Personal History: When I Was a Union Stagehand (Part 2)

The Stanley Theater, Utica NY

On my first rock show as a union stagehand, I was teamed with an old-timer named Freddie. Freddie was a wonderful, easygoing man who always had a burning cigarette dangling from his lips; unfortunately, he was just about useless as a stagehand. Freddie showed me how to hang back as the boxes rolled off the trucks, and how to wheel them the long way around so we wouldn’t get back too soon. On that first afternoon, Freddie and I picked up a long 2×4. I followed him, holding my end of a single piece of lumber as we walked in a circle around the lower level of the Utica Aud, a hockey arena immortalized in the movie Slap Shot. (The movie was made in 1976 and the place looked exactly the same when I started working there in 1990.) We walked the same circle two more times. Freddie explained that as long as you were holding something and moving, nobody would ask you to do any work. (It seemed like a lot of work to avoid work.) At The Stanley Theater, Freddie was often in charge of hanging the front-of-house lights on the balcony rail. He’d hang one light and then lie in the aisle for awhile, out of sight from the stage. Freddie could stretch a 24-instrument hang over 4 hours, and he was furious when I did it in an hour one day – he said I’d spoiled things for everyone.

Union work calls at The Stanley were like the Wild West back then. Crews were paid cash at the end of the load-out. Many of the stagehands were firemen because they had the most free time – they worked two 24-hour shifts at the firehouse and had five days to work another job. The Stanley was notorious for its load-in door, 13-1/2′ above the stage. Everything came down via block and tackle, with mechanical advantage provided by a capstan winch called “The Mule.” Joe (a fireman) was in charge of the door, standing outside at street level, 13-1/2′ above the stage. Joe was provided with several cases of cheap beer, to be consumed by him and his crew as they swung boxes in and out the door, 13-1/2′ above the stage. Once, someone fell in and broke his back, but that was the exception to the rule. For the most part, those drunk men managed just fine.

The steward at The Stanley was also the business agent for the stagehands union. He called the workers, and he played favorites. There were tunnels and long forgotten rooms in the bowels of the Stanley Theater. (My favorite – the old movie screening room with a handful of seats and a tiny projection booth. Legend has it that new films were screened by priests who would approve them for their congregations.) Women were sometimes called on large shows, and they would disappear with the steward into those rooms. They would be spotted later by others looking for someplace to drink or get high in private. The steward’s contribution was twofold: he could fill an 80-person call for the largest traveling show, and he could also identify those who would do the required work to keep the show and the presenters happy. In those days, the stagehands had maybe 10 people who really knew their stuff. (Today that number is far lower; on recent shows there are a handful who save everyone else’s asses and reputations.)

A political play was made to remove the steward, which had to be mediated by the IATSE Executive. The steward was rebuked by IATSE and had to forfeit his positions, as well as take an enforced sabbatical. (The replacement steward/business agent has since proved The Who’s immortal lyric: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”) During his exile, the old steward conspired with officials of the Rome, NY chapter of IATSE to take over the Utica local. Astonishingly, the IATSE Executive issued an order that Rome and Utica would merge, with the Rome leadership in de facto charge of the new organization.

I say this was astonishing for two reasons. First, Rome didn’t have any contracts. It had a friendly relationship with The Capitol Theatre, which didn’t have the show volume of The Stanley. When I did lighting for Scrooge and for A Chorus Line at The Capitol, I made the decision to hire my Roman union brothers out of solidarity – I wasn’t obligated to do it, because there was no contract. The Rome stagehands showed up late, and they sat in the seats with their legs sprawled over the next row as I loaded in, set up, and then did the same as I loaded out. My future wife Susan, who’d operated a followspot on A Chorus Line, did the work of two Rome stagehands on the carryout for no compensation. (It’s not why I married her, but it contributed to my growing opinion of her.) So, the second reason is because the Rome stagehands sucked.

This is where is gets historical. Utica Local 128 was ordered to be subsumed into the Rome local. Utica’s membership hired attorney Vince Debella, a hero who worked on our case pro bono. Debella recommended we decertify IATSE from representing us; he also instructed us how to form a new labor union to take its place. If IATSE suspected anything it didn’t act quickly enough: they should have placed the Utica local in trusteeship, on the grounds that its executive committee was no longer fulfilling its duties as a subsidiary of the International. I was Treasurer at that point. The IATSE Executive initiated a lawsuit claiming the Utica Executive had acted improperly; specifically, that I, Chris Bord, had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars (crazy, because our union bank account never had more than $5,000 during my tenure.)

Debella’s ultimate settlement with IATSE included the wonderful words “hold harmless until the end of the Universe.” That is, IATSE could not claim I’d stolen from them until the end of time. In place of IATSE we had our new stagehands union, the Independent Theatrical Employees of America (ITEA), Local 1. The Stanley Theater signed a contract and we were off and running. To my knowledge, it was the only decertification from IATSE (at that point) to successfully result in a replacement union.