A day in the life of Tops in Blue

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kim Heng
  • 14th Force Support Squadron Superintedent
It's 95 degrees out, the sun is beating down on the runway, and I'm on a truck bed-turned-stage, four feet off the tarmac, with sweat beading down the sides of my face. Suddenly, I hear "quiet on stage, rear truss going up!" In my gloved hands I have an adjustable wrench and duct tape and on my head is a worn yellow hard hat

Thirty-plus voices fall silent while the motors of the rear truss kick into gear, raising the blue sequined curtain we just finished attaching to its metal scaffolding. For safety, my team mates on stage stop their scurrying about, setting down their tools to silently watch the metal towers and risers, keeping a watchful eye out for any catches or tears of the sequined backdrop.

"Stop!" commands a voice from approximately 20 feet away. The gears of the motors stop, and all is silent. "Stage right, bring it up three inches." The right motor engages, and the right side of the rear truss rises. "Okay!" yells the voice. The motor stops. Then both motors reengage until the rear curtain is all the way up. As soon as the motors stop, the stage manager yells "all clear," and thirty plus voices commence speaking and moving in all directions while the hard hats are gathered up and placed in their bin.

"When do the performers get here?" an eager voice asks, as soon as it's clear to approach the stage. "Oh, we're all here, ma'am" is my reply to this often-asked question while pointing to the people around me.

The performers she's inquiring about are the cast members of Tops in Blue, the Air Force's premier entertainment group. The people on stage and scurrying around it, setting up speakers and lighting, taping extension cords to the concrete runway, are the performers. Tops in Blue travels on a 30-passenger bus with a 54-foot equipment truck with no room for "roadies," thus, the performers are also the crew. There is a small technical crew for things like lighting and audio, but the technical crew works alongside the performers, setting up for the night's performance.

To become a member of Tops in Blue, I had to submit a video tape of me performing as if I was performing in front of an audience. Along with that, I sent a completed eight-page application listeing my entertainment experiences, not just in my specialty, but any makeup, wardrobe, technical, lighting or audio experiences.

After the tape was reviewed at the Headquarters Services Agency, Entertainment Division in San Antonio, Texas, I was invited to the world wide talent contest, along with approximately 80 other Airmen from bases all around the world.

The Tops in Blue's production center is located at Lackland AFB, Texas. That is where I and my 31 fellow tour members spent approximately our first ten weeks together, rehearsing, learning choreography and building the set. Where trumpet players placed ice packs on swollen lips to help keep the swelling down from playing long hours they weren't accustomed to, where ace bandages to support overworked muscles and hot tea to soothe worn vocal chords were purchased and consumed.

All of the praying to make the tour, the subsequent training, sleep-deprivation, performing through injuries and illness and a nearly one-year separation from family led them to this hot runway today.

After arriving this morning after a four-hour journey, the next four hours will see them preparing the stage, instruments, audio, lighting equipment, and wardrobe followed by a complete sound check.

The evening's 90-minute uninterrupted performance is the easiest part of the day. Afterwards, the team will changes, eats, tears down the entire set, packs it away and loads it back into the truck before midnight--if they're lucky. Then it's off to check into billeting, showers, and an early-morning wake up call to get on the bus and do it all over again the next day.

That is the essence of Tops in Blue -- travel, set-up, performance, tear-down, repeat.

The thirty-two cast members will learn to work together as a team, eat, play, pray, and sometimes argue while performing close to 125 shows in more than 20 countries.

My tour took us to such places as Croatia, Bosnia, Greenland, Niagara Falls, and a high school performing arts center in Beckley, West Virginia, where I dropped a 45-pound light board on my shin for which I still bear a scar.

In one of the most challenging yet rewarding years of my entire Air Force career, I created wonderful memories with a group of people that I call family.

The Tops in Blue family, called priors, include those who toured before me, with me, and after me, those who are keeping up the tradition of providing quality entertainment to Airmen around the world. Local priors include our 14th Flying Training Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Zefrem Smith, Tops in Blue 1988, the 42nd Airman Leadership School Commandant, Master Sgt. Stacy Mercer, Tops in Blue 1996, and myself, Tops in Blue 1998.