As seasoned as they come, Jerry O’Connell reflects on more than 40 years in tents.
Earlier this year, Jerry O’Connell — a well-respected and seemingly selfless tent guru of the highest order — retired from HDO Productions. It was 1964 when O’Connell first joined Harry Oppenheimer, a friend and neighbor since childhood, to put up tents in Chicago. At that point he hadn’t considered tented events could be a lifelong career. As he points out, the tented events industry didn’t even really exist back then.
The story of how HDO Productions transformed from Oppenheimer’s first few Anchor tents to a multicity event company is a long one, with many openings, closures and re-openings of offices around the U.S. And as HDO Productions grew, the industry grew along with it, evolving into something completely different.
“I love the tents that we have now,” O’Connell says. “When I started, the tents were all canvas, the side poles and the small center poles were wood — maybe steel for the bigger tents. The ropes were manila, the stakes were wood. It was just a night and day difference between what we have now,” he says.
“I always used to joke that I was looking for a new job — one that didn’t deal with people, trucks or weather,” he says. “Those were the three things that always gave me problems.” O’Connell says the tight timelines can also be one of the more difficult things to deal with in this line of business. “The intensity tends to be very personal. If you can’t deal with it, you’re in the wrong business.”
Some in the industry best know O’Connell as the guy who has done tents for seven presidents. “It’s a real honor,” he says. “You can’t help but walk inside the gate down at the White House and not be kind of awed. It’s a very important, impressive place. I can still remember the dinner we did for the returned POWs [in 1973]. They had all sorts of entertainers, including Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr., doing the show after the dinner. At the end of the evening they had all the performers on stage — Irving Berlin was there. They started singing ‘God Bless America,’ which Berlin wrote. You have these 550 heroes, standing up and singing it, and it just brings you to tears.”