The Entertainer: Tom Wilkinson's Backstage Life

Suing Miles Davis, selling flying toys, and other adventures



Whether selling toys or building theater sets, Tom Wilkinson has made a career out of not taking life too seriously.

LOGAN CYRUS

Tom Wilkinson was a union stagehand for Charlotte theater companies for 17 years. Now 62 and recently retired, he shares memories of a career that spans from the Vietnam War to the filming of The Patriot.

My great-grandfather was the man they named Wilkinson Boulevard after, and that was the first four-lane road in the state. We moved to Charlotte from Raleigh when I was 5, when Providence Road was a two-lane road. 

By the 12th grade, the Vietnam War was happening. Getting a job, except part-time retail, was a joke because they expected to lose you to the draft. I’ve had probably 50 or 60 jobs in my life, easily. You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” 

I’ve always kind of worked in entertainment. Two of my friends and I started a business called Wombat Productions in 1974, and we produced musical events. We started at what is the Grady Cole Center now. We put on what we called Almost Free Dance and Shows. We charged $1.50 and had four bands, belly dancers, fire eaters, comedians, and jugglers. It was a big party, and we’d make just enough to put another party on.

We put on jazz concerts at Dana Auditorium at Queens University before we got a hankering to go big time and booked Miles Davis for a concert at Ovens Auditorium and two more shows in Miami. I hired a bunch of street hippies to pick up his instruments from the airport, and once I had them in the truck, I took off with them because he canceled. He sued us for his equipment, and I counter-sued him for canceling.

“We’d dress up in pilot costumes and stand out in the mall throwing Nerf boomerangs.”

After that I went to flight school in Florida. Then I opened a company called School Street Aerodrome that sold flying toys with a friend. We opened stores at Carolina Place Mall, SouthPark, and others. We’d dress up in pilot costumes and stand out in the mall throwing Nerf boomerangs and taught the history of flight in schools. So that was fun. But there’s no money as a toy salesman. 

I started stage-handing in the mid-’90s. I was a union employee for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 322. I worked for Children’s Theatre, Opera Carolina, and [the now-defunct] Charlotte Repertory Theatre almost exclusively for years, building their sets.

I helped build the church in the film The Patriot [whose production headquarters were in South Carolina]. It was July, and we roofed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and as soon as we finished, it was burned for a scene! Sting played at Ovens Auditorium at that time, and I worked backstage and got to hang out with Stevie Wonder and Mel Gibson. I can’t remember having much more fun backstage.

Life is one day at a time whether anyone likes it or not, and I didn’t get that from AA. My mother always says, “If you’re not having a great time, what are you doing?” That’s a pretty simple rule to live by. —Tom Wilkinson

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Volunteer): Rick McDermott

He gets up earlier than most other people. He goes to bed later than most other people. And in the hours in between, he spends his life giving to other people

Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Philanthropy): Six Charities Worth Your Dollar

This is a generous city. A recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked the Charlotte metro area ninth among large American cities for the percentage of income its residents give to charity. But how do you know where to give? Start here. These groups provide healthy food, mentoring, after-school tutoring, and help paying the bills

Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Public Service): Anne Tompkins

She prosecuted the mayor. She investigated Saddam Hussein’s regime. She can be stern. But for Anne Tompkins, bringing justice brings her joy

Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Sports): BB&T Ballpark

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

Add your comment:
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Newsletters

Stay up-to-date on all things Charlotte by signing up for our newsletters. Learn more by clicking here.

Newsletter Sign Up
Email*
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module

Blogs »

Edit ModuleShow Tags


Revue

Andy Smith on Charlotte Arts & Culture

The 2014 Guide to Christmas Events in Charlotte

Comments


Revue

Andy Smith on Charlotte Arts & Culture

This Weekend in Charlotte: Relient K, Grateful Dead Tribute, & A Christmas Spectacular

Comments


Poking the Hornet's Nest

Greg Lacour on Politics

Charlotte and Ferguson: The Big Difference

Faced with its own case of a white cop shooting an unarmed black man, Charlotte took it seriously. The result? Peace, and maybe even justice.

Comments


Making Pictures

Photographs from Charlotte and beyond

Hundreds gather at Marshall Park day after grand jury decision [PHOTOS]

Comments


Charlotte at Home

Creating Your Space in the Queen City

Don't Forget the Details

These trimmings can round out your turkey feast

Comments

Edit ModuleShow Tags