All the developments in sound and lighting, all the visual candy designed by our greatest, most imaginative scenic designers, wouldn’t mean anything if an equally creative visionary did not know how to make it all fly. That’s the conclusion the Parnelli Board of Advisors came to in choosing to bestow the Parnelli Visionary Award to Joe Branam. Not only is he one of the rigging pioneers; he founded Branam Enterprises, an institution that has always and continues to create endless possibilities.
“Joe is a rigger extraordinaire, a man who started as a flying trapeze performer in a circus and went on to create one of the largest, most respected rigging companies in the business,” declared Terry Lowe, PLSN/FOH publisher and Parnelli Awards executive producer. “Previously this award has gone to lighting and staging designers, but no one will deny that whether he’s flying tons of P.A. or Mick Jagger, Joe is a visionary. To this day, he and his company are creating memorable moments for live events that are dazzling.”
“I think it’s quite an honor,” Branam said, noting that when Parnelli Awards executive director Patrick Stansfield called to tell him, “I got a little choked up. When I think of all I’ve gotten to do and all the great people I’ve gotten to worked with, I have to say it’s nice to be acknowledged this way.”
In the late 1960s, Branam would become one of the five “Disney Riggers,” along with the other founding fathers of the business — Roy Bickel, Jim Barnes, Mike Grassley, Rocky Rockwell and Rocky Paulson. The team was increasingly called upon to do visuals like flying a VW Volkswagen car. Their reputation grew quickly and they were soon well known in rock ‘n’ roll circles; tours which were then evolving into big arena shows.
Doug Pope, who worked with Branam on the Neil Diamond tours in the late 1970s and early 1980s, speaks of their time together. “I remember being in Dallas with this silly little curved truss and a stage that wasn’t strong enough to hold it. But Branam figured out a way to make it work. He is a tough, wiry guy — and strong. This is a guy who would climb a rope hand over hand, not even using his feet, he had that much upper body strength.”
“Joe is a gentle, decent soul who, when he looks you in the eye and says, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’ you have no doubt he can,” noted Stansfield, who also worked with Branam on Neil Diamond and other projects. “He’s always been trustworthy and credible and a great team player. If it’s rigged by Branam, you know it’s winning.”
“He rocks!” declares audio engineer and Parnelli honoree and Diamond FOH engineer Stan Miller with a laugh. “He is one of the absolute choice men in rigging. He is first a class guy, a true gentleman and always wonderful to deal with. And professionally, you understand quickly that he would never do anything that was unsafe.”
The Disney Riggers
Joe, one of 11 children, was born to Harry and Ruth Branam on September 7, 1947 in Mobile, AL. Two years later, his family moved to Tampa, which was home to a flourishing circus scene. With his father’s encouragement, soon he and his two brothers, Mike and Charlie, were part of the big top as well. By the age of 13, he was a trapeze artist. The skill and confidence he developed by flying through the air, executing aerial feats, would serve as the basis of his ability to get others to trust him, a key to his future success.
“When you’re in the circus, you do a lot of your own rigging,” Branam says. “And then you make extra money doing rigging for others.” His path would cross with someone who would be a key to his career: Roy Bickel, who was doing similar work.
He took a hiatus from the circus to be a member of the Coast Guard for four years. When he got out, he got a call from Bickel. “Joe and I met in 1959, when I was in college,” says Bickel. “I started doing rigging, and got a call to do Disney on Parade in 1969 and, when the show got bigger, I called Joe to see if he would work with me.”
“He called me to come join him,” Branam confirms. “We stayed on that show for six years. It was a very exciting time. Back then, you didn’t wear a harness when you climbed [laughs].”
Branam recalls those days with glee. “We did everything, from handling the circus acts on the show, to rigging lighting trusses and movie screens. At one point, we flew a Volkswagen Beetle on a high wire. We were setting the standards of rigging while we did it.”
Bickel remembers of one close call: “When we were first starting, there were no rules, no safety factors, and we did everything on quarter inch wires at a 7,000-pound breaking strength.” They were hanging a P.A. on a 70-foot truss from two points, with Branam stage left and Bickel stage right. “We were cranking away when my end broke, and then my end of the truss came crashing down to the floor, and his end went up and hit the ceiling. I remember looking down … we were 50-feet up in the air.” They managed to get down and shrugged the incident off. “When you’re young and invincible, you’re able to hang on for as long as it takes.” Bickel adds that he and Branam benefited in another way from their circus days: being in excellent shape. “We were always free climbing and pulling up points ourselves because, as a circus performer, you’re very strong!” Bickel laughs.
