When Stennis Harrison finally had the opportunity to meet rock legend Alice Cooper, he totally blew it. Like, dropped the ball so hard, it might as well have plummeted through the earth’s core and bopped a imp right atop its pointy head.
The musician famous for songs like “I’m Eighteen,” No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “School’s Out” had always been one of Harrison’s favorites. Harrison’s first concert – as an audience member, not part of the crew – was a 1971 Alice Cooper show. Although it can’t be said for certain whether or not that particular concert is what inevitably lead to the hundreds of others Harrison has seen or worked over the decades since, he’ll be the first to admit it had an indelible effect on him.
“I went to work because I love rock and roll so much,” he said.
Over the years, Harrison’s seen Alice Cooper in concert more than any other musician. And Harrison has definitely seen his fair share of musicians in concert. Met plenty of them, too. As a 23-year employee of BancorpSouth Arena, the last 14 of which as assistant director of operations, Harrison had an ongoing backstage pass to just about any and every kind of show imaginable.
Harrison looks like the kind of dude who’s attended more shows than he can count, too. On this particular day, he was decked in palmed-leaf-and-flamingo-pattered Hawaiian shirt that could have acted as camouflage at a Jimmy Buffet concert. A pair of sandals dangled from his feet; mirrored sunglasses were perched atop his head. His demeanor was loose and easygoing. To describe him as laid back would be underselling just how uninhibited he is.
Which kind of makes the idea of him being in charge of organizing anything a little perplexing, but Harrison said his nonchalance is what made him good at his job. The man knows how to roll with the punches.
“Part of my job was to deal with difficult people,” he said. “Try to make them happy. They’re right, no matter what.”
When asked what, exactly, his job entailed, Harrison shrugged. Get stuff for the bands, he said.
“You just have to try to get what they expect, what they need,” he said.
An artist or band’s management would send what’s known as a rider – a list of demands – ahead of their arrival. These could entail everything from the expected – how much electricity a band needs, for example, to ensure their pyrotechnics don’t fizzle out mid-show – to the unusual. Think certain hard-to-locate brands of cigarettes or the types of booze sold only in other parts of the country.
Sometimes, those off-the-wall requests were meant as a bit of a test.
“They’ll put weird stuff on there to make sure you’ve read the rider all the way through,” he said with a laugh. Either way, a big part of Harrison’s job was ensuring all the items on these lists, no matter how specific, were checked off before the artists arrived.
The other big part of his job was overnight turnover – breaking down the setup for one show and prepping the venue for the next. This, Harrison said, required its own skillset – a mix of coordination and efficiency among Harrison and the 35 or so people who worked under him.
“Sometimes, it was really nuts,” he said. There’d be a concert one night and a basketball game the next. That meant breaking down a stage and installing a court. After that, it could be any type of event – ice show, monster truck rally, circus, rodeo, wrestling match. Each required a vastly different setup than the others.
“We’d have a beer-selling concert on one night and then a Christian show the next night,” Harrison said. Which usually meant clearing all booze-related merch from sight.
Asked what kind of hours he was working, Harrison responded with a cackle.
“Many,” he said.
Most of Harrison’s workdays consisted of setting up the performers’ rooms, ensuring concession stands were stocked, and the entire venue was clean and up-to-date. Ready to rock and roll, as it were.
And, of course, he had to make sure the performers were happy. Harrison’s job afforded him the kind of access to performers that would undoubtedly throw their fans into jealous fits. He’d strike up casual conversations with musicians before or after shows, maybe even as they were grabbing a bite to eat.
Harrison enjoyed these rare, brief opportunities to meet the people behind the stars.
“In some really unusual ways, I got to meet … not these personas … but who they actually are,” he said.
At some point, Harrison began asking the venue’s performers for their autographs. Not on a photograph of piece of paper, but his office door.
“My office was right by catering, where they had to go back to eat,” he said.
Harrison figured the performers were passing by the door anyway; why not have a few of them sign the thing?
The first to sign it as “The Cannon Lady,” who was famous for being shot out of a cannon.
Over the years, dozens of performers had inked their names on his office door. Among the signatures scrawled across the wood were the members of Three Doors Down, Sugarland and the North Mississippi All-Stars, Jason Aldean, Ronnie McDowell and Paul Thorne.
“I would try to catch them while they were walking by my door,” Harrison said. “I always kept a Sharpie on me.”
Most performers were receptive to providing their autographs either immediately before or immediately after they performed.
On his last day before his 2017 retirement, Harrison signed the door himself. Why not, he thought.
His own contribution reads, “Stennis has left the building.” So too has the door.
“I was going to leave it there and let more people sign it,” he said. “But I came home one day, and there was the door.”
It’s now a coffee table in his son’s home.
So, back to Alice Cooper. Having spent a career dealing with the whims of famous musicians, talented athletes, nitpicky performers, opinionated artists and demanding managers – and being as easygoing and loquacious as he naturally is – striking up a conversation with someone as famously nice as Alice Cooper should have been a breeze for Harrison. After all, he’d been doing it for years.
But when Harrison finally had a chance to meet the musician before his 2017 show at the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, the second-to-last of Harrison’s career, he found himself uncharacteristically starstruck.
“I’ll be damned if I didn’t get tongue-tied and didn’t know what to say,” he said. “I was just literally speechless. That never happens to me.”
He shrugged, then laughed at himself. Unlike his meeting with Alice Cooper, it seemed like a very Stennis Harrison thing to do.