by Nancy Van Ness
- USA -
I stop briefly to speak with a woman as bundled up as I was against the weather, just to encourage her. Standing in front of the theater’s huge sign advertising A Chorus Line, she says they just want to hang on to what they have.
I cross 42nd Street and walk up Times Square. It is a cold, windy, rainy day but I had promised to come. I continue past the army recruiting center and the police headquarters; police are out in force. I notice the New York Times building on the east side of the Square at 43rd. The huge Clear Channel signs, some of the most prominent of those that are bright day and night cast a glow that makes the square seem like daytime 24 hours a day while flashing images. Across the way are the Disney buildings and Reuters. I walk over to the Broadway side of the Square, go up to 44th and then to Shubert Alley and over to 45th, giving high fives and thumbs up to striking stage hands as they parade up and down between police barriers in front of the theaters.
I head to a theater where, ironically, the show is about RCA’s theft of the rights to the invention of television from its inventor. It is never comfortable or convenient to man the picket lines and today is really nasty, but I had told the stage hands there I would be back today, so here I am.
I have come to see if I can get a true picture of what is going on. The endless media reports about the family from Seattle or somewhere else who had come to see The Grinch and how disappointed the children were because the stage hands had shut the show down had become intolerable to me.
Where is the story about the children whose parent is a stage hand, who will lose their house if the proposed 38% cut in jobs and pay is forced on the union? Where are our values? How can anyone’s vacation and a holiday show be more important than hard working middle class families who risk losing their income and their homes?
We are not going to see or hear that story for the simple reason that the owners of the media are the owners of Broadway, both its shows and the real estate; they just don't want us to know it. Few Americans are aware of some basic facts:
The largest grossing entity on Broadway is Disney, whose three Broadway shows the week of November 4, 2007, the last week before the strike, grossed a total of $2,205,016. Disney owns ABC.
The highest grossing show that week, which has remained at the top, earning over a million dollars a week for many weeks, was Wicked, with $1,335,757. It is produced by Universal Pictures, a subsidiary of the same company that owns NBC.
(Data about the receipts of top shows can be found here.)
The New York Times is an official partner of the League of Theater Owners and Producers, the same entity that is trying to break the stagehands' union. Its final offer would reduce their jobs and pay by 38%. (The cynicism of The Times is so blatant it’s ludicrous. On November 15th they declared that the current French transit strike was "provoked" by France's president, whereas they place the blame for the darkening of Broadway on the workers. The Times has no financial interest in French transit; it does in Broadway shows and real estate.)The Union, Local One of the Theatrical Stage Employees Union, has been negotiating with the League since July and has been working without a contract for some time. They report that the League is actually making further demands, not fewer, as negotiations have lurched forward. They were finally forced to either endorse a contract that would hurt its members badly or go out on strike.
It is not in the interest of the New York Times, ABC, NBC, Reuters, or other corporate media to tell us the facts about this situation. Big corporations own Broadway and the media. They do not want to the public to know the real story and as press, they have the means of keeping people in the dark. Even people who may have known that Disney owns ABC or that the Times is a big investor in the area find it very hard to connect all the dots. And the corporate media wants to keep it that way.
I want to see the “Light”, so I went to Times Square to see for myself.
Local One is very disciplined and smart. Its president spoke to a press conference on Sunday, November 11, 2007, the day after the strike started. Not surprisingly, that conference was not widely televised or reported, but the text is available to people who search for it.
The stagehands manning the picket lines will not talk to the press or media. They can count on being misquoted and misrepresented, so why should they? They speak only through their officials. I admire their solidarity and discipline.
Many of them say they would like the general public to know the facts instead of the misrepresentations - if not outright lies - that are published by the media. The press and television news have implanted the idea that stagehand members of Local One earn a hundred and fifty thousand dollars or more a year in the minds of many Americans. The stagehands themselves say that is grossly exaggerated. For one thing, many of them do not work all year. This is not a stable office job. These workers are paid per production; so when a show closes, there goes the work. They are not making a killing, unlike corporate executives. Some of them make a decent middle class living. As the president of Local One asked, “Why is it weird for middle class workers in America to fight for their jobs?”
Would the media present the strike favorably if the workers were starving, not “just” in danger of losing their homes? Would that make a strike okay?
Stagehands also want the general public to know that the same big corporations that control the media and many productions also own Broadway real estate. One stagehand told me about a local business that had been in the area over twenty-five years. Suddenly, the block was bought out and the rent was raised so high that the business owner couldn’t pay. In place of his former thriving small business is now another big corporate bank branch; the whole area is filled with them.
The stagehands want us to know, too, that under the contract they’ve had, they work extremely long hours, often for weeks on end without a single day off. One stagehand, a veteran of more than two decades on Broadway (with whom I swapped stories about grandchildren among other things), said that he had just worked twenty-two days straight, many of them from 8am to 10 pm. They want us to know that they are not idling along in cushy jobs, an impression that the public may be getting from statements by the League widely circulated in the media. This seasoned worker said he just wished people could be there to see what they do.They want us to know that they do not stand around, but rather they move heavy equipment, making sure it is safely installed. The work they do is often difficult physical labor which can also require great skill. It keeps everyone in a production safe.
