Producers, stagehands ready to talk


NEW YORK -- Striking stagehands and theater producers agreed Saturday to return to the bargaining table, nearly a week after negotiations collapsed and kept most of Broadway dark during the lucrative Thanksgiving week -- the second full week of no performances.

The plans for Sunday were announced by Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, and was confirmed by the stagehands union.

"We are glad they accepted our invitation to negotiate," said Bruce Cohen, a spokesman for Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

More than two dozen plays and musicals have been closed since Nov. 10, when the stagehands walked off the job.

A settlement was believed to have been in the works last Sunday after a marathon weekend of negotiating, but the talks ended abruptly with producers walking out. No negotiations were held during Thanksgiving week, traditionally one of the best weeks for Broadway business.

The complicated contract dispute has focused on how many stagehands are required to open a Broadway show and keep it running. That means moving scenery, lights, sound systems and props into the theater; installing the set and making sure it works; and keeping everything functioning well for the life of the production.

The producers want a flexible number; the union wants a set number and ample compensation for any concessions made.

The negotiations have been protracted. They began last summer, with each side preparing for the worst.

The producers set up a $20 million strike emergency fund, taking a couple of cents out of each ticket sold over the past several years to pay for it. The money was to help struck shows struggling with the costs of a shutdown.

The union, too, has its own fund -- benefits of more than $4.1 million for its members, as well as another $1 million allotted for members of other unions affected by the walkout.

Meanwhile, one shut musical -- "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" -- came back to life Friday after its reopening was ordered by state Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman.

The judge said she believed the show's production company would be irreparably harmed if the $6 million holiday musical wasn't permitted to resume its limited run, which ends Jan. 6.

Eight other shows, whose theaters have separate contracts with the league, remain unaffected by the walkout: "Pygmalion," "The Ritz," "Cymbeline," "Young Frankenstein," "Mary Poppins," "Xanadu," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Mauritius," which closes Sunday as scheduled. All off-Broadway productions are open, too.