Televised Benefit Concerts for Hurricane Relief

by Debi Moen
in Features
Hand in Hand 2017 logo
Hand in Hand 2017 logo

"Hand in Hand" and "Harvey Can't Mess with Texas" Concert Benefits Raise Millions for Hurricane Relief

“Hand In Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief” was a one-hour star-studded telethon on Sept. 12 with more than 130 artists and celebrities urging donations to aid the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The event was broadcast live on television, radio, and streaming networks (with a tape delay for West Coast markets) and has to date raised $55 million for the cause, with an impressive $41 million called up during the evening the telethon was on the air.

The idea came from Houston native rapper Bun B and SB Projects founder Scott “Scooter” Braun, the latter being manager of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and other artists, and a force behind the recent “One Love Manchester” benefit.

The original project was to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, mostly in Texas. But the devastation, mostly in Florida, of Hurricane Irma, just days before the concert aired, led the organizers to include those suffering from that storm as well.

(A week after the concert, Puerto Rico, which had also sustained some damage from Hurricane Irma, got a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. For more information on a televised concert that will be broadcast from, and raise money for, Puerto Rico on Oct. 22, see story, page 12).

Each of the four “Hand in Hand” event locations — Nashville, New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio, TX — featured their own production teams, design teams, lighting designers and equipment suppliers. Each had its own look, but all shared the same time constraints of a live event being broadcast worldwide.

To find out what challenges they faced, PLSN reached out to all four locations’ lighting designers: Mike Swinford (also production designer) at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville; Bob Dickinson of Full Flood at Times Square in NYC; Jon Kusner of 22 Degrees for Universal Studios in Los Angeles; and Ted Wells of Full Flood for the George Strait & Friends concert at the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio, TX. Here is a quick roundtable of our discussion.

PLSN: What was your directive regarding the lighting mood?

Mike Swinford: It was mostly a directive from our producer Robert Deaton. I would come up with a look and then he would have me fine-tune it to his liking. We all agreed the lighting should be not a fun look, but a rather serious one with no flash or bright colors.

Bob Dickinson: The producers and the director, Don Mischer, wanted it to look serious and not overly key lit. In short, it was not to look like daytime TV.

Jon Kusner: The lighting was really about creating a clean but modest look for the studio. The set design that David Edwards laid out was a clean use of illuminating the studio itself to be the “scenery” and he suggested adding lighting to become an architectural element to help tie the space together. The producers were clear that they didn’t want any excess of gear or feeling of show business. This was to be clean and humble.

Ted Wells: It was certainly not to be flashy, because of the nature of the event.

You had to light the faces of celebrities brightly at the phone banks, along with artist performances in the other half of the studio/venue. What were your lighting challenges?

Swinford: Dave Edwards created a production design for the phone bank for the Los Angeles show, and we wanted to mimic it as close as possible. We were fortunate to be able to use the Grand Ole Opry set and lighting. We did not add anything to the standard Opry hang. Nashville had an audience for the performances and we took advantage of that. Hamish Hamilton directed the Nashville show and did a great reverse camera angle with the audience as a background.

Dickinson: The challenge was the luminosity of the LED screens in Time Square. We ended up for the segments that shot out the window with the cameras at an f6. The key light was an outrageous 140 foot-candles. The windows did have neutral density roll down filters but I decided not to use them, even though they made the screens readable under normal lighting conditions, as the people in the square did not read. I ended up allowing the advertisement screens to blow out and the screens we controlled were set to 10 percent output (Another) issue was Don’s desire to use the steady-cam and handhelds as the only cameras for broadcast. Blending for any angle was a little bit challenging, but we did it. An interesting side effect of all of those stars sitting answering phones in the ground floor studio, which has big windows, caused a huge crowd to gather. It was reminiscent of New Year’s Eve!

Kusner: The phone bank area was laid out to be as versatile and shadow-forgiving as possible. I used a soft light approach to the entire phone bank so everyone looked good and gave the most versatility to the area for cameramen and the director. Time was also short so I figured this would be a safe approach to implement. The phone bank and the performance area were keyed at the same level of light so in the performances or celebrity talks all areas exposed correctly if one or the other area was caught on camera.

Ted, the San Antonio location was different in that it was a concert with George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Chris Stapleton. They had no phone banks, and only a short portion of the concert was broadcast. How did that influence your lighting design?