Branam gained valuable experience and skills working for Disney — and a mate for life. He met his wife, Leanne, who was a dancer and played the part of many characters, including Mary Poppins. When he wasn’t working on the Disney show, he continued to perform with the circus. Stansfield tells of an act that Branam did with Leanne called “Bombu, the Friendly Swinging Gorilla.” Leanne wore a safari outfit and drove a Land Rover with a cage on the back occupied by Joe in a Gorilla suit. A dazzling high wire act ensued followed by a finale where the “gorilla” drove off with the safari gal in the cage, leaving laughs.
But it was his visionary work, as part of the Disney Riggers, where he contributed to setting standards in a newly emerging industry. “We set the rule for a 3/8th-inch cable to be the standard for a one-ton chain motor,” he says. “We did it by just doing our homework. We went through all the catalogs of cables and figured out the breaking strength, what would be safe working loads, and came up with the right cable to use. Then we determined the best lengths were 5’, 10’, 20’, 30’ and 50’.” But next was the problem of how to tell one from another. So, he and Bickel came up with a color-coding system: red, white, blue, yellow and green, which was quickly adopted by others and is still used today.
His days of flying in the air, having his own fate tied so closely to the quality and safety of the rigging, instilled a high standard of safety within him. “Safety has always been a big factor for us from the beginning. We went with a seven-to-one safety factor: if we were hanging something that was one pound, the rigging had to be able to hold seven pounds; if it was 100 pounds, the rigging had to hold 700 pounds.”
As rock ‘n’ roll arena touring grew, the live entertainment industry beat a path to the Disney Riggers’ door. “They took notice, because no one else was doing this kind of thing,” Branam says. As bands were taking more equipment on the road, promoters wanted increased sightlines and concluded that could happen only if the gear was flown.
The first was Jethro Tull. “They wanted to hang everything, and that’s when we brought CM chain motors into the mix. These were originally made for factories and were hung on trolleys and used to lift things like sections of cars on assembly lines. The motors were always up, but we flipped them upside down. They had what was called a gravity contact, so when we flipped them, they worked for us in concerts.” Then Branam got his biggest call thus far in his career — The Rolling Stones.
Stansfield remembers vividly when he first met Branam. “It was in 1975, in an airport hangar in Newburgh, NY,” he recalls. It’s where the Rolling Stones were rehearsing for their Tour of the Americas. Four of the original “Disney Riggers” were there — Branam, Grassley, Bickel and Barnes — and they were killing time as these types would: “They had set up a couple of trapezes in the hangar and were practicing throws and catches with each other.”
The riggers had a special task: flying Mick Jagger. Stansfield recalls Jagger tentatively coming downstage to meet Branam, who was to rig up his line. “Mick put his foot in the sling and Joe jumped to the back, took a leap over the stage and pulled the line, sending Mick in the air, 30 feet up. It was probably a little dangerous by today’s standards, but we were all younger back then! And what a wonderful effect it was.”
On working with Jagger, Branam says the entertainer was very nervous at first, but quickly grew confident. “At first, he’d just go out a little, but then a couple of weeks later, he was going higher and further, and we would jump off the hand rail, then a box, then a couple of boxes, then a ladder — higher and higher. I will say Mick is a great guy, always easy to work with and never temperamental.”
But just flying Jagger was only a part of that famous tour. “The whole thing was audacious,” Stansfield says. “There was this star-shaped grid that Jules [Fisher] designed, amazing lights and wonderful effects. One effect was what we referred to as ‘the giant inflatable penis.’ The boys in the band would refer to it as ‘old grandpa’ because sometimes it under-inflated … but Joe came out on that tour and made the rest of our jobs a lot easier, because the rigging was so crucial.”
P-Funk Space Ship
Another tour of note was for the always-outrageous George Clinton and P-Funk. “I did three tours with them,” Branam says. “I flew the ‘mother ship,’ which was a space ship that landed on stage, and Clinton stepped out of it. But there was also the ‘little mother.’ That spaceship ran down a line from the back of the auditorium, over the audience and then behind the curtain. After flashing lights and pyro, the curtains would open, and the identical big mother ship would come down and he’d walk out. It was great.”
Then came the years Branam toured with Neil Diamond. Miller also attests to how much Branam can be trusted. “There are a lot of other rigging guys that sometimes bend to the pressure [of a gig] and feel compelled to make things ‘work’ in ways that are out of bounds, but he’s always honorable,” Miller said. He cites recent accidents in the live event industry that have resulted in injury and death, offering the opinion that they may be the result of production yielding to outside pressure. “Joe would always tell us ‘no, we shouldn’t be doing this’ when he felt something wasn’t right, and he would then figure out a better way. There are few guys in the industry that I trust, but he’s one.”
