Settling into a hard chair in the center of the Mahaffey Theater’s barren stage, Todd Beatty peers into the auditorium, past the mute, uniform rows of plush maroon seats, and frowns.
“You know what drives me crazy when I walk into this room?” says the venue’s longtime Operations and Production Manager. “When I see that somebody put the wrong light bulb in a sconce. See that, on the first level, the second one in from the right?”
To the reporter, everything looks perfect, not a bulb out of place.
“There’s a color temperature difference,” Beatty says. “It’s really obvious to me.”
For 27 years, Beatty has been the Mahaffey’s benevolent Phantom of the Opera, the man who lives in a box just behind the stage.
He is the first point of contact for any organization coming into the building to set up performances. He knows every inch of the sound and lighting equipment and how to use them, he knows every electrical cord and where they go, he knows how to bolt and re-bolt the maroon seats and the opera boxes. He holds the keys. He knows everything that has to happen before the show must go on, and during the show, and after the show.
And he’s leaving.
Last Friday, his final day at the Mahaffey, Beatty sat down for an exit interview, of sorts, with the Catalyst. He’s been hired by as Senior Engineer for the new Pier District, by the management company brought in by the City of St. Petersburg. “As I understand it, I won’t be responsible for any entertainment,” he says. “I’m strictly just making sure the place works.”
At 52, he’s happy to enter a new phase of his life and career, one that (hopefully) doesn’t involve circus stunt-type work.
“Back in the day, I was doing a lot more, but as I get older I can’t carry those big ladders around,” he says.
Beatty points to the theater’s ceiling, 50 feet or so above the audience, to a bright circle of lights 25 feet in diameter, accessible only by suspended steel catwalks. “I used to climb out on that, what we call the Death Ring. I used to walk on that and change the light bulbs. I quit going out on that about five years ago.”
Still, he admits, after working at the Mahaffey for more than half of his life, his exit is bittersweet. “I’ve always felt like I’m the historian of this place,” Beatty says. “And I do love it – I love the building, and I love the business. I am going to miss it.”
Todd Beatty found his way into the wonderful world of entertainment in a circuitous manner. In 1987, he and his soon-to-be wife Christine left their home in Canfield, Ohio to study recording engineering – as in record-making – at Full Sail University outside Orlando.
After graduation, they moved to St. Petersburg, where the Beatty family had often vacationed. While Christine pursued studio work at Creative Media Recording – she spent seven years there – her husband made the dough (literally and figuratively) in a Pasadena Pizza Hut, just to keep the bills paid.
In time, he met the right people and made the right connections, and his talents with sound, lights and all things electrical (he’s been an inveterate “tinkerer” all his life) led to a job as Tech Director of Tropicana Field, when it was known (pre-Rays) as the Suncoast Dome (and the Thunder Dome). He stayed for four years.
Beatty was invited to replace the outgoing Production Manager at the waterfront Bayfront Center complex in 1993. Like the Suncoast Dome, the Bayfront Center was owned by the City.
At the time, Bayfront consisted of a 7,000-seat arena and the 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater, both constructed in 1965. Although the Mahaffey had been substantially renovated in the late 1980s, the leaky, outdated arena was in serious decline.
“It was a great-sounding room,” Beatty recalls. “For a big room, it sounded really good. In my time, there weren’t many concerts there. It was petering out on the rock ‘n’ roll side of things.”
The glory days of Elvis, Liberace, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen had given way to a trickle of convention bookings and once-a-year visits from ice shows and the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Things weren’t much better at the Mahaffey, which had originally been known as the Bayfront Theater.
“The first five, six years I was here, I would say it was fairly busy,” Beatty says. “And then it started tapering off. And by 2000-ish, it was pretty bad. I was still working some 60-hour weeks, and some 80-hours weeks, but there was definitely more time off.”
The ascension of Tampa’s 22,000-seat Ice Palace (aka St. Pete Times Forum, aka Tampa Bay Times Forum, aka Amalie Arena) was the final nail in the Bayfront Arena’s coffin; it was decided that a 7,000-seat concrete venue was superfluous to the City’s needs.
The arena was demolished on Dec. 1, 2004.
Todd Beatty stayed home that day. “It was a cool building. I remember hanging like 125,000 pounds of grid in there for a show. It was built right.
“You can ask any of the old stagehands that are still working, or retired, and they still just think that was the wrong thing to do. They all loved that room.”
As a result, for the last 15 years Todd Beatty has been Mr. Mahaffey Theater. He’s seen the place rebound in a big way since Bill Edwards’ Big3 organization took over management in 2011. “Mr. Edwards came in and did what he does,” Beatty says. “He made his magic. And the place has been hopping.”
After 27 years, however, Todd Beatty’s had enough hopping. He and Christine have three grown daughters, and he’s looking to correct a few things at this point in their lives.
“I don’t think I ever missed a Christmas, but I missed a lot of New Year’s Eve celebrations, for many, many years,” he says. He missed birthday parties, holidays, and various family excursions because he always seemed to be working. If there were morning events, like Easter services, Todd Beatty always had to be the first person in the building.
He’d been thinking for a while about making a significant change. In November, a consistent 18-day stretch of work, one 12-to-18-hour day after another, kind of made the decision for him. “It was brutal,” he recalls. “That really wore on me.
“And living all these years with this lifestyle, most people end up divorced. I didn’t want to see that happen.”