Rockin 9/11!

In Spring of 2004, I was searching Craigslist for a part time job that would work with my acting class schedule, since I was determined to be a “serious” actress. I stumbled upon an ad for a new museum and event space, which was hiring actors and performers to work both in ticketing and as guides.

I sent an email, and was asked in for an interview that same week. Upon arriving at the venue, I was greeted by the HR manager, Eric. The 12,000 square foot space was near empty at that point, with some art installations and boxes everywhere. It was also really, really bright white. Almost blindingly so. The HR manager bragged for awhile about how he was a website designer for some C list Broadway stars and I pretended to be impressed.

During the interview I was told that the owner of the museum had become rich from being one of the first pioneers to create HDTV. A few months after the attacks he had become obsessed with paying tribute to 9/11 and NYC, as the city revived itself. The museum he was opening would be based around one main attraction: two 80 seat theaters that showcased a fifteen minute HD film recreating the 9/11 attacks, complete with chairs that vibrated and moved. The interactive film experience was going to be called “Rockin’ 9/11!”

If hired as a host, I would be introducing the film every half hour, as well as controlling the lights and managing possible vomiting from motion sickness. Since the museum was just steps away from the tourist and rubble filled former WTC site, they hoped it would draw in enough people to become the next big NYC tourist attraction. At that point no one had made any kind of tribute space or museum for 9/11, and this was long before the official ones were created. Eric told me that they were scheduled to have a soft opening all Summer, and have the Grand Opening on the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sept. 11, 2004. The museum was going to be called “9/11 LIVE!”

The first requirement of me getting this gig was making sure I could handle watching the film. I agreed to watch it before leaving, and was ushered into the very creepy theatre all by myself. The film was really intense-especially since the seats moving and vibrating made you actually “feel” the planes hitting. The lights came up and I exited the theatre to find a man waiting outside who looked almost exactly like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

He expectantly asked what I thought of the film. “Wow, that was great- certainly life like!” I said. Mr. Burns introduced himself as the museum owner and creator of the film. Before I left, Eric took some notes about my schedule and told me he looked forward to seeing me at training.

A month later, the staff and museum was assembled for the soft opening and I was working about twenty hours a week steadily. Like most new businesses, they were not having an easy time getting customers in. Eric decided that since it was so slow, he was going to send us out to hit the streets and hand out flyers. A few other employees and myself were not thrilled about this new task. Being one of those annoying flyer people on the streets was not really what we had signed up for.

We were each given piles of hundreds of flyers, split into teams of two and told to walk around the Wall Street Bull area, Battery Park City and Ground Zero to hand them out. “Come see “Rockin 9/11!” we would say as we tried to hand flyers to tourists who mostly ignored us. Once in awhile a local would grab one and be like-“FUCK YOU!” After awhile we got fed up and started dumping the flyers in garbage cans, then coming back to work after spending an hour in an air conditioned Starbucks nearby.

Tourists at the Wall St. Bull

As the Summer continued, it seemed like the museum space was growing and morphing every time I got to work. Life-sized images of WTC rubble appeared on the towering white walls and new merchandise, like hardcover photo books with 9/11 images arrived daily. One day while bored and working at the merch counter, I sifted through one of the photo books. A color photo of a severed foot with the high heel still attached was staring me in the face. Horrified, I slammed the book shut and never opened it again. I could not get the image out of my head for days.

Soon, some press write-ups brought in a slow but steady stream of customers. I was able to start introducing the “Rockin 9/11!” film regularly, and would often hear rumors that the owner would run upstairs to watch the audiences reactions on hidden cameras that were in the theaters. The staff was required to wear walkie talkies while working, and we soon discovered that not only was Mr. Burns able to listen in to everything we said while at work, the place was also loaded with hidden cameras to monitor us at all times.

With every stream of business came new morbid additions and artifacts, and museum began to take on a creepy life of it’s own. It was often quiet and empty inside which added to the overall eeriness. Where ever you looked you could not escape the tragedy that happened just blocks away, not even three years prior. It was a really depressing place to spend 6 hours a day. When my shifts ended, I would exit the 9/11 sensory overload only to have to walk right past the Ground Zero site to get to my train home.

After a few months working here, experiencing “9/11 LIVE!” started to become engraved into my brain. I began to have repetitive 9/11 nightmares that have continued to this day. In my dreams I was either running from the falling buildings, inside a plane that was about to crash into them, or stuck in an elevator inside a tower. I would often wake up from these vivid nightmares, only to head back to work surrounded by imagery and video of that horrible day over and over again.

With the third anniversary of 9/11 swiftly approaching, more staff members had started to quit. Those of us left started fighting over who would have to do the final walk through at night because we were all so creeped out by the place. On Sept 10th, Eric had a brief staff meeting and told us how important   the next day would be to bring in business. It was our make or break day. Because of this he wanted us all out pounding the pavement with flyers and coupons around the ground zero site. We all looked at each other with wide eyes, knowing this might be a really bad idea. Not only were many family members of victims paying respects at the site that day, the place was also swarming with media. None of us really wanted to be seen on CNN advertising a “Rockin 9/11.” We all also needed to keep our jobs. To help motivate us, Eric said we would each get an extra $3 for every ticket sold from a flyer we handed out.
So with our hands full of flyers and coupons, wearing “9/11 Live!” emblazoned t-shirts we headed toward ground zero as a united front of starving actors, clearly willing to do anything to make a buck.

We sheepishly stood around the sidelines of ground zero observing the crazy scene of media, tourists and t-shirt vendors. It didn’t take long before we saw one of the victims family members scream at a guy selling 9/11 postcards. “My brother was murdered here, how dare you make money off of his death?!” One of my co workers who was a go-getter, was the first to try and get some flyers out. The next thing we knew a huge Italian guy had him right by his 9/11 Live! t-shirt threatening him to get the fuck out. The rest of us, who were already not on board with this idea took off back to the museum. Eric was not happy to see us. When we explained that we all might get our asses kicked if we kept trying to hand out flyers at ground zero, he begrudgingly agreed on putting us at another location.

The next day we had our grand opening, and only five people showed up the entire day. We were blamed for not doing a good enough job flyering. The venue still brought in enough income as an event place to sustain a bit longer, but our shifts quickly dried up, and the museum eventually shuttered. I read about the space being sold in 2005. I guess nobody wanted to have a “Rockin 9/11” after all.