Off the Road
In 1976, when Joe and Leanne had daughter Kristina, they decided it was best for the family if Joe got off the road. He and Leanne founded Branam Enterprises in 1978. “I started Branam as a combination touring and rental company and started off buying chain motors.” An investment into eight motors and some basic rigging put him in business, and Bob Dylan, then embarking on his 1979 tour for Slow Train Coming, was one of his first clients.
“His company started out small, and now it’s one of the great companies of the industry,” Bickel notes. Like most start-ups, there were struggles in the beginning. Then something called MTV exploded onto the scene. “I became known as the ‘MTV Rigger,” he laughs. “I was very busy!” Indeed. He would jump around from video shoot to video shoot — striking for one, catching a few ‘z’s’ in his van, then be off to another set.
One of his favorite videos was for “Livin’ on a Prayer” with Bon Jovi. “I flew Jon out over the audience with a lot of pyro going off.” The playful video showed a lot of the backstage work that went into making it — including screen time for Branam as he got Bon Jovi into the harness. Branam laughs, and recalls eating at some restaurant and being approached with a, “Hey! You’re the guy that put the harness on Jon Bon Jovi!”
Success continued on and off the video screen as Branam Enterprises rigged for Queen, John Denver, Yes, Supertramp, Journey, Kansas, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Ozzie Osbourne, Backstreet Boys and many more. He was there for Michael Jackson’s Victory tour and the many videos made during that period.
Making it All Safe
From the 1990s to today, ambitious lighting and set designers have had the vision to create increasingly dynamic live events. Branam Enterprises was there to realize that vision, safely.
“The biggest changes over the years have been the tools, specifically the rigging harness and safety equipment,” he says. “Everything is much safer now. We lost some good riggers in the old days because they didn’t wear a harness.”
Every arena was different, requiring Branam’s knowledge and attention to detail. Back in the early days, centuries-old rigging formulas were still widely used. “Now we have computers, and there are programs for iPhones that tell riggers what the layout is and what to use. Then, there’s the Distometer that tells you the distance from the floor to the ceiling. We would have to find the house manager and ask him, or worse, measure it ourselves! Things have really changed a lot.”
The evolution of intelligent lighting has begat intelligent chain motors. “A lot of shows are moving trusses. Now, our company is well known for flying effects — like with Brittney Spears, we had a couple tons of equipment flying and flew Britney, and four of her dancers. We had it all automated and it worked well.” Another case in point: a giant swing for Jennifer Lopez.
Branam has seen other changes as well. “Rigging has grown so big. When we started, we would get a volunteer fireman or casual labor at times, but mostly we had to rig every point ourselves. We’d have to fix it up on the ground and lay it where we wanted it, then run up in the air and pull it up. Then run down the ladder and do the next one.”
Through the years, Branam’s artistic side has been employed in many ways not well known — for example, famed photographer Annie Leibovitz called on him to assist on some of her famous shots, including Olympian Carl Lewis running across water and John Travolta on a lamp post.
Reality TV Shows
He’s also been involved with reality TV programs including Fear Factor, American Gladiators and The Biggest Loser along with the Emmy-award winning Amazing Race. “Now we’re doing Big Brother, and handling specialty effects on American Idol, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars.” Film work includes Avatar, Tropic Thunder and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others. Corporate gigs include auto shows and the X Games. Tours have included Brooks & Dunn, KISS, Van Halen, Foo Fighters and Green Day, to name just a few.
At the end of the interview for this article, when asked what was next, Branam gleefully blurted: “I’m retiring!” The “rigger’s rigger” is going out on a high note, making the Parnelli Awards celebration his de facto retirement party, and turning his company and all he’s created over to his three children, who have long been part of the operation. While Kelly Branam-Shipp is no longer involved in the day-to-day, Kristy Branam-Farrell is COO and her husband Tony Farrell is a rental manager. Joey Branam is a project manager/head rigger.
“Lots of riggers have stories, are characters, but Joe isn’t a character,” says Pope. “Joe has always been professional, and he started a business that has grown to the point where people know him [personally] as a rigger, but also as a sharp business man. Giving the Parnelli Visionary Award to a rigger of Joe’s stature is very fitting.”
Joe Branam will be presented with the Parnelli Visionary Award at the annual gala set for Oct. 20, 2012 at the Mirage Las Vegas. It begins with a cocktail reception at 7pm and the awards dinner follows at 8pm. For more information and reservations, please visit www.parnelliawards.com.