In the 17 years Barbara Strauss has helmed the Sarasota Blues Festival, only a handful of employees have graced her payroll. Sheyenne Michelizzi is like five of them in one. Not only is Michelizzi, 26, Strauss’ right-hand woman, she’s worked alongside the irrepressible rock-and-roll music promoter since she was 15 years old.
“Everybody has their people,” Strauss says. “Sheyenne is mine. I hand her my brain and she runs with it.”
For 11 years Michelizzi has worked as the festival’s on-site coordinator, overseeing everything from food vendors and ticket lines to port-a-potties and dressing rooms. No job is too dirty or too outlandish for Michelizzi.
“I’m a perfectionist,” says Michelizzi. “I like to say I prevent bad things from happening.”
Her job also requires fulfilling the diva demands of A-list performers. When soul singer Solomon Burke played the festival in 2003, he demanded to be lifted onto the stage in his signature throne. Per the singer’s backstage rider, Strauss slapped together the chair, covered it in jewels and then asked Michelizzi to arrange to have it fork-lifted onto the stage during Burke’s opening number.
“As far as I can remember, he was happy with his grand appearance,” laughs Michelizzi.
Michelizzi is no stranger to backstage drama. She grew up on the road with The Allman Brothers band. Her mother, the band’s Web site designer, often accompanied the group on its summer concert tours, and Michelizzi, a theater junkie, loved coming along for the ride. On weekend shows during the school year, Michelizzi would ask drummer Marc Quiñones to proofread her creative-writing assignments.
“It’s not anything like the stereotypical image you’d expect traveling around with rock stars,” Michelizzi says. “The Allmans are very much like family to me. I always say I’ve got seven uncles and a dozen more who tour with the band. It’s a wonderful relationship.”
By her freshman year of high school, Michelizzi had asked Allman Brothers Manager Bert Holman how she could break into the industry. Holman recommended working for Strauss, a friend and colleague.
At the time, Strauss had five people running the festival’s front-of-house operations. After Michelizzi came on board, she whittled her paid staff down to two: Michelizzi and stage manager Mike Abdisha.
“Here she was, this little 15-year-old girl who wanted to get into the music business,” Strauss says. “It was like a gift from God. She got it right away.”
A smoothly run music festival is no accident. Hundreds of volunteers help keep the show humming all day.
Michelizzi doesn’t just make sure that each shift arrives on time outfitted in festival T-shirts; she hangs signs in the parking lot, brings the bands plates of food and sees that the trash gets emptied regularly.
Even the festival’s portable toilets are well maintained.
“I’ve heard that other festival bathroom facilities are not so pleasant,” says Michelizzi. “Ours aren’t … too scary.”