Sitting on the stage inside The Barns at Wolf Trap, Bob Grimes is getting ready to say goodbye to the wood-clad room where he’s spent 16 to 18 hours a day for the past 36 years.
The longtime stage manager for the iconic performing arts venue is retiring at the end of the year.
“From the very first day I saw this beautiful venue, I fell in love with it,” Grimes said.
When he first applied for the technical director position at The Barns in 1983, the venue had only been open for 18 months. He had been working as a carpenter, building props at Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre since getting out of college.
“I didn’t know at the time, but I was presented with the opportunity to grow up together with this fantastic venue," he said.
As The Barns and its young stage manager grew up over the next four decades, Grimes got the opportunity to live out his dream of working with some of the greatest artists of our generation.
While Grimes doesn’t like to rate his favorite shows, he will drop a few names when pressed.
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“A 19- or 20-year-old Harry Connick Jr. when he first appeared here with his trio, John Jennings and Jon Carroll with special guest vocalist Mary Chapin Carpenter right before she hit it big, Stéphane Grappelli, Tony Bennett with the Ralph Sharon Trio, David Crosby, Graham Nash."
"A lot of my adolescent heroes I’ve gotten to work with. I feel very privileged to be able to fulfill my dreams that way," Grimes recalls.
Grimes fell in love with The Barns for all that the venue offers to performers and to the tens of thousands of fans who come through the doors. One of the things he loves the most is the variety, or what he calls “the magic.”
“It’s everything from chamber music completely un-amplified to major bands, road artists, and rock 'n' roll. That’s the magic of The Barns, the sound of this room accommodates all that music,” Grimes says.
While Grimes is a fan of all that variety, he’s honest about one of the genres that’s a staple at The Barns.
“When I first started here, I wouldn’t walk across the street to see an opera. But I tell you what, I love opera now.”
Grimes smiles proudly as he points to the Grammy nomination he and his colleagues received for an opera recorded at Wolf Trap in 2009.
As for what Grimes means to the thousands of performers he’s worked with, Ron Newmyer, a musician and concert promoter with BandHouse Gigs who's produced more than 20 sold-out shows at The Barns and worked with Grimes for more than 10 years, calls him “the consummate pro” who encourages young artists.
“We were still figuring out what was possible and we threw some crazy stuff at him on those first shows — 'Bob, oh by the way, there are 63 of us on the show; hope that’s cool,' or 'hey Bob, we’d like to stage some of the songs off the stage and with strolling performers, OK?'" Newmyer recalled.
"He dealt with all of that and managed to gently steer us to a more manageable approach while still helping us achieve our vision for what the shows could be in that wonderful building," Newmyer said. "The Barns has such a warm homey feel, which is a credit to the entire staff but is personified in Bob at the sound board, and that has made it a perfect place for the shows. Bob is a music lover first and foremost and though he’s undoubtedly heard it all, he never phones it in and he still gets excited and lets you know when it’s right... and that’s exactly what you want back there.”
Over the course of his 36 years and more than 3,200 shows at The Barns, Grimes has only missed a handful of nights. He recalls coming down with the flu in his early years. He still managed to get in and set the stage and the sound board but couldn’t make it through the show.
The following week, Wolf Trap approved the hiring of an assistant for Grimes.
Even when he needed an emergency root canal, he still made it to the show. His wife had to drive him to work because he was so high on painkillers.
Grimes recalls the band mentioning his condition during the show.
“They kept introducing me from the stage as their sound man who was on drugs and that night it was true,” he said with a laugh.
He even made it to work the night his daughter was born.
“We got Annalisa home.” Grimes recounts, “I got everybody taken care of at home and I came in to do the show. Comedian Harry Anderson was performing. He announced the birth of my daughter to the audience and said she looked just like me, all green and scaly.”
Speaking of his family, Grimes beams with pride sitting at his desk working beneath a poster for one his wife’s novels.
Linda Grimes pens a series of urban fantasy books based on a globetrotting female character.
“I’m very fortunate to have married my wonderful Linda who supported this career and made it possible to work here.”
Grimes says The Barns is in good hands with his longtime assistant Tim McCormick taking over as stage manager.
“Its going to be your problem now,” he told McCormick with a chuckle as they walked through the theater.
Grimes doesn’t plan on spending too much time catching shows at The Barns in his retirement, but he is excited to finally be able to see some shows at The Filene Center, Wolf Trap’s summer stage. While The Barns are only open from October through May, it’s a year-round job planning for the more than 100 shows each season.
But when asked what he’ll be doing come 2020, Grimes quips with a familiar sentiment of retirees.
“Whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it.”