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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

Ex Pats : Michael Ehmcke

By the time Michael Ehmcke had moved to Elmira he had already lived in more than 10 locations, all along the eastern United States.

“It was rough,” Mike said, recalling the constant moves that marked his childhood.

Mike was born in Mayfield, KY and, as mentioned, his family moved frequently when he was young, following work opportunities throughout the East. They moved to Elmira in 1986 when Mike’s father got a job at Kennedy Valve. By that time, he was a sophomore attending Elmira Free Academy and trying to fit in as best he could.

“The three years that I was at E.F.A., I was part of everyone but not really a part of everyone,” he says. “ I was able to work my way into almost every clique and every group, and I fit in just enough. But I was never truly a part of any group until the Mark Twain Musical Drama started.”

The 1987 musical drama, based on Twain’s experiences in Elmira and Hartford, CT, provided entrance into the arts and entertainment business for many Southern Tier residents, both on stage and behind-the-scenes.

The same was true for Mike. At his mother’s suggestion, Mike tagged along when she took his younger brother to audition for a part in the musical. Since he had some experience running lights for a show he’d done for a temple his family had attended before moving to the Southern Tier, Mike’s mom thought he might be able to land a summer job and make some money working backstage.

While his brother auditioned, Mike explored the set and started taking notes on the lighting setup. The musical’s lighting designer noticed him and asked to take a look. He was so impressed with the notes that he asked Mike if he could incorporate some of his ideas into the musical. Then he offered Mike a job.

Like many kids who grew up when the Star Wars movies first came out in the 1970s, the sci-fi thriller had seized hold of Mike’s imagination and sparked his interest in working in the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until he’d landed a gig as a Follow Spot Operator on the Mark Twain Musical Drama, however, that he realized he could make a living doing something that so fascinated him.

“That’s when the bug hit,” he said. “I wasn’t really sure, until I did Mark Twain, that I wanted to get into the business. THIS is what I want to do.”

Several area youth snagged parts or backstage work on the musical drama. Earning a paycheck while being immersed in theater life - stage settings, lighting plans and rehearsals - only strengthened Mike’s interest in an entertainment career. It also helped to strengthen friendships amongst the kids he worked with within E.F.A.’s theater group. Some that are still going strong today.

When he graduated in 1989, Mike had built on his backstage experience, having worked behind-the-scenes in several high school and Elmira Little Theatre community productions, along with more than 200 performances during his two-year stint as a Follow Spot Operator for the Mark Twain Musical Drama. He attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA between 1989 and 1992 before transferring to Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC) in Louisiana to be closer to, and help out, his family. He met his wife, Malissa, while working on a BPCC production of Dark Side of the Moon.

It was also during his time at BPCC that Mike decided to refine his theater study to sound design and engineering, having gained experience with sound engineering during his brief stint at Carnegie Mellon University.

“My work study was in the audio lab at the school,” he explained. “I was editing senior projects, audio-wise. Cutting and splicing tape, and layering sounds.”

The process of finding and creating the sounds that enhance a theatrical performance intrigued Mike and sparked a creative fire that would propel him to a, seemingly, unimaginable career in the entertainment audio industry.

After getting married, Mike and his wife moved to Orlando, FL in 1996, where he attended Full Sail University.

“I walked in, having been in the business for 13 years … I was there to finetune my craft,” he said.

He received a specialized Associates Degree in Science and Recording Arts in 1997 and started looking for work, sending out resumes to studios around the country, including “The Most Magical Place on Earth” aka Walt Disney World.

“What I really wanted to do was post production for film and television - is what I thought I wanted to do,” he said. “Not realizing … theater was the love. Live audio, live entertainment was where I wanted to be. And that’s where my career set is.”

After several months of searching, Mike got a call from his school that he would be one of five students interviewing for a position at Disney.

“They were starting to backfill positions at the parks because Animal Kingdom was getting ready to open later that year,” he explained. “Of the five people interviewed, I was one of the two chosen and hired.”

So in 1998, Mike began a decades-long career as a stage technician for Walt Disney Studios.

“Pretty much everything I’ve done has been live theater,” Mike says.

He’s provided audio services for innumerable shows, concerts, conventions and special events for over two decades. Plus, he WORKS at Disney!

Mike’s voice still held excitement as he talked about being able to have his lunch on a bench in Animal Kingdom. His eyes lit up as he related visiting the park’s immersive Star Wars attraction Galaxy’s Edge for the first time.

“That is one of my new happy places at Disney,” he says. “I used to go to Animal Kingdom, grab a couple bottles of soda, just sit and relax. Enjoy the sights and sounds, and people-watch.”

His voice shakes slightly with excitement as Mike recalls that first visit to Galaxy’s Edge and the life-sized Millennium Falcon.

“It’s real,” he says he kept repeating when he first came upon the iconic fictional starship. “You talk to any of us from our generation - Star Wars was the film! The only way you would see the Falcon is if you happened to be invited to a movie set where they’re filming. Then it would be destroyed after shooting.”

“But, no, I’m seeing a Falcon that looks like it belongs here, and like it could fly away at any moment! And it’s not a movie set! It’s real!!,” Mike said, wonder still creeping into his voice.

“It’s like going to Williamsburg, VA,” he says of the immersive experience of Galaxy’s Edge. “It’s that type of detail that’s so cool.”

“Now that we’re (employees/cast members) not blacked out, I will go on a day off, and take my laptop and get my favorite drink and snack, go find a table and work on my podcasts. And I can sit and relax and be at home (in the Star Wars world),” he says.

In addition to his dream job working at Walt Disney World, in 2012 Mike co founded the We Be Geeks Podcast Collective, and produces, edits and shares on-air talent duties for three podcasts - We Be Geeks, Mighty Marvel Geeks and Wookie Radio - that explore all geek-related entertainment. In addition, Mike helps produce his 11-year-old daughter, Zoe’s, podcast Adventures in Geek. They’ve made the final slate, five years running, in People’s Choice Podcast awards while also winning others awards from various Film Festivals around the country, since they started broadcasting.

The hectic pace of working in the parks, and the new opportunities available at Disney, have Mike exploring his job options again.

“I am looking at new venues,” he said. “We’ve got the Star Wars Hotel that’s opening up here in March. There’s going to be an entertainment crew there … They posted for an audio crew chief position, which I applied for.”

While he’s never worked in a hotel, Mike is excited at the prospect of working in a new, fantastical setting that’s only ever been imagined by generations of young scifi fans.

“It’s still going to be live entertainment and would still be similar to what I’ve done in the parks. It’s just now I’m not going to be doing audio for Star Wars, I’m gonna be doing audio in Star Wars,” he says with a childlike grin. “It’ll be like a dream job.”

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