Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Loving Memory of Marty Bilecki

We'd like to ask you to take a moment today to lift up in prayer the family of our longtime friend, and Chicago sound engineer, Martin (Marty) Bilecki, who collapsed while mixing at the sound board at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville last evening. He was taken quickly to a nearby hospital, where he passed away. We’d just finished our set, in our 15th year for the Salute to the 60s concert there, a very special night, together with our friends Peter Noone and Herman's Hermits, and the Grass Roots. Marty’s passing leaves us solemn and missing a man we considered an important part of our musical family.

We'd just spent the previous week together with Marty, as he ran sound for all of us on the Concerts at Sea tour aboard the Grand Princess. Of his many wonderful qualities, he was a man who cherished his family. Poignantly, his parents were also aboard the cruise ship, and they were so happy to be there to see their son doing his great job mixing each group, for all the shows. It’s an unforgettable joy when your parents can see you in your workplace, having them know you among your peers as respected, beloved and the best in your field.

In 1991, Marty founded his own company, Performance Recording and Sound, in Chicago. For all these years, we’ve had the pleasure of being at so many shows where Marty mixed our sound, coordinated our stage lighting and essentially made everything just perfect for us. We have long regarded him as the ultimate professional, a warm and gracious man. Personally, he was our good friend. He was one of the hardest-working men we’d ever met, and we always knew we could count on him.

It’s surreal and shocking to have been with him two weeks ago on the ship, all week long, enjoying the work that he did for everyone, sharing some great times and personal memories together, and then realize that last evening’s show, which felt like musical magic onstage last night, would be his final work here on earth.

We appreciate the love and support you showed to us all evening long, during our show and afterwards. We share that love with Marty’s family and ask for you to pray for their comfort and peace.

It takes a full team of professionals to bring music to the crowds who gather to hear the songs they love, and Marty Bilecki was a gentleman who did his job well, and was so well liked by all of us in the music business. We are better for having known him, and may God bless his family at this time of loss.

Thank you for your prayers,

Carl Giammarese, Nick Fortuna, Bruce Soboroff, Dave Zane, Rocky Penn, Carlo Isabelli, Charles Morgan, Rich Moore and Susan Rakis

Cross posted on Facebook here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

2012 FlashBack: Cruisin’ the Caribbean with the Best in Classic Rock Entertainment—Part 2

[Second in a series of articles chronicling the 7-day Southern Caribbean tour, ‘Where the Action is’ cruise, featuring Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Buckinghams, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Davy Jones of The Monkees.]

Continuing on this journey, you’re on the Concerts at Sea Rock and Roll oldies tour cruise, a passenger aboard the Grand Princess sailing vessel, which is making its way down the eastern U.S. coast headed for the Caribbean Sea. Admit it. Now aboard, you think. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you are humming the theme song made famous by the cruises of the Pacific Princess, another jewel in the fleet of the Princess Cruise lines, made even more famous in the 1970s as a superbly successful CBS TV series.

With the QE2 docked right next door, the Grand Princess was our ship for Concerts at Sea, promising a fun adventure.

The strings swell and the horns blast, and the familiar theme music can’t help but pop up in the back of your mind. Hear Jack Jones sing now, ‘Love, exciting and new; come aboard, we’re expecting you, andddd love, like sweetest reward, let it flow, it floats back to you. The Love Boat soon will be making another run, the Love Boat promises something for everyone.’

Port Everglades, our destination for check-in, immigration, and boarding. (West Communications, used with permission)

True, that the memories of the simplistic, slightly cornball nature of the predictable TV show can make you go ‘ohhh yeah’ as you remember simpler times of even the 70s. In present-day economics, luxury vacations are often the last thing on anyone’s mind. All the more reason to embrace Charles Fox’s theme (he of 70s classic theme TV fame, and the lyrics were by Academy Award and Grammy winner, Paul Williams.

The back view of the Grand Princess, our ship for the week. (West Communications, used with permission)

But, the almost 600 Concerts at Sea travelers who boarded the Grand Princess came from all across the United States and Canada. Some hadn’t thought twice about the costs of the passage. Others had taken extra jobs and saved for an entire year to be a part of this journey. No one measured the other by income or attire aboard the ship. Fun was measured in the joy shining through the eyes of everyone who had a chance to slip back in time to when they were 16 again, when all of life was just ahead of them, and nothing but good times were promised for a week.

The crew of the Princess Cruise Lines shuttles passengers from their bus into the terminal for passing through immigration/customs and getting the official cruise card. (West Communications, used with permission)

The line is long but moves quickly. They do this all day, every day, with a smile. (West Communications, used with permission)

It was exhilarating to ride a bus with complete strangers and learn that they were from all over the United States and Canada. The 20-minute ride from the ‘Pink Palace,’ or the Ft. Lauderdale Comfort Inn, was fast, and yet your eyes were drawn to the picture taped to the inside of the headliner of the bus front.

