For Tops in Blue performers, tough audition is the easy part
December 31, 2002
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Senior Airman Jamie Montgomery hasn’t set foot inside his work site at the 730th Air Mobility Squadron since April, but he’s still on the duty schedule.
“TDY” is penciled in after his name.
Montgomery, 22, is traveling the world and fulfilling a dream: singing on stage in front of thousands. When the curtain closes on his 11-month special-duty tour, he’ll return to his job at Yokota as a command post controller.
Montgomery is a Tops in Blue.
“I’m still in the Air Force, and I make the same paycheck, and I get to do what I love, which is perform,” he said.
Montgomery and the 27 other Tops in Blue members made a swing through Yokota Saturday and Sunday for two performances. Their Saturday night show was postponed after the drummer, who had to attend to a family matter, was delayed flying into Tokyo Saturday. Two shows were held on Sunday.
As the Air Force’s expeditionary entertainers, the men and women of Tops in Blue say they may appear to have it made. Many are interested in the music industry; they say they gain invaluable stage experience with the troupe and get to travel the globe while earning a steady paycheck and keeping all the Air Force perks.
But those who make the cut learn quickly that the glamour soon fades. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Montgomery said. “When I first got into it, I wanted to quit. A lot of people feel that way.”
Eighteen-hour days aren’t uncommon. In their free time, the entertainers sleep. In one year, they put on 135 shows in more than 20 countries. Before each performance, they unload tons of staging, audio, lighting and special effects equipment from a tractor trailer and set up the stage. After the show, still in their stage makeup, they break down the set and reload the truck.
“We are the worker bees and the performers all wrapped up in one,” said Staff Sgt. Evelyn Bruce, 27, Tops in Blue vocalist and medical administrator from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.
The Tops in Blue selection process is competitive. Active-duty airmen compete in base talent shows or submit a videotape and application to Tops in Blue headquarters in Texas. In a worldwide competition in February, Montgomery said, about 65 contestants are flown to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for 10 intense days of interviews and competitions.
This year’s group consists of 14 vocalists, seven band members, three technicians, two drivers, a tour director and one production coordinator — the troupe’s only civilian.
During the selection process, personality — not just talent — is scrutinized, Montgomery said: “You’re on the road for a year with 30 people. The only time you have away from them is when you sleep.”
Bruce, who is on her second tour with Tops in Blue, wanted to give something back to the troops after Sept. 11, 2001. As the noncommissioned officer in charge of patient administration for the 39th Medical Operations Squadron at Incirlik, she dealt with servicemembers injured or killed while fighting the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
“We got troops from the front lines, because of our location,” she said. “It was depressing, to see all of our young men with shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds, 18 to 31 years old. I wanted to be on the other side of that, to do something to build their morale.”
Tops in Blue traveled to Afghanistan this year, but Bruce almost was left behind. Bruce was three months into a 15-month remote assignment when she auditioned.
“I knew my chances were slim because they were really short on NCOs,” she said, referring to her squadron at Incirlik.
But since Bruce was one of the few returning Tops in Blue performers this year, the Air Force Entertainment agency requested her release, she said.
Montgomery’s squadron commander championed his cause.
“My section itself didn’t want to release me, but my commander supported me,” he said.
Col. Kenneth Wavering, vice commander of Yokota’s 374th Airlift Wing, was 730th AMS commander at the time.
“He said, ‘I can’t see not letting you go after you worked so hard to get there in the first place,’” Montgomery said of Wavering.
Tops in Blue performers stay assigned to their home-base units but on the road, they’re a self-contained operational unit. Each performer has additional responsibilities off the stage, from arranging ground transportation and lodging to distributing mail and loading equipment on pallets for transport.
The yearlong stint doesn’t hurt their military careers, they say. In fact, many still study for and pass promotion tests while on the road. Airman 1st Class Kristin Gwitt, 20, a personnel readiness journeyman at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., received a surprise stripe Saturday night at Yokota, making rank six months early.
Montgomery and Bruce said though they love performing, for now, at least, they plan to stay in the Air Force.
“I used to want to be an entertainer,” Bruce said. “I still want to do night club gigs, but my ultimate goal is to be an obstetrician.”