Freight All Kinds: Getting the show on the road

A photograph of a truck on a road lined with city buildings. In front of the truck are numbered boxes and the open trailer of another truck.

Norma Deull remembers the days when her parents’ trucks began moving Broadway-style shows. In the 1940s, theatrical shows would travel from town to town using trucks and the railroad. Trucks would pick up the theatrical sets after a show’s run was done and take them to the railroad, which would then deliver the gear to the next stop on the tour. 

Then they asked: Why can’t a truck move the show from one theater to the next? The family was already moving motion pictures, in addition to newspapers and magazines. They’d pick up the movie reels — packed in big white cans — and take the films to the next theater. 

So the family sought permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was regulating the industry at the time and determining where trucks could go. The government gave them the green light, and Deull’s family has been moving shows ever since 1949, starting with the plays “Mister Roberts” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” 

“We were the only people who had those rights from ’49 to ’81, when the trucking industry was deregulated and anybody who wanted to truck goods around could,” recalled Deull, the president and CEO of Clark Transfer since 1991. “And so that is the way that the business was born and evolved, and it’s still going the same way.”

Clark Transfer is one of several companies that haul theatrical shows — sets, props and lighting — from city to city across the U.S. and Canada. But while other companies focus on moving music concerts, Clark Transfer is known for hauling many of the national tours of famous Broadway shows, such as “South Pacific,” “Wicked” and “Hamilton.”

“People have questioned whether we’re a trucking company or an entertainment company. We’re not really sure,” Deull said. “This is all we do: entertainment. Our mission statement is to serve the logistical needs of the entertainment industry as a family-owned and -operated business.”

The magic of moving theater starts with being on time

A photograph of a truck and trailer driving down a narrow street. Above the truck and the street is an art installation of rows of colorful umbrellas hanging on wires.
A Clark Transfer truck weaves through a city street. Image: Clark Transfer

Deull said Clark Transfer prides itself on being on time. The company uses owner-operators and keeps track of where trucks are. Clark Transfer will even give drivers alternative routes to take if the weather is bad.

“Our whole credo is service and being on time,” Deull said.

And there are plenty of trucks to keep track of for even just one production. Smaller-scale tours or national tours on a second run might have six to eight trucks traveling with a show. But first-run national tours or tours with elaborate sets, such as “Frozen” or “The Phantom of the Opera,” might have more than 20 trucks for a show. “Phantom,” which has an elaborate set that includes a huge chandelier that falls at the end of Act I, would have about 20 trucks that travel with the show and another 15 trucks that would travel ahead to the next city in advance.

But why do a show’s trucks have to be on time? Because for the show to go on, it needs lights and the sound equipment and the scenery. And what is carrying that equipment? Trucks are.

Theatrical shows are “so time critical. The truck has to be there. If the show starts loading in or emptying trucks at 8 o’clock in the morning, it has to be there at 8 o’clock in the morning. There’s no window,” said Jason Juenker, a senior director for production management for NETworks, a company that specializes in bringing touring theatrical companies to cities and towns across the U.S. and Canada. NETworks reaches about 300 towns in those two countries, and it is starting to break into the market in Mexico. Broadway musicals are NETworks’ “bread and butter,” but the company also handles shows like those staged by the Blue Man Group.

Trucks have to be on time because shows have a finite time to set up — and break down. A show might have five trucks of gear, but only eight or 10 hours to get everything set up, and so “any sort of fluctuation to a trucking schedule can really throw us for a loop,” Juenker said.

A photograph of a truck and trailer at night. The truck is in front of a brightly-lit theater with a neon marquis.
A Clark Transfer truck waits outside a theater. Image: Clark Transfer

But it’s not just the timing that needs to be perfect. Trucks also might need to be lined up in a certain order to help a production crew keep track of which gear goes into which truck.

“Because of the size of the theaters and the schedule that we lay out, everybody’s working at the same time. And it’s very tight quarters, so things have to really come out of the truck and into the theater in a certain order and out of the theater and into the truck in a certain order,” Juenker said. 

