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Broadway stagehands take strike cue

Times Staff Writer

Much of Broadway went dark Saturday as a long-threatened strike by stagehands became a reality and thousands of theater-goers were left holding tickets to shows that shut down.

It was the second strike to hit the Great White Way in five years, and came as a shock to many who had expected that talks between producers and the stagehands’ union would continue through the weekend.

The work stoppage, which threatens to cast a shadow on New York’s busy and lucrative holiday season, has thrown another branch of the American entertainment world into turmoil. Earlier this week, members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike, halting movie and TV show production.

Twenty-six Broadway shows were affected by Saturday’s walkout, including hits such as “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys,” “Chicago” and “Avenue Q” and shows in previews like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Farnsworth Invention.”

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Talks between Local One, which includes the stagehands, and the League of American Theatres and Producers had been going on since the contract expired July 31. But they broke down Thursday, when Local One was given authorization to strike by its parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The key issue has been how many stagehands must be employed by each production. Local One has resisted reductions in those numbers, refusing to give up job protection unless it gets concessions in a new contract with similar financial value. Producers have argued that they need flexibility and criticized the alleged “featherbedding,” saying that not all shows have the same production requirements.

As news of the strike spread on Broadway, thousands of ticket holders who had come into the Times Square area expecting to see matinees reacted with anger and no small amount of confusion.

Although the work stoppage affected most shows, eight productions -- including the newly opened “Young Frankenstein,” “Xanadu” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” -- remained open because they are governed by different labor agreements. Many ticket holders, who have been promised a full refund or exchange, scrambled to get seats to shows that remained open.

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“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Marian Thompson, who had brought several young children to the theater district to see their first musical on Broadway. “It’s such a shame, especially at this time of the year, when so many people come to town wanting to see a show.”

Producers were equally dismayed.

James Sanna, producer of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” said “it is deplorable” that his show -- which opened Friday night -- was shut down along with so many other shows. “Thousands of people will be disappointed, and it will have a great impact on Broadway.”

The League of American Theatres and Producers estimated that the strike could have a $17-million daily impact on Broadway and the city. Business has been booming in New York theaters: During the 2006-07 season, more than 12.3 million tickets were sold, the most in two decades, according to a League report. More than 65% were sold to tourists, the report said.

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Although some speculated that the strike would last no more than four or five days, the bitterness between the two sides is intense.

The last strike on Broadway, a 2003 work stoppage by musicians, lasted four days. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg got involved in those discussions, which led to a resolution. So far, there is no indication that the mayor’s office will get involved in the current strike.

“We are saddened by the decision of Local One to hold this unnecessary strike, and it is fitting that they chose ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ for the first show to be affected -- because so many New Yorkers, parents and children, had been looking forward to a great experience at the theater,” Charlotte St. Martin, the League’s executive director, said at a news conference.

“The stagehands are and will remain the highest-paid professionals of their kind in the world. This all could have been avoided had the union’s leadership chosen to act responsibly at the bargaining table.”

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Hundreds of striking stagehands, as well as actors, musicians and other employees, walked picket lines in front of Broadway’s usually packed theaters.

Local One spokesman Bruce Cohen could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The union, which has about 2,200 members, had been putting aside money for a $4-million strike fund.

The League has reportedly put aside a $20-million strike fund to help pay costs such as insurance.

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“We are ready to negotiate to end this,” St. Martin said. “We are trying to send that message out loud and clear.”

josh.getlin@latimes.com


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