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Rural Missouri Magazine
Rigger Dave

Dave Hotle made his name putting up lights

by Bob McEowen

Dave Hotle’s quarter horse farm near Winfield offers a respite from the pressures of his job rigging lighting and other stage equipment for television productions such as “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

Dave Hotle is hundreds of miles from his next job but already his work has begun. As he pores over blueprints and engineering drawings spread across the kitchen counter of his home near Win-field he begins to envision the Grand Ole Opry and what he will soon do there.

In a few weeks the television show “Wheel of Fortune” will go on the road, taping episodes in Nashville. But before Pat Sajak and Vanna White take the stage Dave will be there.

Dave is a production rigger. His job is to hang the assorted lighting trusses and set pieces needed to produce a TV show or stage event. But unlike technicians based in entertainment capitals on the West and East Coasts, Dave lives in Missouri and travels from job to job. His work is particularly specialized because with jobs like the upcoming “Wheel” shoot in Nashville, he must adapt to an ever-changing set.

“Every job is like starting from scratch,” he says. “You know the wheel is going to be there and the puzzle board is going to be there but everything else, all the lighting, and all the carpentry, it all changes. On top of that, the building’s always different.”

Now 39, Dave got his start nearly 20 years ago working as a roadie, setting up gear for a St. Louis-area band. One job led to another and he ended up working for a staging company that sent him to a seminar to learn rigging — the job of hanging stage equipment.

Dave has toured with the rock band Stone Temple Pilots, the Mannheim Steamroller ensemble and with Latino heartthrob Ricky Martin. Life on the road with a band was everything it’s rumored to be, he says. But along with wild parties came long days, hard work and not particularly good pay.

“I didn’t make a whole lot of money back then but it was fun,” he says. “It’s not glamourous, though. You’re living on a bus with 10 guys. That’s no fun. And being away from home for six months is no good.”

It was during those days that the Cuivre River Electric Coopera-tive member earned the simple nickname he’s carried even after becoming the chief production rigger on many jobs.

“I was on a tour with five other Daves — bus driver Dave, carpenter Dave, rigger Dave. I’ve never introduced myself as Rigger Dave but the name stuck,” he says.

In time, his skills and easy-going manner led Dave to the top riggers in the entertainment world. “I just shut up, worked for them and learned a lot,” he says.

One of the things he learned was that TV offers a more comfortable life than rock and roll.
“Television is a totally different world,” Dave says. “You’re paid a lot better. You work civil hours. They put you in the best hotels and they treat you with respect.”

Besides “Wheel of Fortune,” Dave gets steady work with the “Jeopardy” television show, beauty pageants such as Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen, and other major productions, including the NBA All-Star Game and national political conventions.

Despite working in celebrity-packed environments, Dave says nearly all his time is spent among the crew. He seldom has direct contact with the stars. “It’s not really professional to approach them,” he says.

Still, some contact is inevitable.

“Most of the people you meet are really down to earth,” Dave says. “Vanna White, she’s a very, very nice lady. She cut my birthday cake for me one day.’”

Dave has plenty to keep him busy without trying to meet stars, though. Coordinating the needs of the various departments in-volved in a production requires far more than placing the lights so Vanna looks her best. Dave once suspended an airplane and even rigged a pair of mini vans so they appeared to jump a 16-foot-high wall of video screens.

“It’s a challenge,” Dave says. “You’ve got a big puzzle you’ve got to solve and you’ve got to do it right.”
Since large productions often hoist as much as 30 tons, doing it right means the rigger’s first responsibility is making sure that what gets hung stays hung.

“It’s the most serious job on the road. If you don’t do it right people can get hurt or die,” Dave says, adding that there are risks to the riggers themselves. “I’ve witnessed two guys dying on the job already. One fell and one got electrocuted.”

Despite the challenges and risks Dave says he enjoys the freedom that comes with location work.
“I consider myself the luckiest guy in the industry,” he says. “I have the best of all worlds. I get to travel and do the hustle bustle. I go out of town for 10 days or two weeks and then come back here and just decompress.”

Dave’s retreat is a 15-acre farm between Troy and Winfield where he and his wife, Carole Roberts, raise quarter horses. While nearly everyone he works with lives in California or New York Dave says his Missouri home, complete with swimming pool and tennis court, offers a respite from the highly charged entertainment industry.

“The California folks think it’s the greatest thing in the world to be from California. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world to be from here,” Dave says.

“New York City, I just don’t get it. People love it. But I’m like, it’s really nice to go there for a couple weeks, but to get home and get on a tractor is really cool.”

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