Impact of Stagehands Strike Reaches Beyond Proscenium and Picket Line

News   Impact of Stagehands Strike Reaches Beyond Proscenium and Picket Line
When people hear about the "Broadway industry," they tend to think of the shows, the people who work in and on them, the producers who present them, and that's it. But students of New York City's economy know that the long arm of the legit show business reaches far beyond the stage doors on W. 44th and W. 45th streets. Broadway is merely the engine that keeps many other economic wheels spinning in and around the Times Square area. Hotels, restaurants, gift shops, bars, taxis, pedicabs, even charitable organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS all depend on the lights going up eight times a week.
Stagehands picket in New York City.
Stagehands picket in New York City. Photo by Matthew Blank

Take for instance, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the St. James Theatre. It offers 11 AM matinees on the weekends and was the first Broadway show affected by the stagehands strike, which came after months of fruitless contract negotiations. A canceled show means canceled lunch reservations for the hundreds of families who planned to attend, and perhaps foregone trips to the nearby Theatre Circle gift shop to buy a Broadway souvenir.

"If you'd walked around the area over the weekend, you'd see how instantaneous the drop-off was," said Tim Tompkins, the head of the Times Square Business Improvement District. "It's absolutely not the same. The thing's that deeper is that a lot of folks come to New York specifically to go to a Broadway show and with this cloud of uncertainty, they postpone or cancel their trips. So that's a double hit."

It didn't take long for theatre-district businesses to feel the impact of the shuttered productions. Johnny Felidi, who has worked for more than eight years as a maitre'd at the famed theatrical eatery Sardi's, said business was off 50 percent on Saturday and 30 percent at Sunday lunch. "A lot of people don't show up," he said. "A couple were in last night who had come to New York just to see Wicked. A lot of people who might decide to come to New York read that Broadway is dark, and they decide not to come."

Felidi still remembers the ill effects of the Broadway musicians strike of 2003. Business fell 30 to 40 percent during the four-day length of the job action, and Sardi's had to cut back on its waitstafff.

The story was the same at Joe Allen, another favorite with the theatre crowd. Manager John Gray said trade at the Restaurant Row stalwart was down 30 to 40 percent. "This is the busiest time of the year for us, and we're down considerably," said Gray. "For the strike to begin on a Saturday is worse. The musicians strike began in the middle of the week, which isn't as bad." Gray said he expected Joe Allen to weather the storm. "We're lucky because we're a theatre staple. We'll be able to outlive this. I don't know about newer restaurants." Restaurants that aren't as closely associated with theatre traffic, or are part of larger chains, seemed to have fared better over the weekend. "We haven't seen any ill effects," said Barry Ross, manager of Junior's on W. 45th Street. "People know the restaurant from Brooklyn." Carmine's, the huge Italian restaurant on W. 44th Street that caters to large groups, was also doing swift business on Sunday. For John's Pizzeria, which is part of a local chain, there was good news and bad news. Manager Jonathan Morillo noted an increase in customers on Saturday, which he attributed to theatregoers who had arrived in the area not knowing shows were dark and were forced to change their midday plans. Sunday lunch, however, was sluggish, he said. "We do take-out, so we won't be killed like some other restaurants," he said. "Still, it hurts."

Gift shops, too, were feeling the pinch. One Shubert Alley, the tiny and popular souvenir store situated in the mid-block corridor between 44th and 45th, was bereft of customers when a reporter visited it. Craig Coursey, general manager of One Shubert Alley, Broadway New York and Theatre Circle, said that business on Saturday was off from the previous Saturday, but not by much. "I think most people were already in town," he observed. "I think the impact will be greater if the strike continues on."

The strike has also hurt Broadway Cares, which solicits contributions from Broadway audiences this time of year. "Of course, the strike has had a huge effect on BC/EFA's current fundraising and grant-making efforts," said executive director Tom Viola. "But we are not privy to the specifics of the negotiations between the members of The League and Local One. BC/EFA's only hope is that an agreement that is fair to the concerns of both parties is struck as soon as possible so that the members of the entire industry can get back to work as quickly as possible and audiences can fill the Broadway theatres again."

The stagehands strike has brought the curtain down on a total of 27 Broadway theatres. Some reports have said that the walkout could cost the theatre and related businesses $17 million a day. The four-day strike in 2003, which affected 18 musicals, cost the city a reported $7 million a day. Tompkins of the Times Square BID said that a recent study indicated Times Square generates $4.8 billion in yearly income.

"While this is a private labor matter, the economic impact is very public and will be felt far beyond the theatres closed today," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said over the weekend, adding that "the city continues to stand ready to help in any way we can."

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