Wage Slavery 10: The Avenue I’m Taking You To

When last we left the WildeRix, he did a lot of things for not very long. Let’s see what happens next…

In April of 2002, I landed my first “real” job in New York City as an usher in a Broadway theatre.  I can’t quite remember how we heard about it.  Possibly, my wife (who had worked a few different jobs in the field of theatre management) heard about it from one of her contacts in the industry.  So we stopped by the stage door of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Hilton Theatre) on 43rd Street — just opposite the New York Times building — to pick up a pair of applications and sit down at a little diner to fill them out.

The historic 43rd Street facade of the Lyric Theatre, now part of the Hilton Theatre, 2006
The stage door stands behind the truck in this photo.
Photo by Mademoiselle Sabina (CC 2.5 by-sa)

In all honesty, I did not expect to get hired.  With no theatre experience to speak of and a virtual sea of out-of-work actors to compete with (ushering in a theatre probably ranks just behind waiting tables as the top “day job” for actors in NYC) I assumed the management would pass over my resume without a second glance.  However, I did have one decent credit to my name that came with a great reference: my wife and I had designed the original website for Bill Russell.  Bill garnered two Tony nominations in 1998 for the book and score of the Broadway cult hit Side Show.  I don’t know for sure whether that little line on my resume made any difference in hiring me or not.  In all likelihood, the management probably just felt happy to find non-actor employees to work as ushers.

The majority of the ushering staff basically divided into four categories.

  1. white, gay, male actors
  2. white, straight, female actors
  3. black, straight non-actors of both genders
  4. latino, straight non-actors of both genders

For the first time in my wage slavery career, I stood out as a minority — a male, heterosexual, Caucasian minority.  How often does that happen?

Not that anyone treated me differently for it.  I made a lot of friends at the Ford Center.  Almost everyone had a really likeable attitude, and I enjoyed working with them.  I kept in touch with a few of my friends from there for a while.  I ended up sharing two different apartments with my friend Nick whom I met there.  I also kept in touch for a while with my friend Shelley who had an awesomely interesting resume herself that included working as Meryl Streep’s body double in The Bridges of Madison County and having Kate Winslet’s head attached to her body on the promotional image for the movie Quills.

The 42nd Street entrance to the Ford Center, 2003
The theatre’s box office used to reside in the 43rd Street entrance (see previous photo) until somebody realized that nobody wanted to walk all the way around to 43rd Street to see a show called 42nd Street.
Photo by Andreas Praefcke (CC 2.5 by-sa)

During the time when I worked at the Ford Center, a revival of the musical 42nd Street played there.  Now, as far as ushering goes, you could hope for a couple different things in terms of what show plays at your house.  You could (A) hope for a show that you really love and enjoy.  Or you could (B) hope for one that will always bring in the crowds so that you don’t have to worry about the theatre shutting down between this show and the next.  42nd Street definitely fulfilled the latter.  With all that gratuitous tap dancing and flashy costumes and songs that have lived in the public conscious ever since the 1933 film version first hit the screens, it definitely drew in the crowds.

You have probably heard a few of the numbers from 42nd Street without knowing that they had any association with the show, but even today they still get played — in advertisements mostly.  “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “We’re in the Money,” have probably pervaded American culture more than any other songs from the show.  With several different musical groups performing the song “I Only Have Eyes for You” including Peggy Lee, The Flamingos, Art Garfunkel, and The Lettermen, plus an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that features the song and shares its title, it probably feels the most familiar of all.

As for whether I loved and enjoyed the show, at first I didn’t.  In fact, I kind of hated it.  I  had a snobby attitude regarding musical theatre — not against the genre, but against shows that I thought didn’t measure up.  Having seen and fallen in love with more sophisticated shows like the works of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown and my friend Bill Russell, I would have never paid money to see a virtually plotless show like 42nd Street.  But now I got to — had to — see it every day, sometimes twice a day.  And you know what?  It grew on me.  Especially when the cast started changing.

