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Radio City Nixes Musicians Offer to Return

November 3, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) _ A showdown devoid of holiday cheer loomed Thursday at Radio City Music Hall, where management said its annual ``Christmas Spectacular″ would go forward with canned Christmas tunes amid a bitter labor dispute with its musicians.

The musicians, their instruments in hand, pulled down their picket line and returned to work Thursday morning after a one-day strike. But they wound up stranded outside Radio City as thousands of ticket-holders streamed past to attend the first show of the season.

The dispute did not affect the world-famous Rockettes dance troupe.

``We are ready to play unconditionally and immediately, but apparently we’ve been locked out,″ said David Lennon, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. ``We took the picket signs down, and we did it for all the audience members and all of New York.″

The show, a holiday fixture for seven decades, ordinarily draws tens of thousands of revelers every Christmas season. But the labor dispute raised questions about this year’s show, as stagehands conducted a one-night walkout in support of the musicians.

Musicians for the 35-member orchestra gathered in vain outside the stage door on West 51st Street. Tom Olcott, his trombone over his shoulder, was eager to perform.

``We have agreed to all of their contract terms, and we’re willing to go in unconditionally with or without a signed contract,″ said Olcott. Fellow union member Roger Rosenberg entertained the waiting crowd by playing Christmas carols on his saxophone.

But a management spokeswoman said Radio City planned to put on the show with recorded music done by a 55-piece orchestra.

``The musicians went on strike and did not show up for rehearsals, so they cannot then decide to come back on a whim or without a contract,″ said spokeswoman Mikyl Cordova.

The audience for the 11 a.m. show, the first of the season, was told to proceed inside the building as usual. Howard Frydman, who came down from Bloomfield, Conn., said he anticipated there would not be live music.

``Sure, you feel a little disappointed,″ he said. ``We’ll just make the best of it.″

The musicians walked out Wednesday over salaries and overtime pay. Their contract expired in May, and the union blamed management for the breakdown of talks.

On Wednesday night, a preseason performance was canceled and ticketholders were disappointed as several dozen musicians picketed outside the Manhattan landmark. The show, featuring the precision dancing of the world-famous Rockettes dance troupe, is known around the world.

Tickets for the show run as high as $250.

The union accuses Cablevision Systems Corp., which operates Radio City, of vastly underpaying musicians who put on several shows a day throughout the holiday season. In a statement, Radio City said it had offered the musicians increases in salary and benefits ``over what is already the most lucrative contract in the industry.″

Stagehands for the show walked out to back the musicians, said James Claffey Jr., president of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The union-represented Rockettes planned to perform since there was no picket line to cross, according to their union, the American Guild of Variety Artists. The Rockettes reached a contract agreement with Radio City Entertainment last month.

More than a dozen Broadway musicals went dark in March 2003 for four days after a musicians strike, costing the theaters lost millions of dollars. Taped music was used instead during a 2000 strike at the New York City Ballet.

Union negotiator Mark Johansen said previously that Radio City Entertainment was trying to cut the musicians’ base pay of $133 per show, which he said was about $40 less than what standard Broadway musicians are paid. At the height of the Christmas season, the orchestra works as many as six 90-minute shows every day _ at overtime pay beyond the first two. The musicians must play at least 12 shows a week.

On average, Johansen said, a musician doing 150 of about 200 shows in the run would make about $25,000; orchestra members also receive very basic year-round health benefits.

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Associated Press Writers Ula Ilnytzky and Elizabeth LeSure contributed to this report.

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