of it. The key is in moderation. Just don't use too much of it. It's also better to use water-based hazers than oil based foggers.

The first time I was responsible for 'smoke' was during the second scene of Carmen, where the singers are supposed to be in a smoke filled place. The PSM would call for fog about 20 seconds before the curtain. I would let out just enough to get the impression of smoke. It dissapated pretty rapidly after the curtain rose. The trick during that one was to not get caught on stage when the curtain was called!

Smoke/hazers used in all medium to large venue pop/rock shows, from Aerosmith to ,Alan Jackson, to Neil diamond. This is so that you can see the light beams from moving lights, lasers, as well as the usual colored par cans. It's also used in virtually all 'live' television shows like pageants, and probably American idol.

Anyone that's done Brigadoon or Phantom of the Opera is familiar with dry ice fog--that's the kind that sticks to the deck, and goes down into the pit. In most theaters that I've worked in, the pit is not the lowest point in the theatre--there's been a basement storage below the pit or there are hydraulics (for moving pits). This is where the CO2 pools, and so our pit musicians were safe (although intonation is sometimes a problem. I have yet to experience anyone getting ill from it.
Toxic Pits

Decades ago, it was common to sprinkle powdered rosin on the stage for dancers (particularly in ballet). This, of course, would get kicked into the pit, and inhaled by the musicians, causing a -- sometimes fatal -- inflammatory reaction in their lungs. :-(
Top Bottom