Legendary sound engineer relishes union leadership role

Submitted photo Wendell Bell

In its 129-year history in Minneapolis, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 13 had never elected a business agent who wasn’t a White male. That all changed on November 8, 2022 when Wendell Bell, a 33-year veteran of the Twin Cities music and theater scene, was elected in a landslide.

In his new role, Bell, who officially took office Monday, is responsible for a multitude of union business matters from collective bargaining to production values and logistics to payroll and so much more. 

He is also tasked with helping make sure that the roster of 3,000 IATSE Local 13 workers—a list that includes technicians, carpenters, wardrobe professionals, sound engineers, hairstylists, upriggers, makeup specialists, lighting designers, and other stagehands—are safely and successfully dispatched to staff various productions across the metro area and beyond.

You might say that, as the liaison between union members and their employers, the business agent is one of the most essential positions in the union, if not the most. Something that Bell seems fated for.   

Destined for the stage

Bell and his siblings all caught the music bug at a young age. “We all saw how skilled our uncle was on the guitar, the piano,” he recalled. “So, we all gravitated towards music ourselves, picked up instruments, competed in talent contests. It was a big part of our lives.”

 In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bell was really into Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and a new sound coming from New York City and the surrounding area that featured the likes of the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 

He also quickly took notice of the sound that was emerging right here in his hometown of Minneapolis. By his teenage years, Bell knew “This was the place to be.”

Bell joined a few bands himself and, as he says, “gigged out” as much as he could. Even though he was talented, Bell came to realize that making a living as a young musician isn’t the easiest thing in the world. “You gotta live, gotta be able to eat,” Bell said.

So after high school, Bell matriculated to Brown College, earning his degree in electronic technology. From there it was on to Music Tech, where he trained to become a recording engineer. It was also during this time that Bell began to moonlight a little in his future field, which among other things included transporting and setting up audio equipment around town.

One of these trips took him out to Paisley Park. “This was around 1988 or 1989,” Bell recalled, “so everything was basically brand new. I couldn’t get over how spotless the place was.” After setting everything up, he waited for someone to come through and check everything out, whether it be Prince or whomever. But no one came by. 

So Bell, realizing that he might be the only person in the building at the time, took a self-guided tour of the place, checking out all the studios, the costume shop, and just about every other room where the door was open. 

Hours passed and still no one ever came by to inspect his work, so Bell left. On a second trip out to Paisley Park, where he was setting up shop again, he sensed a presence in the room. He turned his head and there was Prince. 

“Hey,” Prince said. “Hey,” Bell replied. A few seconds passed, before Bell turned again to say something more, but Prince was no longer there. “It was exactly like everyone always says,” Bell laughed. “He’d appear out of nowhere, and then in an instant he was gone.”  

Courtesy of Pexels

Making his mark

While still finishing up his studies, Bell began working as sound designer at Mixed Blood Theatre and soon caught on as an engineer at Metro Recording Studios, where he assisted on The Steeles debut album “Heaven Help Us All,” among other records. 

It was a chance meeting at Metro with another Minneapolis Sound icon, Pepé Willie, that led to an 11-year stint as a recording engineer at Pepé Music Inc. His tenure included his contributions to a pair of classic 94 East remixes—“10:15 and “Fortune Teller”—both of which featured a teenage Prince Rogers Nelson on guitar.

But in this business you are rarely relegated to a single gig, and in 1992 Bell was hired as lead soundboard engineer at the Guthrie Theater. At the Guthrie, Bell worked on legendary plays by the likes of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde. He remembers being particularly fond of Alexandr Ostrovsky’s Too Clever By Half or the Diary of a Scoundrel

Another memory that stands out was the Penumbra Theatre Company production of August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Guthrie in the spring of 1997. Penumbra founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy, who babysat for Bell and his siblings when they were kids, had long been pushing to get the work of a Black playwright front and center on the Guthrie stage. Who better than now two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, who received his professional debut across the river at Penumbra nearly two decades before. 

“Lou really fought hard to make this happen,” Bell explained. “It was a struggle. There was a lot of tension around it. But he didn’t give up. Plus, he kept full artistic control and went on to direct what was one of the most celebrated productions in the history of the Guthrie. Props to Lou for that, always.”

Achieving new heights 

In July of 2000, after splitting the first 10 or so years of his career between the stage and the recording studio, Bell went on to become head sound engineer at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, a position that he holds to this day. But again, as much time as a job like that might require, Bell has continued to leave his artistic imprint all over town.

Chances are, if you’ve been to the theater, a concert, or a dramatic or musical production of any kind, you’ll find Bell’s name in the playbill. As an engineer, mixer, designer, or crew chief, he has helped stage productions from U.S. Bank Stadium to TCF Bank Stadium, multiple venues at the State Fair, and the string of aforementioned theaters among many other local stages. 

Among the most celebrated names and kindest people that Bell has worked with over the years are Gladys Knight, Tito Puente, Sheena Easton, Peabo Bryson, Ringo Starr, Jane Fonda, and Twin Cities legend Gordon Parks. 

But more than anything, he’s thankful for his colleagues and their support in making him the first person of color ever to serve as business agent with the IATSE Local 13.

Regarding Bell’s historic election, friend and mentor Willie said, “I’ve known Wendell for more than 30 years. Whether in the studio, playing golf, or just hanging out, it was always easy to see that he was the real deal. Wendell is kind, talented and humble. He’s a man of integrity. Wendell deserves this honor, and the union is the better for it.”    

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