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Quick-change artists: Irish team’s magic act has Garden in top form

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

They can make a circus disappear and reappear. They can make yellow taxis appear on a theater stage. Best of all, they can turn a maplewood floor into ice — and back again.

Welcome to Madison Square Garden. Its magicians are the Irish and Irish-American carpenters and engineers who tend it. When you are performing all these magic tricks, it helps if you work in a building that itself is an enormous chameleon, changing its complexion daily.

Head carpenter Malcolm Shaw, from Belfast’s Falls Road, has been working at the Garden for 40 years. Shaw is a fit-looking man with a full head of hair. His Falls Road accent may have faded slightly, but his direct, Belfast humor hasn’t gone anywhere.

“I started work at the Garden for five days in 1961,” Shaw said, referring to an earlier arena, at 49th Street and Eighth Avenue. “I’m still here.” He paused. “It’s been a long five days.”

Actually, any five days at the Garden are usually long ones for the carpenters and engineers.

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“If there’s anything bad about working in here, it’s the whacky hours,” said chief engineer Jerry O’Shea, whose mother, Kitty, came from Kerry. “Someone has to be here in engineering 24 hours a day.” His colleague John Gallagher, also Irish American, agreed.

“Someone has to be here 24 hours a day. In engineering, we run fans and fire protection as well,” said Gallagher. From their computers, the Garden’s engineers can stop and start any fan in the building, giving their job an air of mystery and effortless control.

Last week was a typical one at the Garden — if any week can be typical. With the circus in town, the Garden’s famous central arena was inhabited for two and a half hours per show by elephants, high-wire acrobats, a myriad of colorful performers including a crowd of clowns.

At a pre-circus show, clowns and elephants were in full swing, entertaining schoolchildren before the main presentation took place. A clown pushed another clown’s face on to a fake stovetop: there was an exaggerated shriek and even more exaggerated puff of smoke. The crowd howled with laughter.

After each show, the arena had to be cleared and refashioned as something else: a mere five hours, perhaps, until the Knicks stride on to the legendary maplewood court, or until the Rangers scythed across the ice that lies beneath the court — the trick is that the Garden’s basketball court is made of 200 wooden panels that Shaw’s team bolt together into a 94 by 45 feet playing field. The hallowed ground of the Knicks can be wiped away in as little as two hours.

How is it accomplished? The circus departs the arena, leaving behind only a strong smell of elephants.

In this unionized building, “everybody knows their jurisdiction,” said Shaw’s colleague Gourley. Teams get to work on clearing, tidying, fixing.

On top of the ice arena, there are thick layers of paper pulp, called homusote. On top of that, a team will lay out the 200 maplewood boards, which Shaw and his team will then bolt together.

They whack each board into its tight-fitting spot with sledgehammers with heavy rubber-sheathed heads, then bolt it.

“There’s only an eighth of an inch left,” said Gourley, indicating that after a few repairs — when painters sand, strip and repaint the boards — they start to wear thin and have to be completely replaced.

When Shaw sat down for coffee break with his team of carpenters afterward, the banter flew, the chat was good-natured, and, above all, the enthusiasm for life at the Garden was strong.

On the workshop’s door, a sign read “Proud to be Irish,” and inside, Shaw’s cluttered office had maps of Ireland and County Down on the walls.

Represented in the team’s windowless workshop’s coffee room, deep in the Garden’s insides, were Meath, Cork, Dublin, Belfast, Tyrone, and — eyes rolled to the ceiling — “County Bronx.”

What was the worst aspect of the job? The answer, in chorus: “Working with him,” indicating Malcolm Shaw. Joking aside, the team was full of praise for their work.

Never a dull moment

They recounted some of their favorite moments at the Garden. U2, the Grateful Dead, and Elton John have all played here, their stages carefully put together by the bands’ stage hands, assisted by this team, usually “at the Eighth Avenue end.” Elton recently beat the Grateful Dead for record number of performances — he did his 57th gig just last year.

“Most of these guys have been here five to 10 years,” said Shaw afterward. His own memories of the Garden are longer and stronger.

He saw the first Ali-Frasier fight here in 1971. He’s seen three Democratic National Conventions, though he had to pause to remember which candidates they nominated.

“There was Clinton-Gore, Carter and I guess Mondale in 1984.”

There were the endless Knicks and Rangers games, though the teams’ performances this year drew some wry faces.

Almost the second thing each team member said after a warm welcome, was, as Tyrone man Jimmy Gourley put it, “it’s the most interesting place to work. At the very least, you’re never doing the same thing, day after day.”

Statistically alone, they work in a building with impressive credentials.

There have been four Madison Square Gardens so far. This one sits atop Pennsylvania Station on a total of eight acres of land.

There are 600 events here every year, and the arena is usually booked up to three years in advance (think regulars, such as the Westminster Kennel Club, and, of course, the Knicks and Rangers, and that takes care of about half of the events already).

The ice-making crew walks 40 miles, spraying thin layers of water to make the hard, flawless ice that lies beneath. The ice is thawed once a year, usually for the Westminster Dog Show. It seems the dogs can sense the cold underfoot.

Five million people visit every year, consuming 1.6 million cups of beer and 1.2 million cups of soda.

The building awes even the old hands. “They say that scoreboard weighs 20 tons,” said Jimmy quietly, looking up at the massive electronic score board that looks more like a satellite than anything else.

Occasionally, there is a once-off event that requires a special arena set-up: a 10,000-strong Moonie mass wedding, for example, or the pope’s visit in 1980.

That makes for considerable wear and tear on the Garden, requiring the watchfulness of the engineers and the healing hands of the carpenters — though Shaw referred self-deprecatingly to himself and the carpenters as, “We’re just the guys who bang nails in.”

O’Shea was more accurate when he said, “We’re the keepers of the building,” referring to both the engineers and the carpenters. “This building has a lot of users, a lot of people come and go on a daily basis.”

Barnum and Bailey’s two-and-a-half-week run at the Garden had come to an end. The elephants, the locker rooms full of clown shoes and baggy pants and the performers were all gone, though O’Shea still said he could smell the elephants. An annual chapter in the Garden’s life had closed once more.

But the Garden is a circus every day of the week. A short ride on an elevator in this building is to see a New York City pageant with a stop on every floor: at one floor, the doors open on a mob of screaming children, through which a 600-pound man in a suit is attempting to wade toward the already-closing doors. On another floor, it’s a much more refined family group, quietly asking directions to one of those legendary suites. A third stop: more people push into the elevator and elephant odor really is hanging heavily on the air.

Finally, the elevator arrives at the highest public level — the suites, 89 in all, for which Shaw and his team are also responsible.

The suites are rented almost always by corporations, and, as Shaw explained, “you have to rent them on a three-year basis and that entitles you to every event in here. People pay a lot of money for this.”

The view over the arena is expansive, and clearly expensive. Shaw looked down over his fiefdom.

“Next week we have a four-day load-in for a two-and-a-half-hour show,” said Shaw with a sigh. “In the theater.” The theater is a separate, 4,000-seat accommodation, where, already that day, Shaw’s men had erected a stage on which a yellow cab had appeared during a press conference to announce that next year, the Grammy awards would be live at the Garden.

Dismantling the stage at the start of the four-day load-in, Gourley and his colleague Tony Forde didn’t seem to think the taxi’s appearance was particularly extraordinary.

“Nothing is impossible in here,” Forde said.

O’Shea agreed. “It’s not just another job. When you go home and see it on TV — the world comes to us, after all.”

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