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The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage
by Stefan Kanfer
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.
 
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Stefan Kanfer
The Last Word on Broadway
The stagehands’ strike is about protecting featherbedding.
26 November 2007

In Booth Tarkington’s 1916 novel Seventeen, a little girl gets admonished for using “damn” when she quotes a neighbor. Brightening, she substitutes “word” for the forbidden expression: “He talked like this, mama: he said ‘I’ll be word if I can stand it!’ An’ he kept getting crosser, an’ he said, ‘Word! Word! WORD!’”

Hard as it is to believe, such niceties persist today. Take the term “featherbedding,” a pejorative that Webster’s defines as “the requiring of an employer usually under a union rule . . . to hire more employees than are needed.” The current strike by Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—stagehands—is about just such a practice.

When the members of Local One walked off their jobs, Broadway essentially went dark. The League of American Theaters and Producers refused to buckle, presenting its side to the public on the local TV station New York One. Richard Frankel, general manager of Young Frankenstein, spoke for his colleagues: “There are several ways that the featherbedding manifests itself. We cannot hire the number of men we [producers] need, we have to hire the number of men [the union tells] us to hire.”

Local One president James J. Claffey, Jr. responded furiously. As the producers “continue to say featherbedding and they keep [saying] basically that we’re thieves,” he thundered, “we’re not going back to the table with that lack of respect. We can’t negotiate under those circumstances.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s offers to mediate were welcomed by the league but spurned by the union. Now only one course remains. This disagreement is evidently not a matter of money, it’s a matter of language. Ergo, producers should henceforth cease to use “featherbed,” “featherbedded,” or “featherbedding” in public statements. They might say instead that Local One ought to end its policy of “wording.” They could point out that shows have had to word since Tarkington’s era, using employees who do exactly nothing for their wages—wages that add up to a six-figure annual salary for many union members.

With malice aforethought, the union timed the stoppage to hit during the weeks before Christmas, when the city attracts legions of tourists with disposable income. Accordingly, the strike didn’t just affect theaters. Since it began three weeks ago, restaurant and hotel workers have seen their own incomes and tips plunge. Ironically, years ago their unions agreed not to word, and none is the worse for it. Only Broadway persists in this archaic practice. It’s well past time to get the word out.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Voodoo That They Did So Well, a collection of City Journal essays about the Gotham stage.

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More by Stefan Kanfer:
Father of the Wild Things
Classic Failure
Fridays with Charles
More . . .
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