Fifty years ago, on Saturday, November 8th, 1969, Billy Waldron fell to his death on the theatre stage of the Taft School, a preparatory school in Watertown, Connecticut.  The stagehouse of Taft's Bingham Auditorium (near left) was the scene of the accident, the cause of which forever remains shrouded in mystery. 

The fall occurred while boys were striking scenery and lights used in The Mandrake, which had been the Father's Day Masque & Dagger stage production earlier that evening.  The stage trap opening through which Billy fell is approximated below, a hole seven feet front to back by fourteen feed wide, or nearly half the width of the proscenium.

Bingham Auditorium was opened as a 527-seat miniature movie palace in 1931 and was in use 275 days each school year, not including stage plays, rehearsals and rentals.  Boys ran the auditorium, with a weekly routine of Vespers each day at 6PM, Job Assembly (JA) on Wednesday mornings, and in the weekday afternoons, the boys built scenery.  35MM films were shown each Saturday night by the only adult stage employee, Pops LaFlamme, the union projectionist.  Because stage work was entirely voluntary and Bingham isolated, the crew was almost a secret society.  

It was strictly routine for boys to "pull all-nighters" to strike sets on the Bingham stage without faculty supervision.  Their enormous toy included a Peter Clark counterweight fly system (left) equipped with twenty linesets, a curved cyc, picture sheet, horn, traveler tracks (center) and electric pipes (right).  And the boys ran that stage like Radio City Music Hall.

The stage crew was comprised of  Merry Pranksters, and Billy Waldron (below at Glee Club) was a Merry Prankster nonpareil.  The Pranksters were forever on the trail of an illegal cigarette, and favored smoking places included the gridloft forty feet above the stage, and the trap room ten feet below.

Fourteen boys were already at work by the time Billy showed up for the strike, and all of the traps had been "pulled" so that clean lumber from the set could be tossed down to the stock boy who would return it to the wood pile.  The Senior in charge instructed Billy to "unplug all the units on the first electric" and signaled the flyman to bring in the pipe.  Billy and another boy electrician began work, not within the thirty inch pathway between the traps and the first electric, but on the far ends of the pipe, away from the hole.  In this photo, the electric pipe is flown out, but while Billy and the other boy worked, it trimmed at five feet above the stage floor.

Minutes or seconds later, the other electrician looked up and saw that Billy was gone.  In the trap room (below), the stock boy turned from the wood rack to discover Bill lying next to him, face down on the concrete floor, motionless and silent, posed as if he was taking a snooze.  At first glance, the boy thought Billy was joking around, but when reality hit home, the boy's screams brought all hands pounding down the circular staircase in a flash.  Not one of the fourteen workers had seen it happen. 

Billy was breathing.  There were no telephones anywhere nearby (and no such thing as 911) but nine faculty apartments were located within the theatre building, and one Master-- Barclay Johnson-- was roused within two minutes by a Senior on foot.  Other Seniors raced off to locate the school doctor, an iffy proposition at 11:30 on a Saturday night.  The house sound system that had been playing "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" was silenced.
Before ten minutes could elapse, the Doctor appeared and instantly sent a boy running to the infirmary to call an ambulance and fetch a stretcher.  Without a word or sign to the remaining boys, the Doctor's appraisal was that "Billy's skull had been shattered like an eggshell."  Deputized boys toted the stretcher bearing Billy across the full length of the castle's dark and silent basement (from A to B), emerging at the infirmary court where the ambulance was waiting.  This would turn out to be his funeral procession.

At about midnight, the Waldron family in Wayzata, Minnesota was given the news by Headmaster John Esty via long distance telephone.  Bill's dad booked his company's Learjet for a 5:30 am takeoff and telephoned to his close friend and Minnesota neighbor who happened to be in Watertown for Father's Day to visit his son Dave Dobson '72 (circle below).  Dobson senior and his wife rushed to the hospital and watched over Billy until the second that the Waldrons arrived.  Dobson's dad was Billy's Godfather.

Billy was sent first to Waterbury, then to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where it was verified that his brain no longer functioned.  Thus, external appearances notwithstanding, the boy that we assumed would soon be "good as new" was as good as dead.  His mother could not bear to pull the plug until the next morning, and Monday concluded in Bingham Auditorium for his Memorial Service,  where a bevy of tearful boys were permitted to meet Bill's parents.

