He made the shows, now his is sadly over

by | Mar 21, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment, Theatre | 1 comment

He was a sweet, funny, kinetic guy who spoke quickly and passionately, and the more serious he got, the lower his voice dropped, like a spy sharing top-secret information over the phone.

“Yeah, hi, it’s Lee, I’ve got some issues with the microphones … Yeah, it’s Lee, the house is full and we can’t wait any longer … Hey, it’s Lee, I can’t talk right now, I’m with the Rolling Stones … ”

Some folks are married to their spouses, some are married to their jobs. Lee Rifield was married to the Fox Theatre, the City Theatre and anything and anybody that hit their stages, from “Sesame Street” to Prince. He was of the venues, by the venues, for the venues. I sometimes thought he lived in the rafters.

Born in 1966, Lee spoke like a teenager from that decade. A lot of “Hey, man” and “That’s cool” that made him the perfect guy to book everything from one-man concerts to Paul McCartney extravaganzas.

He handled 200-plus events and 80-plus productions a year, often sleeping just a few hours a night. For a long time, he worked with me on “Ernie,” a show about Tigers broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell. Whenever we sat together during rehearsals, he’d put this bug in my ear. “Do a musical, man … You can do it … We could run it here, man … It’ll be great …”

Eventually, thanks to his endless harangue, I wrote the show he wanted, a musical comedy about hockey, something Lee loved. Last Monday, we were on stage together in an empty City Theatre, planning for the show’s opening.

And the next morning he was dead.

Empty feeling in the auditorium

He died upon arriving at work Tuesday, dropping and falling backward, an apparent massive heart attack just days after his 50th birthday. Death is an abrupt curtain call. Lee’s huge audience of colleagues and loved ones is left alone in the seats now, stunned and heartbroken.

Have you ever known a person who was always in a certain place? And then all of a sudden, he or she is gone? I know of no word for that emptiness, but if silence could talk, that would be its sound.

“He will be missed beyond belief,” said Dana Warg, who technically was Lee’s boss but described himself as part of Lee’s “family on the fifth floor” of the Fox Theatre building. “What he did was stunning. It’ll take three of us to try and fill his shoes.”

Officially, Lee’s title was manager of booking and production for Olympia Entertainment. But those are just words. Lee did everything from bring in the shows, handle lighting, music, sound or labor issues, count the ticket revenue and make sure the artists had everything from perfect acoustics to their favorite bottled water.

He chitchatted with Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, ushers and backup guitarists. He treated them all the same — with a sly smile, a calm voice, an eye roll, a sway on his back feet and an encouraging piece of advice.

‘I have what I need’

In six years together, I never heard a bad word about him. He loved rock ‘n’ roll, thrived on drama, talked people off the ledge and held things together when they were falling apart.

Apparently, he had a history of that. He grew up in Florida, and when he was 16, his father, a biochemist, died suddenly at 52, also of a massive heart attack. Lee, one of three kids, took care of his younger sister and his fragile mother, eventually saving enough to buy a house that he and his mother shared for many years.

He finally left, coming to Detroit 10 years ago and throwing himself into his work. He never married. His job would have been too jealous.

“I used to say to him, ‘Don’t you want to settle down?’ But he said, ‘Why do I care, I have what I need,’ ” related his sister, Ilyne Barten, who said she lost her best friend with Lee’s passing, a brother who phoned her every day. “He loved his job. He loved me. And he loved my two kids. If you go to his office, that’s the first thing you’ll see, photos of them.”

But there’s no more going to his office, asking about ticket sales or electrical outlets or where a speaker is hidden. Those of us who loved him have been walking around gut-punched all week, wondering how the walls of the Fox are still standing without him.

None of us can believe he is gone.

Here’s to all the folks who do so much behind the scenes they actually become the scene. When the curtain finally rises on that musical, Lee, please know, wherever you are, it’s for you. Then again, it always was.

1 Comment

  1. mercedes3

    My sympathy to his family, to you, and to his friends and co-workers. Your words make me feel like I have known him for years. When a life is cut short so suddenly, even in our grief–our thoughts turn to our own mortality. Surely Lee’s talents and generosity will inspire many, many people in years to come.


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