Out of College and Up the Creek


In May of 1984, after five years of classes at three schools, hours and hours of radio fun and some hard work, I got my college degree; a Bachelor of Arts diploma in Interdepartmental Communications/ Advertising from Elmhurst College. I wasn’t ready for a real job so I landed summer duty as a day maintenance worker at Poplar Creek Music Theater in far west suburban Hoffman Estates.

Poplar Creek was a music venue known in the concert industry as a “Shed.” These places had an open air yet covered pavilion with reserved seats and a large hill or lawn area behind the pavilion for general admission seating. There were 7,000 seats in the pavilion with room for about fifteen thousand more fans on the expansive lawn which was a large grass hill.

Aerial view of Poplar Creek Music Theater

My work began in June, doing a shift that started at eight a.m. til late in the afternoon. A couple weeks later I was promoted to a squad leader, which brought the pay to five something an hour. Each squad boss would lead a group of workers to do things like pick up the parking lot’s trash and clean bathrooms both in the public plaza and backstage. We’d also clean the pavilion which meant using a hot water pressure sprayer that helped blow all the sticky crud off the plastic seats and concrete floor.

One odd trend was cleaning the Poplar Creek restrooms the morning after shows. The men’s johns would have a little trash on the floor and small puddles of spilled suds but that was about it. However, the women’s rooms? Whoa! They looked like those retail stores that get looted during race riots. Often times we found ourselves knee deep in paper towels and toilet paper with lakes of sticky wine coolers and beer on the floor. The toilets were such a scary sight they made me pine for the urine covered men’s room walls from my days at White Castle. Even after mellow shows by Air Supply or Herb Alpert we’d clean awful messes and find bras and underwear stuffed in the stalls’ metal containers meant to store used feminine hygiene products. Apparently some liquored up ladies decided “I’m sick of wearing this bra and rather than stash it in my purse, I’ll just leave it here.” I found the whole thing to be pretty funny.

The “women can be slobs” phenomenon wasn’t limited to fans. Co-workers said cleaning up the Go-Go’s dressing room the morning after their show that summer was a major job. Chairs knocked over, food and drinks splattered everywhere. Someone else said when Billy Idol opened the summer of ’84 concert calendar his people turned the whole backstage into a reenactment of the riot scene at the end of “Animal House.” Still, legend has it the ultimate backstage pigs at Poplar Creek were the Blues Brothers back in 1980.

Poplar Creek’s pavilion. I power sprayed plenty of crud off those seats.

Not everything going on backstage was gross. The Pointer Sisters left behind two vases stuffed with fresh roses that I pilfered for my mom and a girl I was seeing. There was also the trove of left behind set-lists, drumsticks, guitar picks, backstage pass laminates and other rock memorabilia. I scooped up lots of this stuff and gave it to fellow Lee Swanson protégé’ Dave Ross. Dave was now working in radio consulting and research in Chicago but had a side business of selling music collectibles at local record conventions.

The summer of 1984 was when Bruce Springsteen launched his mammoth selling “Born in the USA” album and tour, Prince was showering us with his Purple Rain movie soundtrack while Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” release was launching her into the pop stratosphere. None of these acts played Poplar Creek that summer but we still had plenty of other shows to prepare for. I witnessed sound-checks by stars like Linda Ronstadt & the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Paul Simon. The Thompson Twins’ curry cook left a stink of that food backstage that lingered for days. Luciano Pavarotti came out to rehearse in cargo shorts, flannel shirt and a Chicago Blackhawks baseball cap. Here I am, all sweaty and dirty in jeans, steam spraying down the pavilion walkways and thirty feet away onstage is the world’s most famous tenor rehearsing beautiful opera songs.

One very hot show day I was driving the maintenance truck to check up on a crew and spotted a tall thin guy jogging on the access road. So who was the unauthorized jogger? I get a closer look and it was the star of that night’s concert, Rick Springfield. Sorry there Dr. Noah Drake from “General Hospital”, that was my bad. Sometimes we chased groupies from the grounds. When Ratt, hot on the heels of their breakthrough hit “Round and Round” came to open for Billy Squier, there were about twenty young women lined up outside their tour bus in the middle of the day. To quote Grand Funk “These fine ladies, they had a plan, they was out to meet the boys in the band.”

.38 Special’s crowd left behind more beer bottles and cans in the parking lots than any other concert that summer. The morning after their show, I found a guy’s wallet full of IDs, credit cards and close to a hundred dollars in the parking lot. I tracked down the wallet’s owner on the phone and he came to pick it up. The guy was a hung over burn-out who barely grunted “Thanks” when I turned everything over to him. He starts to walk away and I commented how I could’ve robbed him blind, still no reaction. Finally I ask, “Any appreciation for me taking care of this?” Finally, the guy says, “Oh yeah, what do you want?” I suggested the six or seven loose singles he had in it. It bought me dinner on the way home. Jesus, if I lost my wallet and everything including the cash came back to me intact; the finder would’ve gotten at least twenty bucks. So to the mopey .38 Special fan who had all his wallet contents returned to him in tact, I hope you’re not still a socially clueless asshole.