As the audience cheers during The Lion King's famous opening scene, where a breathtaking parade of actors in animal costumes march onto the stage of The Benedum Center for the Performing Arts to the music of Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” stagehand Pat Lohrer listens behind the scenes at stage right. He's making sure the applause continues by ensuring that the props are correctly placed and in working order, just like he’s done for over 15 years.
Lohrer, a 59-year-old stagehand from Peters Township, was born into the business; his family has worked in theater for five generations. His great grandfather John Epley Barnhart was one of the original founders of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, whose logo Lohrer proudly wears on the sleeve of his official The Lion King shirt.
The popular musical, playing at The Benedum Center through Sept. 29, is an impressive showcase of song, choreography, and puppetry, with a 14-person touring cast and an even larger ensemble of singers, dancers, understudies, and orchestra members. The costumes and props in The Lion King are as beautiful as the choreography, as is the stage itself; the sets dance in sync with the actors as scenes change.
Lohrer has been on the road with the production for 16 years, and the North American tour’s nearly four-week run in Pittsburgh gives Lohrer a chance to return home to the place where he got his start in the business over 40 years ago, back when The Benedum Center was known as The Stanley Theater. He says the newer theaters he visits in other cities just don’t have the same character as the one on Seventh Street in Downtown Pittsburgh.
More than a dozen of Lohrer’s family members came to see the show during its opening week, and he’s got family with him backstage for this stop in Pittsburgh, too. His brothers Mick and Ed are both carpenters who tour with Wicked, but when they were called in to help with this production, the Lohrer brothers were given a family reunion of sorts.
All three brothers are members of IATSE Local No. 3, where their father Edwin Lohrer, Jr. was a 43-year-member stagehand until he died in 1993, according to an IATSE newsletter. Two of his nephews are now in the business too. It’s only fitting that the play Lohrer has traveled with all these years is one with a story so strongly focused on family, with a young lion cub trying to live up to and honor his father’s legacy.
Lohrer has toured the country and even gotten the opportunity to travel with a show overseas during his career. But while he's visited some amazing places, he says the hardest part of his job is being away from home, often for four to six months at a time. While his wife joins him in some cities, coming home and getting the chance to not only see his family, but work beside them, makes it all worth it.
The Lohrer brothers can get a little competitive about the family business, joking about whose show is the best. Even though he’s worked on many high profile shows, including musicals like Footloose, Mamma Mia, and Aida, Lohrer says The Lion King really is his favorite.
“When you leave,” he says, “the audience reaction is incredible.”