The lobby of the Ford Center, 2003
The person holding up the program for sale on the ground floor looks like my friend Emily.
Photo by Andreas Praefcke (CC 2.5 by-sa)

Once Beth Leavel came in to play the role of Dorothy Brock, the entire show took on a new meaning for me — especially during the scene where Dorothy kicks Pat Denning out of her room and sings “I Only Have Eyes for You”.  Her emotional outpouring hit such an astounding level in that scene, performance after performance, and I would always make it a point — even if I had to work in the lobby — to come into the house during that scene to make sure I didn’t miss Beth’s performance.  Ms. Leavel has since gone on to claim some well-deserved notoriety.  She won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for her performance in The Drowsy Chaperone.

But, in all honesty, even before Beth took over the role of Dorothy Brock, the show itself had started winning me over.  Catchy tunes, flashy costumes, hot dancers — come on!  The show really did offer something to pretty much everybody.

The best part about working at the Ford Center for me, however, had to do with more surreptitious matters.  I discovered that I could read books at work and get paid to enjoy myself.  Talk about gold bricking, I had it down to an art.

I started with small books — something that I could slip easily into a back pocket.  But as time went on, I got more brazen, discovering that our bulky uniform jackets (not unlike the kind that doormen or organ grinder monkeys wear) could conceal even a large tome, if I held it under my arm inside the jacket and put the hand of that arm in my pocket.

Top: Lyre banister details reminiscent of the detailing in the original Lyric Theatre
Middle: Apollo wall relief preserved from the original Apollo Theatre
Bottom: One of the windows under which I would hide my books.
Photos by Andreas Praefcke 2003 (CC 2.5 by-sa)

Sometimes I needed to have full mobility, so I found some hiding spots around the lobby and would hide my book first thing after I put my uniform on, so that I didn’t have to worry about getting caught with a book on my person.  Fortunately, the Ford Center had a few handy little nooks and crannies that I could make use of.  The developers had taken the facades of two different old theatres (the Lyric and Apollo) in order to make the newly designed Ford Center.  The odd placement of old and new architecture left certain aspects to the building that lent themselves well to my clandestine schemes.  Some of the windows in the balcony lobby didn’t match the level of the lobby floor, so their sills actually sat about two feet below the floor.  A clever fellow with long arms (such as myself) could easily reach down to hide or obtain a book from the window sill while pretending merely to tie his shoes.

And as for the actual reading, with our handy little usher flashlights, even working inside the house did not pose a problem.  I often worked in the balcony section which had a deep stairwell leading up to the seating level, so I could sit quietly out of the way of the audience and read my book by flashlight.  Or if I happened to work the lobby, I could disappear into one of the airlocks between the lobby and the inner auditorium to read, or pretend to lean against a pedestal perusing the stack of Playbills — actually, the Ford Center used Showbill instead of Playbill because you could control what ads appeared in the bill and thus Ford could avoid promoting other car companies — but if you look closer, you’d see my stack as just an open book with a Showbill on top as a disguise.

Speaking of Showbill, one of the duties of all front-of-house staff involved putting inserts into the bill.  The Showbill had pictures and biographies of all of the cast and crew, but the theatre purchased them in advance, so if they had a cast or crew change happen before they had used up the current printing, they would have the staff stuff inserts into them to alert the audience to the change.

One major cast change that took place during my time at the Ford Center involved Tom Wopat (of TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard) taking over the role of Julian Marsh.  You never know when producers decide to stunt cast a show what kind of talent they will bring to the stage.  A lot of TV and movie actors actually have stage acting experience that the general public may not know about and have no trouble adapting to the production.  Others clearly have no business on the boards.

I had seen Wopat in Annie Get Your Gun a few years before, and I liked his acting style.  I thought he would bring the kind of grittiness and pushiness to the role of Julian Marsh that the part deserved.  And he did.  He also tended to forget his lines and make stuff up as he went along.  Trust me — after you have seen a show 8 times a week for a few months, you know every line by heart.  If someone even breathes differently in their delivery, it stands out to you.  So when Wopat came in to the show and started butchering the script left and right, we ushers definitely noticed.