Wells: It was put together so fast at the last minute. I did a quick layout design of lighting the entire theater and then I designed towers for the stage for George’s concert. George was going to come in with an overhead lighting rig with a black curtain and I felt like it needed more for the TV cameras for the broadcast portion, so we put four lighting towers with lighting fixtures upstage — and lighting on the black curtain, which took the light well. George’s people (with George Strait Productions) cued the towers and his normal concert and all I did was adjust and call spots for the television portion of two songs that he did. The rest of the evening - a two hour show — was streamed live on Facebook to keep raising donations.

The Majestic theatre is beautifully restored. It looked like you took extra care to highlight the ornate decor of the interior, which showed up well on TV.

Wells: We did. We added fixtures that up-lit certain areas on the walls and some of the surface. We used wash lights to pick it out of the darkness that it would be in. You can see the architecture of it. I did those looks with VL 3500 washes.

Which companies supplied the production for your location?

Swinford: Our local vendors really came to the table on this one. We did not have final production drawings until late Thursday night (Sept. 7), and we loaded in the show on the following Sunday (Sept. 10), two days before the event. Morris provided lighting, Accurate Staging supplied the scenic elements, Rob Cowlyn came in with the blackout curtains, and Green Enterprises offered additional staging elements.

Dickinson: PRG graciously donated all the added gear for free. We ended up adding a number of framing VL3500s, Sharpy washes and spots, Pallas CYA units and other various LED cyc lights.

Kusner: PRG supplied all the lighting gear for LA (and San Antonio and NYC), Kish Rigging donated all the trussing and motors. VER supplied the 3mm LED screens and D3 media server, along with HD wireless video and cameras for steadicam along with field packages.

Wells: I brought in extra lights from PRG out of Los Angeles. Dallas-based Onstage Systems supplied a basic package.

Who would you like to mention on your lighting team?

Swinford: Ken Hudson, Opry stage programmer; Han Henze, lighting director and phone bank programmer; and Buddy Lunn, gaffer.

Dickinson: The entire ABC staff was amazing. They had to work their regular morning Good Morning, America show and then turn the studio around for our rehearsals, then our broadcast. I’d like to mention Seth Easter (art director), Noah Mitz (project supervisor), Eric Norris (associate lighting director), and Matt Geneczko (gaffer).

Kusner: Travis Hagenbuch and Will Gossett helped me, since the schedule was tight and we all were juggling other projects in the timeline of organizing the show.

Wells: Tony Ward and Kevin Sanford put it together for PRG on such short notice and got it out. I’d also like to mention Meg Flanagan, the project manager for PRG who got it put in in an amazing fashion. Harry Sangmeister was the moving light programmer in terms of getting it focused in the theatre and lighting the ceiling, too. Dave Hare was George Strait’s programmer and video director, and Paul Rogers as Strait’s production manager.

Any final thoughts?

Wells: It was a great thing to be involved in and to help all the people who suffered so much. I was impressed with how PRG stepped up and got it together. They didn’t charge for the equipment costs. It was all ‘let’s do what we can for all these people needing help in Texas and Florida, and now Puerto Rico...’”

There were countless people and organizations also involved in the event, more than can be mentioned here. For more details, visit . –ed.

Harvey Can' Mess With Texas Poster

Willie Nelson, Others Join Together for Hurricane Harvey Benefit Concert in Texas

“Harvey Can’t Mess with Texas: A Benefit Concert for Hurricane Harvey Relief” took place Sept. 22 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, TX from 7-11 p.m. ET.

The four-hour concert was broadcast on 11 Texas TEGNA stations and streamed internationally on YouTube’s Texas Strong channel from 9-10 p.m. Central.

Featured performers included Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Leon Bridges, Ryan Bingham, Ha*Ash and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians. Celebrity guests including Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger, Luke Wilson and Dan Rather are also slated to appear, accompanied by Austin’s mayor Steve Adler, Houston chief of police Art Acevedo and other VIPs. Charlie Sexton is serving as musical director, and Asleep at the Wheel is house band for the event.

Organizers say proceeds from the tickets, which went on sale Sept. 13 at a price range from $30-$199, will benefit Rebuild Texas Fund, created by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in collaboration with the OneStar Foundation. The stated goal for this fund: $100 million. Google pledged to match the first $500,000 of donations.

Proceeds directly from the concert had not been announced at presstime, but the broader Rebuild Texas Fund had received more than $68 million from donors by late September, according to reports. Donations are still being accepted at

The funds raised will augment what has already been raised to support hurricane victims as they rebuild their homes and their lives through other concerts and TV events.

They include the Hand in Hand telethon that aired Sept. 12 and raised $44 million in one day, and more than $55 million in all — an event that, while organized in response to Hurricane Harvey, was quickly expanded to cover victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean.