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Coffeehouse Stories: A backstage spotlight in Anacostia

It wasn’t quite 11 a.m. when Mr. Entertainment walked into Big Chair Coffee.
That’s the nickname Remy Aqui’s children gave him after spending their childhood following their father from one big-name show to another. For more than 30 years, the Washington native has worked in the background of some of the area’s most high-profile events as a stagehand, unseen by the crowds but crucial to their experience.

“It’s a hidden job,” Aqui said. “The bottom line is it’s about making other people look good.”
In a city where business cards slip from hand to hand and politicians strategically schedule press conferences in time for nightly broadcasts, there are many who exist in the shadows of power, who set the stage and then slip out of the spotlight. Aqui happens to do it literally.

When Aqui talks about his job, names such as Alicia Keys, U2 and Jay-Z spill off his tongue with the modest tone one might use to describe relatives. His first concert was for Paula Abdul, he says. Most recently, he set up for Dave Matthews. One of his longest commitments involved touring the country with Public Enemy for two years.

“Look at this,” Aqui says, pulling a Public Enemy pass from his wallet and placing it on the table. The blue, laminated card with the letters “V.I.P.” grants him backstage access to any of the group’s concerts. He is careful not to brag – “It’s lost its luster after all these years,” he says of his work – but his pride is betrayed by the careful way he returns the pass to his wallet.

Aqui, 61, is a regular at Big Chair Coffee, which opened six months ago in Anacostia, across the street from a 19-½-foot-tall aluminum chair that was installed by a furniture company in 1959 and quickly became an unintentional landmark. On this day, Aqui comes in carrying a chocolate glazed donut, which he will wash down with two cups of Ethiopian coffee, no sugar, no cream. He likes the quiet atmosphere of the place, a contrast to the chaotic bustle of his job.

“It’s like a fireman’s job because you’re always on call,” Aqui says. He regrets how much time it stole him away from his children, Camille, 15, and Austin, 20. Since they were in strollers, he says, he tried to take them to shows. Somewhere at home, he keeps a picture of Austin sitting in the director’s chair during the filming of "Random Hearts." Aqui was a grip for that movie, and for "Pelican Brief" and others.

The life of a stagehand is not easy. It’s marked by brushes with notable names, momentary highs in a career of otherwise long, unpredictable days. Because he doesn’t work full time for any company, Aqui’s salary varies along with his hours. In 2007, he made about $70,000 and in 2008, about $21,000.

Still, as Ol’ Blue Eyes would say – and this is probably much of the reason Aqui has stuck with the work for so many years – “There’s no business like show business.”

“Some of the things in life were just short and sweet,” Aqui says. He once put a microphone on Bill Clinton and another time Danny Glover shook his hand while stepping off stage. And once, during a Janet Jackson concert – a moment Aqui doesn't like to talk about -- he was supposed to keep the light on her and he did, even as she embraced a man who was not yet her boyfriend.

“Turn the light off, turn the light off,” the director yelled, Aqui recalled, laughing.

For the most part, Aqui has enjoyed his time behind the scenes, but he may not remain there for long. He had been working toward a degree in filmmaking when he left school and says he hopes to make a documentary once he retires in a few years. He already has the theme: the lives of stagehands.

By Theresa Vargas  | July 28, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Local Life, coffee house newsroom  
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I read them all, and found none worthy of appearing in the paper. But you do not offer "none of the above," so I could not vote.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | July 29, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

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