So for the sixth time in their epic career, the Rolling Stones have hit the road with a stage built by the premier manufacturer Tait Towers of Lititz.
The Tait Towers stage, roughly the size of two basketball courts and weighing about 80,000 pounds, lies at the center of the largest portable set ever created.
The overall set, produced by a consortium of industry leaders, takes more than 100 tractor-trailers to transport. It requires a week and 150 workers to put together.
This project is so immense that theres not one company on the planet that could do it all, said Adam Davis, project manager for Tait Towers.
So with a show like that, (the Stones) go to the best companies in their field all over the world.
The 18-month world tour, dubbed A Bigger Bang, will be wrapping up its fifth week when the Stones perform Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium, their first area show ever.
The 30,000 tickets, costing $60 to $350, lasted less than seven hours when they went on sale in May. Tickets are being resold online, topping out at more than $2,000 apiece.
A Bigger Bang underscores how the road to rock n roll stardom often runs through Lititz, although the community is better known for its chocolate, Listerine and Moravians.
Not only is Tait Towers supplying the stage, but its neighbor, Clair Brothers Audio, is providing the sound system, serving the Stones for the first time since 1975. (See story below.)
The Stones stage project illustrates the specialized nature of stage manufacturing and the array of skills needed to succeed at its highest level.
In this case, the challenge was to turn an English set designers concept into a portable reality, in a seven-week sprint.
Tait Towers part its largest project ever, sold to the Stones for an undisclosed sum required talents ranging from engineering and drafting to machining and welding.
Thats routine for Tait Towers.
Its the same way the company this year has made stages for the Super Bowl halftime show and the MTV Music Video Awards show, and for tours by Paul McCartney, U2, Bon Jovi and Reba McEntire.
And they do it with a team of only 45 employees, mostly from the Lititz area, who work anonymously in an unmarked building to produce one-of-a-kind, customized and often dazzling structures used by many of the worlds top rock n rollers.
For the Bigger Bang tour, the Tait Towers main stage is the place where Mick Jagger and friends perform. Or places, you could say.
Measuring 190 feet wide, 70 feet deep and 25 feet high, the main stage has ramps off its edges, stairs on the corners up to decks, and an overhead walkway connecting the decks.
To get a sense of that scale, when the main stage was set up in the outfield of Bostons Fenway Park for the tour opener in August, it stretched from left-center field to right-center field.
But, this being a set for the Rolling Stones, a band that plays immense venues and loves grandeur, theres much more.
Tait Towers also made a retractable rain roof and, for the indoor stops on the tour, a mechanically operated, scenically painted curtain.
Surrounding the main stage to create the rest of the mind-boggling set are vital contributions from firms in Belgium, Texas, California and elsewhere:
n A six-story steel superstructure with balconies for fans behind the stage.
n A gigantic video screen in the middle of the superstructure.
n A mini-stage that detaches from the main stage and rolls into the audience.
n Plus lighting, special effects and a metal foundation for underneath the whole set.
To operate it all, the Stones travel with a seven-page roster of personnel. Its a small traveling city that has its own catering, electrical power and wardrobe services.
In our heads, were very important, said Davis.
But the reality is, were just a little piece of the pie. When you have a show like that, there are thousands of people by the time youre done whove worked on it and made it happen.
Relatively speaking, the main stage accounts for a small piece of the Stones tour caravan.
The Tait Towers stage travels in four trucks. It takes about 20 people only four hours to assemble it, said general manager James Fairorth.
Made of aluminum, chrome-alloy steel and plywood, the stage is a universal portion of the overall set. That means theres only one and its used at every show, indoor or outdoor.
The steel superstructure, in contrast, is so big that its used only at outdoor concerts. It takes so long to assemble and take apart that the tour has two identical copies.
Theyre being deployed in a leapfrog pattern along the tour route, so one copy can be going up or down while its concert night at the other.
As trucks laden with stage and set roll into Hershey, in a sense they were put in motion last spring.
Thats when set designer Mark Fisher completed his elaborate plan for the Stones, and the bands production manager hired Tait Towers and the other firms to fulfill it.
Tait Towers knew that to carry out its part of the plan, it had to keep in mind that more than the Stones were going on tour. The stage was going too.
Of course, you cant just build a huge stage, said Davis. You have to build lots of little pieces that get clipped into place to become that structure.
That meant concentrating on the firms fundamentals, what Davis calls connections and packaging.
Everything we build is portable, so it has to come apart and go together. For us, its designing those connections that make it come apart and go together quickly, accurately and easily.
For the packaging side of the equation, Tait Towers begins with the end in mind, and works backwards from there, Davis explained.
