Sylvia Bailey is sitting front row center at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street, two hours before the 8 PM curtain. Resting on the stage before her is the famous crystal chandelier that will soon rise up and then fall dramatically at the end of Act One of The Phantom of the Opera.
Bailey, who just recently turned 88, is very familiar with that chandelier and its sudden descent. She has been an usher at the Majestic Theatre since the mid-1980s — including the 10,000-plus performances of Phantom, the longest-running show in Broadway history, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in January.
"I love meeting people," Bailey says. "In my job, I can talk to people from all over. I live by myself, so I like to be where there's people. I love to be with the public." These days, Bailey, who lives in Union Beach on the New Jersey Shore, rides a bus an hour or so each way for six of the eight weekly performances.
Bailey was born in a small town — Bessemer, Pennsylvania — and had an early stage career of her own. "I began taking dance lessons when I was two years old," she says. "In 1937, my mother brought us to New York, to get out of the coal mines. My dad was a coal miner. I was brought up in the Bronx." Her mother also took her for singing lessons, and as a child Bailey sang "on a kiddie program" on WINS radio. She has always loved performing, she says. When she turned 14 — "I looked 19" — she went more seriously into show business, singing and dancing. Her father was ill and she had to work, so she attended Manhattan's Central Commercial High School (now Norman Thomas High School) and also worked in nightclubs. "The 1940s were beautiful with nightclubs," she recalls. "Greenwich Village was all nightclubs; every place they had big, beautiful nightclubs." She also danced at the Roxy Theatre, a glamorous showplace just north of Times Square. She married and eventually dropped her career to raise a family, which included five children.
The position at the Majestic is her first and only ushering job. She had been waitressing in a coffee shop at 55th Street and Broadway for 22 years. The chief usher at the Majestic also lived in Union Beach; they met on the bus one snow-filled night and became friends. "The coffee shop closed down. I told her I had to look for a job because my husband was sick. She said come with me, and she took me up to the Shubert Organization," which owns the Majestic and 16 other Broadway theatres. "The rest is history."
When she started, 42nd Street — the show before Phantom — was at the Majestic. "I love Phantom," she says. "I never get tired of it."
Recently, Superstorm Sandy damaged her New Jersey home. "I lost my living room, all my beautiful furniture. I had a lot of antiques. And a little bedroom downstairs and my laundry room, my hot water heater, and my washing machine." And there was bad wall damage. "But I still live in my house. It's livable." Her youngest daughter and her son-in-law "worked for two weeks on taking the wall down and everything."
She is definitely planning to keep on ushering. "I filled out my pension papers for another year," she says. "I love the theatre. I get that shot in the arm when I come to New York and Broadway. And I go home to my quiet house. I've got a nice life."