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

More »Related Stories

The Story of Charlotte, Part 7: Bills of Rights

The mills bring growth and the city expands, giving Charlotteans the freedom to live in such faraway places as the new neighborhood of Dilworth. But after a series of political fights, many residents will soon feel the full grip of oppression

Split Tickets: Charlotte's Cultural Sector

Many large local arts organizations and shows are setting records. Big money is pouring into a major fundraising campaign led by Hugh McColl. But the news isn’t good everywhere. Smaller companies are struggling, with some even shutting down. Can Charlotte sustain both?

Dr. J. Michael Bitzer: The Professor on Speed Dial

When reporters need analysis of the Tillis-Hagan race—or any other political matter, really—they call him. So how did this bow tie-wearing, statistics-loving, Southern politics-following academic from Clemson become everybody’s go-to source?

What's for Breakfast?

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

Add your comment:

Newsletters

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

Newsletter Sign Up
Email*
 

Blogs »


Charlotte at Home

Creating Your Space in the Queen City

Fun at the Markets, Farms, and Gardens

Take time to enjoy events in Davidson, Matthews, Belmont, and the heart of Myers Park

Comments


Poking the Hornet's Nest

Greg Lacour on Politics

Judiciary for Sale

More than ever, money rather than integrity wins judges' elections. It's time for a change.

Comments


Dine & Dish

News, Notes, and Gossip About the Charlotte Restaurant Scene

Try This: Breakfast Bowl at Tupelo

Tupelo Honey on South Blvd dishes up everything from breakfast to lunch to dinner. But the restaurant in the old Pewter Rose shines brightest during the first meal of the day.

Comments


Dusk Till Dawn

Jarvis Holliday Chronicles Charlotte's Nightlife and Social Scene, Straight No Chaser

Nightlife News: Q-Tavern and Hattie’s Tap & Tavern Now Open; Uber Offers Passport to NoDa

The latest news, poised to impact Charlotte’s nightlife and social scene.

Comments


On Tap

Matt McKenzie on Craft Beer in Charlotte

Triple C releasing “The Dude Imbibes” this Saturday

Event will feature live music and a bottle share

Comments