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Rosie show was ‘chaos,’ ‘free-for-all,’ band member says

Katreese Barnes Rosie O'Donnell's new music director during rehearsals Harpo Studios Tuesday October 25 2011 . Her brother Jerry Barnes

Katreese Barnes, Rosie O'Donnell's new music director, during rehearsals at Harpo Studios, Tuesday, October 25, 2011 . Her brother Jerry Barnes (seated behind her) plays bass. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: April 21, 2012 8:13AM

“Unorganized chaos.”

That’s how musician Jerry Barnes describes the atmosphere at his former place of employment: Rosie O’Donnell’s recently canceled talk show on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Only five bumpy months after the Harpo Studios-shot program’s much-heralded debut, its final episode tapes Tuesday and airs March 30.

Barnes, a bassist with “The Rosie Show’s” five-piece band until live music was nixed in January, also uses the term “free-for-all.”

“When you don’t have a direction, when you don’t have a real concept, you don’t have a sense of grounding at all,” he says. “And that’s how I felt during the whole thing. It was like, ‘What are they going to do now?’ ”

Other staffers confirm that sense of instability. Not only did the consistently low-rated show suddenly morph from shooting on an elegant set in front of a live studio audience to an intimate one-on-one confab amid props that seemed plucked from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” but its host frequently called audibles shortly before — and sometimes while — cameras rolled.

“I had to throw a lot of music together and we were getting directives, sometimes 30 minutes before a show, for musical numbers that had to be added,” says former music director and bandleader Katreese Barnes. Jerry’s sister and an Emmy-winning music industry veteran whose resume includes the “Saturday Night Live” parody hit “D--- in a Box,” Katreese left her longtime gig as “SNL’s” music director to join O’Donnell’s crew in Chicago. She’ll soon vacate her rented apartment in River West and move westward for a job with the CW network in Los Angeles.

With insufficient time to “chart” notes and cues, Katreese adds, she and her gang often had to wing it. Their musicianship compensated for a lack of preparation, but the situation was far from ideal.

During one taping, Jerry recalls, R&B legends the Commodores sang to a pre-recorded track. Then O’Donnell threw a curve ball.

“Rosie asked them to do another song at the end of their performance, and they weren’t even plugged in. So we played while the Commodores [pretended to play] live to our band. They were never supposed to be doing anything outside of their performance. . . . And then, of course, we didn’t even know the song.”

To self-amuse and add some spirit-lifting levity, Jerry and his musical mates openly mocked the proceedings.

“We had our own microphones, and most of the time nobody heard us but us. Sometimes the engineer would mess up and our vocals would go through the house. We would just be saying all kinds of s--- during the [tapings]. Like, during an interview that was really boring, we would go, ‘Man, this is really, really exciting! This is the best interview ever! Give us 20 more [minutes]!’ We had sound effects going on — farting, lamb sounds. . . . And depending on who the guest was, we’d just make fun of them.”

Part of “The Rosie Show’s” scattershot nature, former charges agree, derived from O’Donnell’s tendency to skip production meetings. Instead of shooting down ideas early on and giving staffers (writers, musicians, producers) time to regroup, she waited until the 11th hour or shifted on the fly.

O’Donnell’s representatives offered no response to emailed questions.

“She never wanted to have any rehearsals with anybody,” says an insider who requested anonymity. “Everything was last-minute.”

And when something failed to go her way, public reprimands were issued. According to an account published in the Daily Beast and confirmed by the Sun-Times, seasoned director Joe Terry (a holdover from Oprah’s reign) was targeted when O’Donnell called him out in front of a studio audience for using what she deemed to be incorrect camera angles.

Katreese experienced something similar when she was asked, on the spot, by O’Donnell (a big Broadway fan) to play Stephen Sondheim tunes the accomplished pianist and skilled sight-reader hadn’t committed to memory.

“That was an uncomfortable moment,” Katreese admits.

Staffers say O’Donnell also expressed little or no interest in bonding with those who worked for her.

“It was like her against everyone,” the insider says. “She felt no connection with anybody there.”

Despite all the headaches, however, the Barnes siblings don’t seem embittered by their challenging but teachable time in Chicago.

“It was a really cool experience overall,” Jerry says, “and I definitely learned what not to do.”

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