I don’t know if that had anything to do with the rest of the story that I will unfold here.  Like I say, Wopat brought certain skills to the role that made it better — unfortunately, those skills did not include getting his lines right.  So when it came down to the wire during our Showbill “stuffing” session before the show to put Mr. Wopat’s insert into the bills, and we didn’t have enough time or staff to get everything finished before we opened the front doors… well, I somehow didn’t care.  I just started shoving unstuffed Showbills into the little carriers that the ushers carried to the auditorium doors.  Whatever usher picked up a carrier would automatically assume that someone had already stuffed the bills in it.

click to enlarge
Panoramic view of the stage from the balcony in the Ford Center
Photo by Rix White 2002

Now, this did not mark the first time that an usher tried to pass off unstuffed Showbills to the audience.  Probably most everybody had done it at one time or another.  I feel pretty certain that others besides me did it on that very shift.  But nobody had probably ever done it to the degree that I did it that day.  Ever.

It probably sounds like not such a big deal to you.  But in an industry governed by unions with myriad different rules about who has to do what and when — in an industry where and actor’s name and face might prove his most powerful assets — well, let’s just say that the theatre industry takes stuff like that very seriously.

In all honesty, I knew it came down to a crap shoot as to whether anybody would notice — anybody that matters, anyway.  Somebody did.  Midway through the first act of the show, our house manager came around to all the users to inform us of an impromptu meeting in the lobby.  He looked unhappy, and I had a really good idea as to why.

Now this manager and I — we didn’t get along.  We had bumped heads on a few occasions.  I don’t usually get branded as a troublemaker at my jobs because even though I might occasionally have what most would consider a sloppy work ethic, I still generally get the job done, and I usually do it better and more efficiently than others — which leaves me time to lounge about.

The balcony of the Ford Center, 2003
I recognize the ushers standing along the wall in the background as my friends Rye and Kevin, which probably means that the photographer took this picture during the time when I worked there. In fact, I bet Rye and Kevin and I swarmed the photographer and chewed them out for taking pictures inside the theatre.
Photo by Andreas Praefcke (CC 2.5 by-sa)

The manager’s impromptu meeting quickly turned into a heated tirade on his part as he got increasingly out of sorts over how his imbecilic staff could commit such a heinous error which could land the theatre in jeopardy with the actor’s guild and cost them a hefty fine if the issue ever came to light.  I watched the rant for a while and then eventually decided that the rest of the staff shouldn’t have to suffer the manager’s verbal abuse over my action.  So I raised my hand in the middle of his angry assault.  That seemed to stop him dead in his tracks and throw him off guard.

“Uhm, yeah.  That was my bad,” I informed him.

He just stared at me blankly for a minute.  I doubt he expected anyone to fess up to doing it, much less to interrupt him in order to take the blame.  And I certainly doubt he expected someone to belittle the enormity of the situation with the phrase “my bad.”

I think I might have gotten a faint “What?!” out of him as a response.

“Yeah, I’m the one who put the unstuffed Showbills in the carriers,” I said.

“Why?” he asked incredulously.

I had used unashamed honesty so far, and it seemed to work well, so I continued to do so.  “There was no way we were going to get them all stuffed by the time the doors had to open … and I didn’t really think anyone would notice.”

The silence hung in the air for a minute before a few other ushers snickered.  The manager didn’t have any popularity with the staff, and I think we all enjoyed watching him flounder.

Eventually he found some words, “Why are you owning up to this?”

“Well, I didn’t think it was fair for everybody to get chewed out for something I did,” I replied.

After another beat’s worth of silence, the manager dismissed everyone to go back to their stations including me.  About fifteen minutes later, the manager came to speak to me in the airlock of the balcony.

click to enlarge
Panoramic view of from the box seats in the Ford Center
Photo by Rix White 2002

“You and I both know that you weren’t the only one putting unstuffed Showbills in the carriers,” he confided.

