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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Hit Those Streets at Halftime"

From the Vault Dept.: For many years, no Troy Music Hall concert could begin without Fire Marshall John Tilton’s no-smoking warning. “Fire exits are located on all sides of the building,” the speech began, if I’m remembering correctly, but it was delivered only after Tilton acknowledged the applause he invariably received. The hall got more serious or something and the speeches stopped. Tilton has long since retired and moved to Maine. Concerts there have never been the same.


HE’S APPEARED ONSTAGE at the Troy Music Hall more often than any other performer. Not to sing or play an instrument, but to deliver a deadly serious message: don't smoke in the hall.

John Tilton
Photo by Gigi Cohen
John Tilton is a professional firefighter. He's been on the force for 15 years. And for 15 years he has opened for each and every Troy Music Hall event. “I took it over from another fellow,” he says, “who got a little tired of it.”

Now Tilton feels he’s part of a family of audience and performers who return to the hall often. “You get to know people. You see people in the audience year after year. And the performers, they’re pretty good people too.”

The speech he delivers is always – or nearly always – the same. “If I try to change it, the people get mad.” And the crowd loves it. “Sometimes, if the show is bad, they’ll say, ‘I should’ve left after your speech.’”

With a mixture of hand gestures and perfectly placed inflection, Tilton gets the point across with a little humor. “And it’s a proven fact,” he says. “You don’t get any smoking around there. The people remember.”

He lives in Poestenkill in a converted 1862 schoolhouse, which reflects his other occupation: restoration carpentry. “I love old houses. Love working with the old construction. In my house, it’s so solid that on a windy day you don’t hear a thing.” And he has an eye for antiques, something he and his wife trade in during the few off-hours he’s able to grab.

Working in the hall adds to those hours, “but it’s great. I’ll do anything to help the hall out. Anyone would be out of their minds not to.” With its superior acoustic qualities, the Troy Music Hall is a favorite both with local performers and internationally famous artists. And Tilton has opened for them all.

“I always kid ‘em when I come offstage,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘I warmed ‘em up for you.”’ For which cellist Yo Yo Ma, among others, was grateful, explaining how difficult it is to face an audience just settling in. Tilton, with his easygoing manner and dry wit, got them a little looser, a little more responsive.

He’s there for the entire show and has taken in a lot of music over the years. During which time he’s missed only two or three events. “And immediately I was flooded with calls. ‘Are you all right? Is everything okay?’” Some people even query the box office when buying season tickets for events: we want to be sure the fireman will be there.

Along with considerable local coverage, Tilton has even become a national phenomenon: he’s made the Sunday paper in San Francisco and the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

But he’s still very down-to-earth, even a little bashful. “What that hall is all about is the people,” he says. “If there weren’t any people, there wouldn’t be a hall.”

Metroland Magazine, 25 May 1989

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