Countless listeners have heard Ellen Kingston’s distinctive voice for over forty years on radio and television commercials, both locally and nationally. A sought after voice over artist, Kingston is also a singer, dancer and actor who has performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Beef & Boards and others. She also played the Soap Star in the long running hit production of “Menopause the Musical” at the Athenaeum and on tour as well. The owner of Ideal Talent, a casting agency, Kingston and her husband Rick, parents of four adult children and five grandchildren, own and operate Kingston Music Showcase in Carmel.
It’s Kingston’s vast experience as a professional performer that makes her ideally suited for her full time position as artist concierge at the Center for the Performing Arts. That’s is where she strives to anticipate and serve the needs of some of the biggest names in show business who regularly entertain audiences at the Palladium. Kingston has had the position since 2010 when the Center first opened.
Because of the efforts of Kingston and her colleagues on the production team, the venue has become the envy of other facilities like it and has put the Center on the map among artists and their teams. Proof of its positive reputation and Kingston’s in particular, comes from feedback received by CEO Tania Castroverde Moskalenko. “I can’t brag enough about the work that Ellen does at the Center. She is on the front lines with our artists and sets the tone for their experience with us. Our entire organizational culture is represented through her warmth and welcoming demeanor. She aims to please and to accommodate even the most unusual requests. I often hear back from artists, their managers, and their agents about the amazing treatment they received while at the Center. They always ask, “When can we return?” states Moskalenko.
byteclay.com sat down recently with Kingston in one of the Palladium’s well-appointed backstage dressing rooms to discuss her job, its rewards, and of course, the artists that she has met and served during her tenure. Herein is that conversation.
How did you come into your position?
I sort of made up this job when the Palladium started. I went to the director of production and said “You need to hire me to work at the Center. I don’t know what you need me to do but I know you need me.” And he said “Well we are going to need somebody to book the hotels and cars and things.” So he hired me to do that. They wanted to call the job housing and transportation coordinator. I said “No. That has no cachet at all and it sounds like a cubicle person and I am not a cubicle person.” So I said “Let’s call it artist concierge.” By doing that, the artist’s managers know that they are going to be taken care of. That’s the main thing. From that first contact—the first email— I say “I will be taking care of you during your visit.” Then they instantly relax and know that they are going to have a great hotel, good food, professional transportation, and they’ll be taken care of.
Does it lessen stress for artists when they are given star treatment?
You know, it does. I find that people from New York and L.A., in particular, have very low expectations of this venue and Carmel and there is definitely a prejudice against what they perceive as a “small town.” When they get here and see the building they are amazed and that is the first time they go “Oh!” And then they come in and meet me and Lisa Posson, the other concierge, (Kingston’s daughter) and they say “Oh!” Then they see that their dressing room has a beautiful carpet, a lovely couch that they can take a nap on it and the room is beautifully furnished. All of those things help to have them realize that “Hey, they really do know what they are doing.” And when I chat with them throughout the day, whether it is Kevin Bacon, or Liza Minnelli, or Tony Bennett, by the end of the day they realize that they really didn’t know what to expect and we have bowled them over. My goal is that at the end of that day, I want every single group to say “This is the best job on our tour.” And they do. They say “We have never been taken care of like this.”
What are some of the most unusual requests you have received?
You would be surprised how much of it is not exotic but one woman, kind of a rock star in the 80s, wanted to do her own laundry so she travels with a small washer and dryer on a dolly cart with a wooden crate over it and it goes into the truck and comes off right in this very dressing room. We had to have it hooked up to the sink so that she could do her own clothes. That sounds unusual but when I asked her about it she said “That’s how I feel at home.” Her husband tours with her and she says “If I am doing our laundry then I feel like I am at home.” We have one jazz musician who had to have papayas and I am talking 20 papayas for the day and they had to be a certain weight and a certain kind so Lisa and I had to go out near Lafayette Square to a certain Mexican grocery store and get the kind of papayas he needed and he had them. By God, he had those papayas.
Filling requests like that must give you satisfaction.
We pore over those riders. I want to do everything I can to make it as good as I can for them. Now some things are ridiculous. I get their rider and they tell me what they need in terms of hotels and cars. When I get to catering and it seems excessive then we’ll go back and say “We’re a not-for-profit,” which we are, despite the beautiful building, and we don’t have an unlimited budget. We are very careful. If they ask for $100 bottles of wine, I go back and say “We’re a not-for-profit” And they’ll say “Oh, well the $30 bottle is fine.
