Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It's a Hard Hat Life

Not long ago, Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s intrepid executive director, Nina Meehan, made an announcement after an Oakland performance: The company’s next show — to be performed at Children’s Fairyland — would be based on the New York Times bestselling children’s picture book “Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site,” by Sherri Duskey Rinker.  The New York Times Book Review said the story “has the ‘why hasn’t anyone thought of it before’ premise of marrying truck book and bedtime story.”

In the audience that day was company patron Becky Bullard, whose father-in-law was accompanying her and his grandchildren to the show. After the show, Becky approached the box office with a bit of news that was to have delightful consequences for the “Construction Site” production, which opened to huge crowds last weekend.

“We love the Fairyland shows,” Becky said, referring to the summer pre-kindergarten performances that take place at our park. “And my father-in-law runs the company that invented the hard hat. Do you need any?”
The hardhats featured in “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site” were donated by Bullard Company in Kentucky.  Photo: Melissa Nigro

Bullard Company was founded in San Francisco in 1898, and its engineers invented the hard hat in 1919. Since then as the Bullard website puts it, "the company has been committed to manufacturing the best head protection equipment on the market." During the 1930s, while the Golden Gate Bridge was being constructed, bridge engineer Joseph B. Struass contacted Bullard to request that the company adapt its hats to protect bridge workers. It was happy to do so. In 1972, the company moved its headquarters to Kentucky, which is where Jed Bullard was visiting from when he saw BACT's production.

The timing could not have been better. Nina and “Construction Site” costume designer Amy Bobeda (who also works at Berkeley Rep) were just starting to talk about how to costume a show about trucks using adult musical performers. They knew they wanted the actors to glide around in “wheelie heelys” (the shoes with wheels attached), but they needed other ways to imply trucks without breaking the bank. They knew they’d need 15 hard hats for the production (there’s a play within a play that happens in the show), and the cost would have eaten up most of their costume budget. 
The cast of the new pre-kindergarten show “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site,” which opened last weekend at Children’s Fairyland.  Photo: Melissa Nigro

The day that they received a huge box of donated multicolored hard hats from Jed Bullard “was like Christmas,” recalls Nina.

Amy then scoured the area for toy trucks to rip up and attach to the hats so that toddlers could easily identify the type of truck being represented by the performers. Safety vests with images and words – a little language literacy prompt never hurts in our shows – helped even further.

Nina sent Jed photos of the whimsically modified hats, and he got “super excited,” she says. She says it probably hadn’t occurred to him that his hats could be part of such an imaginative process. When his family comes to see the show, “we will make a big deal about it,” she promises. The company’s important donation is featured prominently in the show’s playbill.

On opening day of “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site,” one little boy waiting to get in was dressed in a mini hard hat and tool belt. A young lady brought her copy of the book to be signed by the energetic cast members. The hard hats worn by the performers were glorious. The show’s first performance sold out, and the audience—particularly the youngest contingent– was enthusiastic.

One young audience member arrived wearing a hard hat, tool belt, and safety vest. And yes, his pants have a truck pattern!

As the children exited the theater, they were offered child-size yellow plastic hardhats, which they loved.

Young Brooklyn looking construction-ready in her new plastic hardhat.

Over the last 118 years, Bullard has provided hardhats to miners, firefighters and rescue workers. Now they can add another category to their list: actors in hit children’s musicals.

“Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site” continues weekends at Fairyland through Aug. 28. For tickets, go to Fairyland members receive a 30 percent discount on the ticket price!

-- C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.


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