‘Remember to tip your driver,’ it said, above the photo caricature of the $5.00 bill. What’s amazing is that some people must not be regular travelers if they have to be reminded to do that. Even more amazing is when some travelers ‘forgot’ to do it.

Still, a fast mental calculation of 40 passengers per busload; you haul the luggage on and off, and you’re gone 40 minutes and on weekends, Saturday is a major embarcation day, so you could easily make 10 runs a day to the airport between sunrise and sunset, and you wouldn’t have to work the rest of the week, even if you were working for tips alone. Why this thought even registered a tad was likely the result of calculating the potential statistics for win/loss in the ship’s casino in the coming week! Or, maybe it was boredom on the fast, but seemingly endless, ride that would present a view of Port Everglades that no travel brochure could ever capture accurately.

For the first-time cruiser, it’s hard to keep your jaw from dropping open as you survey the view as the transport bus maneuvers its way over to Port 21 where the Grand Princess was parked, or barked, as one of an entire fleet of ships of all cruise lines. Practically speaking, a ship should be barked, not parked. You embark on a journey, and you disembark from a journey, so...the ship was barked. Or not.

No question is unimportant, and the staff is friendly and accommodating. (West Communications, used with permission)

You pile off the bus, ‘identify’ which luggage is yours as it is being deposited into steel cages according to your busload. You’d already stapled the appropriate luggage tags with your cabin assignment onto the handles back at the Pink Palace, so really there wasn’t anything to be done except kiss it goodbye and hope it showed up in front of your cabin door.

However, there was a new group of friendly, and not-so-friendly, luggage ‘guarders’ standing near and by your luggage. Dressed in official uniforms, they reminded you that they wanted you to step forward and identify that your luggage was there, not do anything else, just eyeball it to see it made it off the trailer affixed to the bus.

Realistically, there’s not a snowball’s chance that any luggage would have escaped while all the locks were locked on the bus trailer, but there it was in all its shining glory, the red rolling suitcase and the brown satchel-type duffel (for shoes, of course). I identified it by just seeing it and that was it. Oh, except to be sure and tip the folks watching it along with you. They announced that they did accept tips. And here I was wondering if it would possibly offend them if I wanted to tip them. No worries; tips were welcome!

Rejoicing over yet another chance to use the stack of one-dollar bills I’d secured from the bank the preceding day, I then transferred some to the luggage-watchers, lest they stop watching my luggage in the steel cage make the 20-foot journey on a forklift to the Grand Princess. Not everyone participated in this opportunity to reward luggage-watchers, but to each his own. I knew my luggage was going to be watched for at least the next 20 minutes.

Now, you catch your first glimpse of men and women in uniform. They look rather nautical, but you are not sure who the group is with. They have delightful British accents so you smile as you walk down the long walkway to enter the immigration area, and you pause, along with others, in front of one of two backdrops where your embarcation photo will be taken, in front of the backdrop.

You're not supposed to take pictures inside the terminal, so you don't see this one, but the staff was always smiling at the prospective concert-sailors. (West Communications, used with permission)

Call it the ‘pre-trip pic.’ Little did I realize I’d be seeing the array of travelers in front of the same backdrops soon enough in the photo gallery at midship, with a chance to buy my own ‘almost-happy’ pose. However, I never did see my picture because they likely discarded mine. Had they kept it out for display, they would have seen someone with new boat shoes causing blisters on both feet, while my back was aching from hauling luggage all over kingdom come. So, already I was down one souvenir of what was to be the trip of a lifetime. No worries. Many others would be in store, I thought. I just wanted to get through immigration, board the ship, find my cabin, and all that was awaiting me as the Princess staff gave me my ‘cruise card’ at the point of immigration.

'Walking the plank' is a made-up term and urban myth; here's the path to boarding the ship. (West Communications, used with permission)

Know your captains and crew of the Grand Princess! (West Communications, used with permission)

This little blue cruise card looked like a typical hotel key or credit card, but it held enough information to keep track of all my activities for the next seven days. Put your wallet away (well, sorta) while the little blue card would get you in and out, on and off, and around and over the ship. Ah, life was starting to get simpler, kinder.

On the advice of good friends, the cabin booked was one with a balcony, occupancy for 1 (penalty for traveling as a single is to pay premium price for solitude), but what the heck. ‘I was worth it,’ or at least the L’Oreal commercial and Sarah Jessica Parker said I was. Although it was pricey compared to the porthole or ocean view (restricted), it was a safe bet for a first-time traveler to prevent getting cabin fever to be able to extend the living area beyond the basic room.

Greeting me at the door of the cabin was my name on the ID outside Lucite info holder, and a big Concerts at Sea poster on my cabin door. No hiding from the paparazzi here. Oh wait, no one knew who I was. I was safe! There were helium-filled balloons near the door jams of each Concertgoer and that was a very sweet touch by the Harmon Travel Service staff to make you welcome.

Inside the cabin, a manila envelope with my name on it was sitting on top of the bed. I’d been up late at night for weeks working overtime to try and get enough work done to play for a week and every night the original (before Mr. Phelps) episodes of Mission Impossible (the TV show) were broadcast. So, naturally I had another song worm running into my head....dun dun dun dun, dah dah dah dah,...’Good afternoon, Agent. Today’s mission is...’ Memo to self: get some sleep, soon.

Laughing, I opened the envelope to find an official ‘Concerts at Sea’ souvenir t-shirt, program guide for the 19th Annual Rock and Roll Caribbean Cruise, my orange wristband to provide access to all the concerts by Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Buckinghams, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters, and Davy Jones of the Monkees. Then, there was a notice telling you that an orientation for new travelers was set for 2 pm in the Princess Theatre and lunch was being served on the Lido Deck ‘now.’ Lido Deck? Were they serious?

For weeks, I’d been re-running episodes of ‘The Love Boat’ in my mind, hearing all the catch phrases and mannerisms of the cast and crew of the Pacific Princess, whose voyages lasted exactly 60 minutes, with commercials, and whose voyages also produced mended romances, new romances, and which launched the movie, TV, and political careers of many of the show’s cast, and which gave new life to every TV and movie star who needed a job that week. Wait a minute...this boat was the Grand Princess. I was on the Princess Cruise lines. Could it be?

I opened the map they gave us to hold our blue cruise card to see all the names of the decks. The Fiesta Deck, the Dolphin Deck, the Baja Deck and...wait for it...the Lido Deck! I studied the phone system on my desk and went looking for how to call friends in other cabins on other decks.

Another reminder of an adventure in store: when you pick up the phone to dial a fellow passenger, and you hear the strains of ‘the’ Love Boat theme (after all, you are on the Grand Princess), your mind naturally drifts back to Gavin McLeod as Captain Merrill Steubing (who pronounced his Pacific ship: ‘the Prin-cess.’ Gopher was your Yeoman Purser, Isaac, your bartender, and Julie, your cruise director. That was then, this is now, which is, coincidentally, a 60s song made famous by The Monkees, albeit one sung by Micky Dolenz rather than Davy Jones, one of the four headliners on this concert tour.

The view from outside on the Lido Deck. Where is Gopher, my Yeoman Purser?? (West Communications, used with permission)

Ran up to grab a quick bite of food from the most efficiently run food service team poolside, where I discovered that others had boarded before my tour group and were already in swimsuits, working on tans, while watching an outdoor movie theatre broadcast of “Paul McCartney: Good Evening, New York City,” and that was the first gentle nudge back into the wonderful days of the 1960s and 70s, when music drove all of our daily lives, for the better.

Then, 2:00 pm came fast so it was off to the Princess Theatre to meet the Concerts at Sea team. Impressively, tour producer Tammy Selee led the announcements and welcomed us, introduced Bob Harmon and Eleanor Harmon of Harmon Travel Service, and ‘Big Jack’ Armstrong, primary emcee, and other deejays from across the country who had worked hard to promote the cruise. They offered that any single travelers, new or returning, could meet up with Eleanor if they wanted a group to sit with, another nice gesture so people would feel welcome quickly. Then, they took the audience through the program booklet and explained that later today we’d be at sea, continuing on through Sunday and on Monday afternoon.

They also furnished part of the weekend’s musical entertainment with Boise, Idaho's dynamic party band, JR and the Stingrays, and an added treat, Stacey Wayne as Elvis. Before you turn your nose up and say, ‘who?’ and ‘Elvis! Not another one,’ you have to understand that this was a back-by-popular-demand booking and a popular return engagement. Harmon Travel started these rock and roll cruises 19 years ago with a small group of travelers from Boise Idaho. This year’s cruise numbered almost 600 and included travelers from almost all the 50 states and Canada.

And, as it turned out, this wasn’t just any ordinary ‘Elvis’ either. He was a talented man with the heart of an angel, as one traveler would find out very quickly. With the orientation over, it was time to return to the cabin where our luggage (having been very carefully watched all the way to the ship) was in front of our cabin doors. That’s the joy and magic of disappearing and reappearing luggage for you. It was about to get a lot more magical than that, and quickly so.

We were about to be introduced to our team of British sailors who were going to provide a week’s respite from the dull, ordinary, predictable lives we all lead, when we were not on this cruise. The dynamic, efficient, and rather witty group of the Grand Princess sailing crew was led by Captain Roger Bilton. A copy of the ‘Princess Patter’ newsletter was already in the holder by the front cabin door, a four-page introduction to the first day and night of the cruise with schedules for shipwide entertainment, meals, and promises of an ‘enchanted evening’ for all.

A quick glance at the useful newsletter noted that the Movie under the stars would be ‘Moneyball’ with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and uh oh, we were to have a General Emergency Drill at 3:15 pm.

Sure enough, about 3 pm, the Captain’s smooth voice comes over the loudspeaker and with a crisp British accent, he makes a series of announcements about a voluntary (as in voluntarily mandatory) emergency exercise. Instructed that ‘ALL PASSENGERS must attend’ the drill, it was change course to explore the ship and instead head back to the cabin to get the life jacket that the cabin stewards were all busy in the hallway making sure each passenger in his or her charge would find.

You just can’t say enough about the wit of the British. Especially during serious times, like emergency rescue drills, they shine at being ‘funny.’ Keeping in mind the tender state of my feet breaking in new shoes (designed for comfort, built for torture) and failure to pack flip-flops, I groaned as I saw the three flights of stairs I’d have to traverse downward to reach the Muster point on Deck 7, midship. However, we were (literally) on the same boat and so the faces of the other passengers ranged from perplexed, to bemused, to somewhat starstruck, depending on whom you were standing next to. As fate would have it, all the rock stars were taking the same emergency drill training we were.

It was to be the first sighting of Paul Revere (sans Raider hat) and his lovely wife, among other entertainers from all the bands. Smiling, Paul went right along with the rest of the group and did his training thing without complaint. The Buckinghams’ Bruce Soboroff had already explored every inch of the ship from the time he’d boarded, and Nick Fortuna’s muscles needed a life jacket of their own, but this was their fourth concert cruise and they already knew the drill.

The instructions over the loudspeaker continued when the group assembled and you’d have to laugh at the group of adults assembled who couldn’t wait to put their life jackets on, despite the captain’s specific instructions to wait for his command to do so. These were those same kids in elementary school who would open test booklet before told to do so, all grown up—you know the ones.

As Staff Captain, Michele Tuvo, oversaw our specific group’s training, one passenger started to try to cut up with her and thought she wasn’t as official as she indeed was. Smiling coyly, she said, I captain this ship through certain waters, and I have my eyes on you, sir, to the mouthy passenger. Then, she did the Robert DeNiro move from ‘Meet the Parents’ and showed the guy ‘I have my eyes on you.’ He shaped up quickly. Don’t mess with the captains, any of them!

The exercise completed, many of the passengers found old friends among the fellow travelers, and a period of reuniting and reacquainting had officially begun. By the time you got back to your room to return your life jacket, there was just enough time at last to take the final pictures from shore before you set a course for adventure on the high seas.

Does life get any better than this? (West Communications, used with permission)

As we pulled out from port, Captain Bilton’s voice came over the loudspeaker and announced that we’d be embarking and that there would be a series of horn blasts, plus two extra long ones because there was a group of Florida residents in nearby condominiums and he wanted to make sure they knew we were leaving. British humor; gotta love it. Tally ho, and away we go.

Tammy Bettencourt-Selee (top), and Big Jack Armstrong (below), Master of Ceremonies, welcome all the Concert at Seas cruisers in the Concert Theatre aboard the Grand Princess for the 2012 Where the Action is Tour.

Find them on Facebook:

Concerts at Sea

Harmon Travel Service

J. R. and the Stingrays

Tips for newer travelers:

1) You can’t ever have enough $1.00 bills. Even if you have to go to the bank and get a giant stack, get used to the fact that every person you see between your home and until you reach the cruise ship is working for tips only. No salary, just your tips. It’s embarrassing to see a family, couple or single person who doesn’t tip their drivers, luggage handlers, or cart drivers in the airport. Be prepared and if you’re not sure how much to tip, ask a fellow traveler for guidance.

2) Have a strong folder ready for just your most important travel identification. International travelers need a passport for any cruise; don’t leave home without it.

3) Ask your travel agent if he or she has a blog to help with frequently asked questions. Concerts at Sea’s Tammy Selee has a very helpful blog that saved her answering the same question 600 times. Look for online resources to help.

4) As you are newly onboard the ship, make it a priority to use the map they give you in the case with your room key to get a mental picture of where your primary areas you’ll move around in are located. Foreward is front; aft is behind; starboard is right, and port is left. Midship is, yup, the middle of the ship, and each deck will have a name for the particular level. If you’re on a Princess ship, you learned every deck’s name when you watched ‘The Love Boat’ on TV.

This article cross-posted from author's story on