Exactly one week before Billy had fallen, beloved Master and college advisor William Sullivan had dropped dead watching his son play football.  Bill Waldron's death thus plunged the school into double-shock, the effects of which would resound at Taft until the final survivor, Master Dick Cobb, retired forty-five years later.  Everyone's true nature was momentarily revealed, and by graduation time, somehow the school was transformed, vastly for the better, to the astonishment of the faculty and boys alike.

The lives of the boys both directly involved and on the immediate periphery were indelibly marked that Monday night.  The boys quoted below are Bob Golfman, Mike Castillo, Bruce Maclean, and Ken Saverin, all middlers like Bill, '72.

Billy's parents were the Sunday night house guests of Headmaster John Esty (below) who handled the disaster with grace and aplomb.  He came up with an explanatory hypothesis, that Billy had touched a hot lamp and jumped backwards into the void, and this became the official line.  But it was just a guess, because the fall had gone unwitnessed.  The press was told that Billy was 16, not 15, and that the fall was 15 feet, not 10.

Immediately following the Monday service, the Waldrons returned home to Bill's three younger sisters.  Communication was then reduced to writing, such as this Thanksgiving update (left).  Christmas brought a confusing letter (right) from the business office, informing the Waldrons that Taft would be refunding less than half of the $2000 they had previously advanced, despite the fact that Bill's dad had purchased tuition insurance.  In other words, the Waldrons had to pay for the fifty-three days leading up to the accident.

The Waldrons were Minneapolis royalty, for Billy's great-grandfather had founded Honeywell, and their omnipresent round model was unveiled in 1953, the year of Bill's birth. 
Before his time at Taft, as a fearless sixth grader, Billy thought nothing of asking a favor of President Lyndon Johnson,  in a letter sufficiently well-written to merit a reply.  Even at that age, Bill gave the appearance of a sly fox, endowed with a sense of purpose and a siren's smirk.  
Bill's father (left) was a senior executive at Honeywell and responded to Taft with extraordinary calm and patience, agreeing with the school that the fall had been an accident, that there was no remedy.  In 1969, civility still ruled and the notion of a lawsuit was far beyond the realm of possibilities.   Neither did the school mandate any changes whatsoever in the way that the students ran the stage.
Billy was a compact 5'-7" 140 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes, according to his learner's permit and probably the fastest and most agile person on the stage.  He had been both happy hockey goalie (left arrow) and smiling pole vaulter (right) the previous year.  How, then, could this accident have happened?

It is extremely unlikely that Billy touched "a hot bulb," because he was a natural electrician.  The only unit hot to the touch was obviously so, an open one-thousand watt lamp visibly ablaze in a single worklight, hung center, of the type shown below.  The other eighteen lights spread the length of the pipe were cold, having been doused when the curtain came down.
When he fell, Billy was wearing tall cowboy boots, which some speculated as the cause.  He was in love with the boots he had bought late that summer when he and his family had vacationed at the A Bar A Ranch in Wyoming.  Left to right are his sister Luci; a new acquaintance; and his cousin Lisa, her head in his hand. 

The summer of 1969 was also the summer of Woodstock, and "Billy the Mid" had left the jock track for a band of  Pranksters.  At the beginning of the year, he had rigged the tape deck, stereo and lights in his dorm room to black out when a Master checked for "lights."  By November, he had all the Masters (keys) for the school, and he used them to lock out the other Masters.

Even prior to the Monday night service, the Pranksters had proposed a memorial named in Bill's honor, in the form of an annual prize and, thinking practically, a new sound system.  Both were realized that spring, when the first recipient of the prize was Peter Byerly, from Bill's class of 1972, and a plaque was installed in the Bingham lobby.  Byerly (below) was one of a hundred boys who joined the Masque and Dagger, both offstage and on, immediately "after the fall."

Sheila Waldron, Billy's mom, was shattered by his death. Her final Christmas card, professionally staged at the Ranch, she signed "from all the Waldrons," including her firstborn, far left, who would never turn sixteen.
The Prankster (far right) in his new boots.

Photographs courtesy the Taft School and Luci Waldron.  The Mandrake program illustration by Barnaby Conrad, the Bill Sullivan Pap obituary by Steven Erlanger.  Thanks to the late John Esty, former Headmaster, and to Chris Boynton and Bruce Maclean '72. 

The author Bob Foreman was on the stage that night and has tried ever since to prevent accidents.  For more on Bingham Auditorium and the architecture of the school, see his article "Mr. Taft's Castle."

November 8, 2019