“Part of that is to make sure we actually fit, that we’re not left with — it’s all weird pieces, right? — we’re not left with something that no longer fits on the truck. And so there’s a very set order of things going in and out,” he continued. 

Also important is that trucks need to be equipped with the proper safety equipment, such as straps and pads and LED lighting.

“We’re not necessarily traveling in square boxes, although we try to,” Juenker said. “A lot of the sets we build and design are designed for the truck, and so how something is constructed is largely based on the box that is going to go into the truck. But there’s a lot of very not-square pieces. There’s round pieces and curved pieces and tall pieces and short pieces and all of that. And so the inside gear in these trailers is also very important to us.”

When truck drivers perform “artistry in motion”

A photograph of a truck and trailer driving up a narrow passageway.
A Clark Transfer truck navigates through a narrow passageway. Image: Clark Transfer

Because the show’s production’s schedule is tight, having the right drivers to work with is key. 

“It’s mostly why we do keep dedicated teams with the show. They become an extension of the crew. Communication with our drivers is a big piece of it, making sure they understand our needs and we understand their challenges and their needs as well,” Juenker said.

Each show will have a lead driver that stays with a touring production, and that driver will communicate with the production staff and with other truckers assigned to support the show.

That’s where Gary Graff came in. Graff was a truck driver with Clark Transfer for 23-and-a-half years. He loved the lifestyle so much that his wife went to trucking school and joined him on tour. They worked as a team for about 21 years.

As a lead driver, Graff would get a phone call from Clark Transfer each week telling him who he would have as drivers. Graff would then call and meet the drivers. He’d check their trailers to make sure everything was ready to go and then he and the drivers would wait for the load time — or the “call time” because it was show business, after all. Once they got the call time, he would work to get his first three or four trucks in position to be loaded.

A photograph of two trucks lined up in front of a theater. They are waiting on a city street.
Trucks line up in front of a theater. Image: Clark Transfer

“It was like a ballet after that. Everything goes down in a specific order. Everything goes into the building in a specific order,” Graff said. “So we loaded the same trucks every time with the same equipment. That was my job, to coordinate all of that.”

And this is what Graff did for each tour for more than two decades. He’s been across Canada, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, and through dozens of states. 

“We still do what we call ‘live load,’ where we have to wait for the trailer to be loaded and unloaded, but we get a lot of time off in cities where we can enjoy the city,” said Graff, who retired from trucking but still works for Clark Transfer as a recruiter and mentor. “We don’t have the pressure of hauling freight and looking for your next load while you’re still under another one. Clark preplans out four to six weeks ahead of time so we know what we’re going to be doing.”

Graff was a lead driver for “Wicked” for 11 years. Sometimes the tour would remain in a city for two weeks or a few months. If it was the latter, Graff would leave town to move other shows but then come back in time to move “Wicked” to the next city.   

“I never saw ‘Wicked’ though. Everybody tells me I’m crazy and I need to see it, but I’m not much of a Broadway musical kind of guy, to be honest with you,” Graff said, noting that he did see about four or five shows during his time as a truck driver for Clark Transfer.

When Graff mentors new drivers, he emphasizes the need to be on time. “A call time is a call time is a call time. If we’re there an hour early, we’re actually an hour late,” Graff said. 

But while being on time is a required quality for drivers, there’s one other quality that’s also needed to stand out: just being really good at maneuvering through tight spaces, such as the back alleys that lead to some of the old Vaudeville theaters where shows still perform.

“The one thing I’m continually impressed with is the ability of these drivers to get into very challenging spaces. They’re not going into distribution centers that have 50 docks across. They’re going down tight alleys and trying to fit in between lampposts and jackknifing their trailers around columns, all to get into a dock,” Juenker said. 

He continued, “What these drivers are able to do, backing into alleys and jackknifing, is really impressive. It’s artistry in motion for sure.”