This same vigorous and lively grandfather said that a few years ago when the musicians went out on strike, people told him that the stagehands would be next. He didn't believe them but now here he is on the line. He knows that the strike is not just about their contract but also about big corporations wanting to break the unions to exploit an unprotected work force.
The stagehands also talked to me about the corporate owners’ neglect of their beloved theaters, some of them now historic buildings. They spoke of badly needed maintenance that is not undertaken. My companion spoke with passion about how much he wants to see the dingy façade of the old theater beside us cleaned.
I am 61 years old and never in my lifetime has there been so much anti-labor policy in this country. The big corporations that own Broadway and the media do not want union workers. They want to pay as little as possible and reap the greatest profits. This is part of the bigger picture of outsourcing, using contract labor, and the other ways US corporations are raising profits on the backs of those who do the work.
Local One says that cuts in stagehands’ jobs and pay will not result in lower ticket prices for the public. Instead, it will only mean greater profits for the corporate owners. Average ticket prices the week of November 4 for the three Disney shows were: Mary Poppins, $81.87; The Lion King, $89.07; The Little Mermaid, $87.17; for Wicked, $92.40. Local One also reports in its flyer handed out at picket lines that the League used a part of those ticket sales to build a $20,000,000 fund to be used against the union.
I heard an anecdote about the corporate culture of the entertainment industry from Thea Luria who was executive assistant at Loewe’s Cineplex on Fifth Avenue in 1999 and 2000. She used a company pass to go to one of its cinemas to see a film and was stunned to find that a small bottle of water that would have cost no more than a dollar elsewhere was sold for $4.
She took the bottle to work the next day, plunked it down on the desk of then Executive Vice President for Operations Mike Norris and declared, "We should be ashamed that this bottle of water cost $4!"
Norris justified the price gouging by saying that 90% of the company's gross receipts went to pay for the ever increasing rental fees of the films they showed. Profits came from concessions. He claimed they needed profits to pay large salaries to retain the executives who led the firm. Thea, acquainted with the numbers from her work, asked how many houses one person really needs. She had seen the enormous sums paid to these executives and their huge bonuses, yet they haggled over paying a $1,500 raise to accountants making $29,000 per year. And meanwhile, they overcharge the public!
Not long after this conversation, those executives whose salaries dictated that the company gouge the public at the concession stands, led Loewe’s Cineplex right into bankruptcy; it filed Chapter 11 and was sold to a company that buys out failed entities.
However, the CEO who presided over that debacle was given over $10,000,000 and a new car as his severance.
Disproportionate amounts of corporate profits go to executives. Princeton economist Paul Krugman notes that corporate culture started changing, profiting the few by exploiting the many, in the US in the 1980's and has continued to do so at a rapid pace since the advent of the Bush regime. What Thea observed has grown much more extreme since she lost her job when Loewe’s went bankrupt.
After an hour or so on the picket lines, enlightened about their situation, I bid the stagehands goodbye and headed back to Broadway then down to 42nd Street, past the police headquarters and army station. Unlike some, I have a sense that the police and army presence is not really for "safety" but comes from a more sinister motive. We in the US have become accustomed to that presence and are numb to it, but today it seems startling and disturbing to me. Everything about Broadway seems that way to me today.
About the Author
Nancy Van Ness, founder and Director of the American Creative Dance group in New York City, is a 61 year old modern dancer who has taken up tango in recent years. Always serious about dance, she went to Buenos Aires to study with one of the greatest maestros of that form. Having spent decades in a unitard in small black box theaters making "high art," she is now sometimes seen in slinky dresses dancing tango con alma y pasión in tango salons and at international dance concerts.
As an unexpected result of her tango dancing, she was cast as the female lead in Tango Passion, a romantic comedy set in a tango salon. Tango Passion is now being featured at film festivals, most recently at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival. Van Ness says, “It is a romantic comedy about people my age instead of young lovers. I took on the role partly to confront stereotypes about who is lovable, who is attractive, who is even visible in our culture.” Filled with many surprises, it is about a couple whose relationship has definitely not lost the spice of life.
Van Ness was, however, shocked to find that the medium works in ways she hadn’t understood before. The exhibit "Dangerous Beauty" at the Chelsea Art Museum elucidated what was troubling her about having played the role of the luscious Claudia in the film.
Van Ness created an innovative, avant garde system of dance and musical accompaniment for her company, American Creative Dance. The troupe’s dance work requires performers to be creators; they do not perform dance classics. All dancers use their own bodies to make art, they do not have an impersonal instrument such as the musician, the painter, or the writer does. But using one’s body as a tool involves risk. Dancers in this troupe create their work in plain view under the audience's eyes. For further information please visit American Creative Dance.
Nancy Van Ness lives in New York City.