News & Features » News and Features

Almost Famous

From the Green Room, Iretha Chappelle sets the stage for a jovial Jumpin’.


“I stayed home one year and almost went crazy,” she says. That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, she’s launched a new career.

Chappelle, who celebrated her 84th birthday July 4, has manned and managed the Green Room from sound check to breakdown during Jumpin’s 15 years. She’s a security guard with Allied Security, a company that staffs positions like hers for the museum.

The Green Room is where bands get ready and relax before a show. It’s off-limits to the public. And it’s Chappell’s job to keep it a peaceful place. She’s never had to call for backup, she says, and nobody’s tested her patience.

The Green Room isn’t exactly lush. It has four white cinderblock walls and is filled with cargo furniture, a dinette set and two big bunches of white faux gladiolus. In the rear, a door leads to the now-defunct TheatreVirginia stage, two tiny, empty dressing rooms and a bare-bones bathroom. Bands can use the rooms to store stuff or to change their clothes — though few do when it’s piping hot outside, she notes.

It’s close to 6 p.m. and the Bill Perry Band, a blues band, shows up for supper in the Green Room before showtime at 6:30. The table is set. A hearty tossed salad, dinner rolls and plate of brownies are laid out. Soft drinks and beer are on ice. A steaming dish of lasagna is presented. It must look good to the band. All four of its members eat. Only the band’s manager refrains. He’s driven the van since 5:30 this morning and he’s hot and dog-tired, he says. He asks if he can smoke. “Sure,” Chappelle allows. “I don’t know what you’ll use as an ashtray unless you put water in a cup.”

Next she goes over their options, her role. “I have a key if you want to lock up any of your personals,” she says. “I’ll take care of it for you.” Perched in the doorway, she motions to the dressing rooms and bathroom, and invites them to make themselves at home. Then she professes her appreciation for music and shows them two steno notebooks to prove it. They are filled with hundreds of autographs of musicians who have performed at Jumpin’ over the years. They say things like: “Iretha, you are so cool! I was blue and you made me smile. Love, Heather the bass player.” Chappelle says with a laugh, “I’ll have you sign my books before I leave, or else I won’t leave.”

Tonight’s musicians hail from Orange County in New York, 50 miles north of New York City. It’s their first gig for Jumpin’ and already they’re apprised of Chappelle’s insider status. “We heard you’re a celebrity around here,” says drummer Rob Curtis. Chappelle beams, as if it’s a distinction — like being 84 and born on the Fourth of July, or having six great grandchildren and one on the way. She shares these facts with the band. “God bless you,” says lead singer and guitarist Bill Perry. “God bless you, too, darlin’,” she says, adding: “I haven’t met a bad band yet.”

She hasn’t heard any bad music either, she says. “When I was a little girl my daddy gave me a wind-up Victrola. I think you could get 25 needles for a nickel,” she recalls. She played all kinds of records on it and grew to love all kinds of music. She carries with her to work a small rolled-up brown paper bag. It’s filled with cassettes from the ’50s. Mostly oldies rock ’n’ roll. She listens to the music on a tape recorder during the show, keeping watch from an aluminum fold-up chair. “I walk up to the top of the steps and listen to the bands sometimes,” she confesses. But usually she sits alone and guards whatever the Green Room contains.

Occasionally it contains kids. Once, a band member’s wife couldn’t get off work in time, and he had to bring his three children with him while he performed. Minors aren’t allowed in or around the museum during Jumpin’ because it’s a mature crowd, Chappelle says, but if a musician’s in a bind and needs a sitter, she’ll fill in. She calls herself the “overseer.” Tonight, there’s not much to oversee. The Bill Perry Band tries its best to convince her to eat or to sit or to drink a beer. She refuses such enticements. Instead, she cheerfully stands like a sentinel in the doorway, dressed uncommonly tidy in her uniform navy blazer, necktie and gray skirt. The key to the Green Room dangles from a band on her wrist. From this post she conducts her best business. “I want to hear some blues,” she tells the band, “cause I’m a real blues fan.” S

Add a comment