Of all the artists you have served, who are your top ten?
Right at the top would be Marvin Hamlisch. God love him. He was awesome. He was such a gentleman and so gracious.
Debby Boone who was in one of our very first seasons. She was so warm and sweet.
Kris Kristofferson. And I didn’t expect that because I thought “You know, kind of old rocker guy and had issues.” So nice. He spent an hour out in the rain signing autographs and talking to fans when he was here. He was delightful.
Renee Fleming. Down to earth. Funny. Just great.
Tony Bennett. He came in on a private plane. We picked him up on the tarmac and he hopped in the front seat of the modest passenger van we drove and puts his hand out to the driver and says “Hey, I’m Tony.” Just as down to earth as he could be. So sweet.
Rodger Hodgson of Super Tramp. I didn’t know of him. I often google the people I don’t know well and he turned out to be just a darling person.
Martin Short. So funny. Not rip roaring funny in person as many comedians aren’t but as warm and wonderful as he could be. He was here exactly one year to the day of his wife’s passing and because I had googled him I knew that. I made an effort to speak to him about that and at one point when we were alone I said “I know this is a hard day for you and I just want you to know that we are here for you and we understand.” And he was so moved at that tiny thing but I knew where he was coming from on that day. So if he had been grumpy or sad or closed off I would have known why. But he wasn’t because I think I kind of made that effort and I try to do that with all my people where they are. I try and meet them where they are. They have been on the road. They are exhausted. Whatever their thing is, I try to acknowledge that so that we have a bit of a bond for that day.
Hugh Laurie He is so kind and talented. He travels with his wife and grown sons and they all work together when he’s on tour with his Copper Bottom Band.
Johnny Mathis. His colleagues and friends call him John. Such a sweetheart, as you might imagine. Just very real and funny.
Michael McDonald. He’s been here a couple of times and he’s just great. A terrific musician and a wonderful all-around guy. We’ve had some nice discussions about music and family and the voice over business. He asked if I’d coach him if he flew my husband and me to his home in Hawaii. Um…yes!
What are your thoughts about the upside and downside of fame.
I have been around a lot of it. When you are at a superstar level like Tony Bennett or Liza Minnelli, people have their own perception of who you are from what they’ve read, from what they’ve seen. But they really don’t know the real person. Stars can’t be real people to everybody so they are very on guard. They can be reluctant to let you in. I have also been amazed at some of these big stars that do let you in. I think that has to do to how you respond to them initially. As an artist concierge I can’t go up to a very famous person and begin gushing or say “I am a huge fan.” That’s the absolute wrong thing to do.
Because then they are immediately threatened but if just say “Welcome, we are so glad you are here.” Person to person. That is what they need. They don’t need another adoring person.
Because that is work?
That is exactly right. They can’t relax for that day. So this is a safe zone backstage for them and then they can relax and do what they have to do. It’s o.k. if I see them without their make up or with ratty clothes on.
Tell me about fans?
They feel a connection to the artist as we all do when we hear someone perform and whose songs touch on something in your life. You listen to those and fill a connection with that person. We all do that. So you are instantly connected to them but they have no idea who you are. So you as a fan have to be aware of where that artist is coming from. Some have millions of fans. They don’t know you. They get hit up all the time for connections with people and they just can’t connect on a personal level with every single person. It’s just not practical. So you just have to be aware of that. You would be surprised at how many notes get sent backstage. And gifts too. They send all this stuff back here but it gets left because artists can’t take it on the road with them. Someone will send a huge bouquet of flowers to somebody who is flying out. I get more flowers that way because they can’t take them with them. The artist always say, thank you for taking care of us, please take these flowers. I have had some gorgeous arrangements. And yes, they are nice in the dressing room while they are here but they can’t take them with them and they are not going to eat three dozen cookies either so they end up giving them to the crew.
Sounds like you might have a book.
I have started my book. It’s called “Backstage Babble: Tales of an Artist Concierge.” I have to research the legality but if I am saying Kris Kristofferson was delightful and wonderful, then I don’t see any problem with that. I wouldn’t be able to publish it until I left this job. So I am just storing it up. I see them in their basketball shorts and flip flops coming and eating their dinner and I am surprised at how many times the big stars come up to the green room, grab some dinner, say “This is amazing, thanks so much.” They’re just people. You really have to remember that. They are just people.
For tickets and information about the remainder of the 2015-2016 season at the Center for the Performing Arts call (317) 843-3800 or visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.