It first learns how the stage will travel (by truck, ship and/or plane), what size of cart they can hold and finally, what size of pieces can fit into that size of cart.
Said Fairorth, Nobody spends as much time figuring out how to get things to go together so quickly and to be packaged so elegantly as we do.
The drive for improvement results in changes that fans would never notice, but the band sure does.
For instance, the Stones stage stands on a new kind of legs that eliminate framework. That means faster set-up and tear-down, and less space in a truck.
All of which betters a tours bottom line, said Fairorth. The labor costs in our business are astronomical. Thats where you have to be incredibly efficient.
Besides upgrading its own techniques, Tait Towers also suggests revisions to the stage configuration developed by the set designer to make the concert itself run smoother.
One such innovation devised for an earlier Stones tour, and used ever since, is a double-deck stage, a sort of stage-within-a-stage.
The decks can be assembled separately but simultaneously, then slid together, saving set-up time. But the concept has other advantages too.
The inner, lower deck is for the band techs who take care of the musicians equipment. It gives them more room and a clear view of the outer, higher deck, where the musicians stand.
Now its becoming the industry standard, said Fairorth.
A short deadline already is. Though seven weeks to make a main stage is a meager amount of time, its a routine schedule in the stage business.
Tait Towers crew responded with 12-hour days and longer; the company would hire more skilled craftsmen if it could find them. The firm also added 30 temps for the more basic tasks.
The need for speed, however, did not give Tait Towers any extra margin for error. Its stage had to fit with sections of the set being produced an ocean away.
That called for extreme accuracy from everyone. All of our stuff had to marry up, within very tight tolerances, with all of the other companies stuff, noted Fairorth.
That wasnt the only essential. The stage had to be simple to set up and tear down. Fortunately for Tait Towers, those qualities are hallmarks of its stages.
Tait Towers employees dont tour with a show. While they train the tour staff that supervises the set-up and tear-down, most of the hands-on work is done by a local crew hired at each concert stop.
Every city (the Stones) get to, our stuff is being assembled by people whove never seen it before. So the goal is to make it as simple as possible. We call it idiot proof, said Davis.
Tait Towers does that by using color coding, bold labels and a system that locks pieces together with no loose hardware and only one tool.
All you need is a 5/16th-inch Allen key, said Fairorth.
While the local crew may be strangers to the stage, the crews supervisors are not.
Long before the tour opened, freelance stage technicians (or carpenters) hired by the Stones to oversee the set-up and tear-down visited Lititz for days of hands-on experience.
Then Fairorth and Dan Witmyer, the head prototype fabricator, attended the pre-tour rehearsals in an empty 747 hangar at the Toronto airport, making modifications as needed.
We eventually hand the baton off to them, once they feel comfortable and once we feel comfortable, said Fairorth.
The baton remains within reach, though. Once a tour begins, Tait Towers still provides supplies, repairs and modifications if necessary, he said.
Tait Towers was founded in 1978 by Michael Tait, an Australian who had been production manager and lighting designer for the rock group Yes.
He had become familiar with Lititz when Yes came here for rehearsals at its sound-system provider, Clair Brothers, and when he visited the Clairs homes.
Now his firm is based just a block from Clair Brothers. It does its high-profile work in a low-profile site off Route 501 in Warwick Township, just north of Lititz Borough.
The Wynfield Drive headquarters has no sign. The front door, encircled by a formation of artificial rock, is marked by a pair of high metal towers.
Inside the 40,000-square-foot building, decorated with an old billboard-size Stones lips-and-tongue logo and other tour decor, is a firm thats sharply focused on speed, versatility, precision and imagination.
Shelves are stuffed with metals, electronics and plywood, so no time is lost ordering materials, contrary to the mainstream just-in-time practice, which eschews tieing up dollars in idle inventory.
In the office, draftsmen use computer aided design (CAD) programs to draw in 3-D as draftsmen at collaborating firms thousands of miles away view the drawing, discuss it and perhaps add to it, all in real time.
From those drawings and materials, computer-controlled machines cut custom shapes to exact specifications. Then, atop maneuverable work tables on wheels, the shapes are assembled. Finally, pieces of the stage are put together to test the fit.
Inventory and equipment only get you so far, though.
As Davis and Fairorth observed, the secret behind Tait Towers is the passion and dedication of its workers.
Davis called it a cathedral builder mentality.
Were all here because we want to be involved in the biggest and best projects ..., he said.
As Michael Tait always says, its about giving that last 1 percent. Its not about being 99 percent perfect. Its about making the most perfect thing you can, said Davis.
As a result, the Stones can always get what they want.