GAMBLE: The man behind the curtain
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Paul Smaxwill leans his forehead against a wall in the kitchen. The wall separates him from Cory Chisel, who is on the stage of Turner Hall Ballroom. He listens intently to see if Chisel plays his request.
“He made a promise that he’d play it,” says Smaxwill.
Another staffer, eating catered salad and couscous from Beans and Barley, mutters, “Yeah, well, we’ll see if he keeps that promise.”
When the mumbling stops and the bass starts, Smaxwill lifts his head from the wall. It’s not his song.
We’re standing backstage in the ballroom’s kitchen on Valentine’s Day. The night’s lineup is Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel, folk rock band Dawes and Wisconsin native Cory Chisel. Smaxwill, wearing layers of black shirts, jeans and gym shoes, is a member of the hospitality team at Turner Hall Ballroom as well as the Pabst and Riverside Theaters. He says his job isn’t extravagant. There are no topless shenanigans or wild nights.
This is a guy who says the only rule he breaks — and he does so intentionally — is wearing black shirts with brown shoes.
“Cause you’re not supposed to do that, right? Isn’t that a rule?” he asks, confirming there’s even something there to break.
Smaxwill calls backstage a sanctuary. For visiting musicians, this green room, with seating for 12 and tables of catered food, is home for the night. He doesn’t ask for autographs or initiate conversation. There is an unspoken code among staff to “keep your cool.” Asking for a picture, for example, would be a major loss of cool. The most venturesome Smaxwill ever gets is asking an artist if they will play an obscure song — which is what he did tonight.
Otherwise, he washes their dishes, finds their wine openers and stocks their brewskies. He says nothing fazes him, and this appears to be true. As I shadow him for the night, he apologizes for the lack of glitz and glamour.
“If anything, at least you’ll see a good show tonight,” Smaxwill says.
It’s an honest modest. Earlier in the evening, when he handed me a PBR Tall Boy and set me up at a table to watch Dawes do their sound check, it was clear he doesn’t fake the “aw-shucks” act. His hospitality never turns off.
Which is why Smaxwill has worked hospitality the past year, after working a year with the Pabst’s street team, performing a medley of tasks. He didn’t quite graduate from UWM in 2008, calling it quits a couple of semesters early. He likes this gig. He listens to music he would otherwise have to pay for, and enjoys giving the artists that inspire him a genuine thank you.
“I’ll say to musicians I really admire, ‘Hey, thanks for coming here.’ That’s pretty cool,” Smaxwill says.
Like a doting Italian mother, he makes sure I don’t skip dessert after I eat my plateful of veggies and hummus. “Come on, go get some cake,” he says, pointing to a chocolate monstrosity with white icing while he dries dishes.
Later in the night, Cory Chisel takes a sip of red wine on stage and gets ready to play his next song.
“This is for my friend Paul,” he says to the crowd before launching into Smaxwill’s request. He kept his promise.
When I find Smaxwill, we dart upstairs to the roped-off balcony and listen to the band play his request from above. When it’s over, I ask him how it feels to get a shout-out from the band.
“Wait. So he did say that?”
“Yeah!” I say, “You didn’t hear that? He said, ‘This is for my friend Paul.’”
“No, no, I thought I did. OK, so he did say that. All right. Well, I guess we’re friends now.”