I wanted to say something like, “Of course I wasn’t the only one.  Everyone does it all the time, just not to the degree that I did it today.  You even did it when you were an usher.  Didn’t you?  But now you come up here wanting me to rat out other people for something you have let slip by for so long and just now decided to do something about because it came out in a big way.”

But I simply replied, “Maybe other people were doing it, too.  I don’t know.  All I can attest to is the fact that I did.”

He glared at me and then left.

It felt strange to not fear him.  I had always tried for a really good relationship with my bosses at every job I’d had before.  But I simply had no respect for this guy, and consequently no fear of him.  I figured that if the theatre ended up getting fined that they would have to fire me — which would have probably prevented me from getting a job at any other Broadway house.  Otherwise, I knew that they would never let me go — simply because I showed up every day and they had trouble with turnover.

My actions became the stuff of legends among the front of house staff for the rest of the time that I worked there.  I kept reading books during my shift and enjoyed visiting with friends as well.  I eventually took a hiatus from the theatre to pursue other jobs, but I kept working there for almost a year, walking out of the stage door each night to push through the little throng of out-of-town teenagers waiting to get autographs.  I usually ignored them unless they confused me with one of the actors (who also had a bald head,) in which case I would simply smile and scribble my name and thank them for coming to the show.

click to enlarge
Panoramic view of Times Square taken at 44th Street where Broadway crosses 7th Avenue. Notice the MTV building on the left and Toys “R” Us on the right.
Photo by Rix White 2002

I enjoyed working in Times Square.  It felt pretty exhilarating to walk out of a Broadway theatre each night into the bustle of the crowds.  I simply had to circle around a half of a block to get to the 42nd Street subway station to ride the #1 train home with the songs of the show swirling around in my head.

Rix White on 7th Avenue at 43rd Street after leaving work from the Ford Center, 2002
Photo by Rix White 2002

But I always wondered about that one line from the title number:

Come and meet those dancing feet
On the avenue I’m taking you to
42nd Street

“Dude,” I wanted to say to the deceased lyricist Mr. Al Dubin, “avenues run north/south.   Streets run east/west.  I mean, if you want to write a lyric about New York City, at least get the geography right.”

Next: Wage Slavery 11: Weed Picker
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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by AndreasP on 04/15/2009 at 7:28 pm

    No they didn’t throw me out, because I am actually pretty good at this… :-) With the stupid strictness in the “no-photograph” rule, Broadway producers are just robbing themselves a hell lot of advertising. Of course, flashing and other intrusive things should be forbidden, but a couple of snapshots at least before and after the show, and during the applause at the very end would make theatregoers, who nowadays are always also internet users and hence Web 2.0 multiplicators, do a lot of free marketing for them. However, it would take away the ushers’ obvious pleasure of looking dangerously and staring at people in a gloomy way throughout the patrons’ stay in the house. So I guess Unions will be against any loosening of these dated rules… My opinion is: let these people become prison guards and loosen up a bit. It’s not that Broadway could really afford to lose any _patrons_ in these times of crisis.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 04/15/2009 at 9:49 pm

    Good for you, Andreas. And thanks for commenting on this post.

    I agree that a few pics, snapped at appropriate times and spread via the web would theoretically do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the whole Broadway community — like pretty much every mass media community — thinks that acting proprietary about their work gives them the best opportunity to make the most money possible from their work.

    I thought that way at one time myself. And I definitely played the role of photo-nazi while I worked as an usher. But even the most diligent usher can never catch every photographer — especially with a packed house every night. But since I have embraced the idea of a Creative Commons, I really understand the value of sharing your work and letting others use it and build upon it.

    So, thank you, Andreas, for taking your pictures in the theatre. And thank you for sharing them under CC and including them in Wikimedia Commons.

    Reply

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