When There Were Giants
In Memory of Jack “Jack the Rigger” Warlitner
By Bill Belz
In recent years, we’ve witnessed the passing of a number of industry luminaries and innovators, most of whom have received their due accolades. This is the story of one of the true unsung heroes, and a patriarch to all who came under his tutelage.
As I understand the story, Jack Warlitner began his rigging career in the US Navy, after which he became right-hand man to Bill McManus. Jack was there when the first chain motors were inverted, and when sealed beam lamps were first wrapped in metal cans. As I used to joke, “Jack was once the head rigger at the Parthenon”. He was to Bill McManus, as Kato was to the green lantern. Bill had a vision and Jack Built it. He toured with, I dare say, most of the major acts of the 70’s. I’ll always remember the wide-eyed expressions of numerous aspiring lighting directors, electricians and riggers over a late night cup of coffee or a truck stop meal, and Jack’s tales of the road.
As riggers go, Jack was a cowboy. He was a wiry, agile climber, well into his seventies. I can’t say I recall Jack ever being tied in, no matter how high, and if there were outriggers on a man lift, there weren’t when he was done with it. When Jack was in the air, it was mastery, as if watching a world-class athlete. Every move was deliberate. Every action intentional. But no matter what risks he took personally, he always took responsibility for the safety of his young crew. Despite being an OSHA nightmare, there were NEVER accidents.
And that comes to the heart of the man. Talking with Jack was like stepping right into Appalachia. He had a down-home, backwoods demeanor, not unlike a certain character on a reality TV show about moonshiners. In fact, when I once offered to buy Jack a drink, to which he responded “Aw, hell…I only drink moonshine”. Of course his only vices that I recall, were unfiltered cigarettes and strong black coffee. Jack was close to everyone, and to no one at the same time. On holidays he could often be found making stage drapes at the McManus warehouse. On the job, he was like a father to everyone. When on the road, he would always take a handful of his artfully crafted cordura tool bags, affectionately known as “Jack Bags”, to every venue he went, and distribute them freely to the crew. A true renaissance man, there was little he couldn’t do, and no one with whom he wouldn’t share his vast, practical knowledge.
I won’t say that Jack wasn’t stubborn. He was stubborn like a mule on a hot august day. I will say that Jack’s Heart was as big as Texas. If someone needed to borrow a widget, he wouldn’t just loan the widget, he’d provide a back-up, two alternate solutions, and a thorough explanation of what to do if all else failed. Though small in frame, he was larger than life. A giant among men, who may never receive full recognition for his contributions to his craft.
Whether you knew the man or not, you have likely been impacted by his life. Jack always knew that his place, our place as support crew, was in the background – the silent machine that kept the shows rolling. Even if you’ve never heard is name, you should know about him. Jack would have never talked about himself in these terms, but the thousands of people he’s touched would.
I suppose if he could read these words now, his only response might be “Well, I’ll buy that. I won’t pay much for it though. Hah!” Safe travels Jack, wherever your next tour takes you.
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