A game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon would be hard to win against Dan Harrison, the technical and operations manager of Wilson Hall Auditorium and Anthony Seeger Auditorium, whose career as a production crew member for countless movies, sporting events and concerts put him in close contact with a number of celebrities.
Harrison, who worked as a production crew member and “roadie” for nearly two decades before coming to JMU, built sets for movies including “The Game Plan,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Knight and Day,” starring Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, and “R.I.P.D.,” starring Kevin Bacon. He also built sets for concert tours with musicians including Shakira, the Rolling Stones, Arlo Guthrie and the recently deceased Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals.
“Toots was really nice,” Harrison said. “I think when you’ve smoked as much weed as he has, it’s hard not to be nice.”
Harrison, who studied piano performance in JMU’s School of Music, moved to Boston early in his career and worked odd jobs in The Garage mall at Harvard Square while occasionally returning to JMU to assist with productions in Wilson Hall for the technical and operations manager at the time, Thomas Parr Hern (’80).
Hern said he believes Harrison’s success can be attributed to his strong work ethic.
“Danny was a hard worker and always was there early and left late,” Hern said.
In 2007, Harrison returned to JMU to set up for a Brandi Carlile and Howie Day concert that was run by a Boston-based production company. The company offered Harrison a job, which got his foot in the door in the Boston concert world, building sets for “basically every New England college that had a large event space,” including the American Repertory Theater at Harvard.
Setting up for shows was “my fun work that turned into a career,” Harrison said.
At the height of his career, Harrison helped build sets for two of the largest touring stages in the world: the first was the Rolling Stones’ A Bigger Bang tour (’05-’07), and the second was U2’s 360° tour (’09-’12), the largest touring stage in history. The stage for the U2 tour was nicknamed “The Claw,” since it was an enormous, 162-foot tall circular platform, which allowed the audience to surround the band on all sides.
For many movies, Harrison said he didn’t see any actors in his job. He worked as a grip — a person who helps prep for filming — on a movie called “Telltale” at an abandoned hospital in Boston.
“I sat on the roof, and I had no idea what was going on,” Harrison said as he recalled a cold night spent operating a giant, 32-foot tall nine-light. “Four hours later, somebody would bring me food.”
He said most of the time, celebrities got in the way of his work — literally. While filming “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” on an island near Quincy, Massachusetts, Harrison held up a barricade to protect the film crew from high winds “because sandbags just weren’t doing it.” At the end of a take for a scene of Long Island state-trooper training when Blart passed out, Harrison said Kevin James turned a corner of a barricade and slammed into him. Harrison said he apologized and that James pointed to his belly and said, “This thing gets in the way all the time.”
Other times, the celebrities sat down with Harrison, like at the Champlain Valley Fair in Vermont where he ate dinner with Paul Simon and the folk musician’s son at a picnic table behind a stage. Harrison said Paul Simon was cordial while referring to Simon’s son as a “firecracker.”
“That kid had some sass to him,” Harrison said. “Gave Paul Simon’s agent hell over the phone and then hung up the phone and just died laughing because he was totally yanking his chain.”
Harrison said some of his other favorite experiences were having a cigarette with Arlo Guthrie, setting up a piano for Elton John, who Harrison referred to as “a class act,” and building a half-pipe in a converted bullring in Beijing, China, for the AST Mountain Dew Tour.
In 2016, Harrison was a lighting director for a children’s theater on Nantucket Island when he got an important phone call from Hern, who was retiring from 40 years of service at JMU and said they’d be waiting for Harrison’s resume.
“The timing just worked out,” Harrison, excited to be closer to his two nieces and grandparents in Virginia, said. “A two-hour drive is a hell of a lot shorter than a two-hour boat ride and a nine-hour drive.”
Plus, Harrison said he bought a house in the area instead of having “the really expensive storage unit other people would call an apartment.”
As Technical Manager of Wilson Hall, Harrison helped implement a laundry list of changes during the 2018-19 renovation, including an updated lighting system with color-changing LEDs and updated projection technology. Harrison said he wanted to make these improvements so students could have more capabilities in their shows.
“When you go to a concert, there’s video, there’s visualizations, there’s projections, there’s a video wall, there’s lazers,” Harrison said. “And the students want to do that in their shows here.”
The pandemic also brought a blessing in disguise to Wilson Hall — a livestream system. After the pandemic hit, Harrison brought up the idea of installing a livestream system, and to his surprise, his request was approved. The system, which was completed only two weeks ago, makes it possible for events to be held in Wilson with no audience.
“I was very fortunate that we had it in the budget to do all of those things,” Harrison said.
Because of the switch to online classes, there are no events — in person or otherwise — currently planned in Wilson Hall Auditorium, except for a professor from the history department who opted to record lectures in the space. Harrison has implemented COVID-19 traffic plans, and as for the signs on the floor: “Those are my fault,” Harrison said, joking.
Usually, Harrison describes his job as part stage manager and part whip cracker. He also said working with student organizations, such as Filipino Americans at Madison, the Asian Student Union and several others, to create the vision for culture shows — events run by students that present their heritage through dance and other performances — is a big part of his job, and he said he hopes these events get more publicity in the future.
RJ Mosuela, a senior health sciences major and president of FAM, which holds two culture shows each year in Memorial Hall, agrees that more JMU students should attend cultural productions.
“It’s a way to become more knowledgeable of who also makes up the JMU community,” Mosuela, who grew up in a predominantly white area, said. “You might learn a thing or two about varying walks of life, and you might just find a new organization to be a part of.”
Harrison has helped organizations like FAM develop their vision when it comes to putting on a culture show. Harrison said he’s passionate about “creating a visual aesthetic that tells a story and invokes a feeling in people” using scenery and lighting.
Hern, who was technical manager for Wilson Hall Auditorium while Harrison was still a student, said he believes directing the auditorium requires refined knowledge — along with an ingredient that can’t be taught.
“You have to have passion to do this kind of work,” he said.
Hern said he believes Harrison has the same passion for the job that he himself had.
“At this point I’m sure Danny knows more than I do about production,” Hern said. “Regardless of whether he agrees with me or not, he knows a lot about the technical side of things.”
Harrison’s advice to future production workers is to stay relevant and never stop learning.
“The technology that we use in the entertainment industry is always changing,” Harrison said. “If you get stuck in a rut with what you know, you will get stuck in a rut careerwise.”
“Be able to work in every department and you will always have work,” Harrison said.
Contact Jillian Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.