NEW YORK - Opening night at the Radio City Music Hall's famed "Christmas Spectacular" could have a decidedly different ring this year. Musicians have gone on strike, forcing management to promise ticketholders that the show will go on Thursday - even if the leggy Rockettes have to do their chorus-line kicks to canned music.
A preseason performance Wednesday night was canceled and ticketholders left disappointed as several dozen musicians staged a picket line outside the Manhattan landmark. Stagehands also walked out in support.
"We're going to take this one day at a time, and we are going to hope that cool heads prevail and that everybody involved will find a way to get the show back," said David Lennon, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.
At issue are salaries and overtime pay. The orchestra's contract expired in May, and Lennon blamed Radio City Entertainment, which produces the Christmas show, for the breakdown of talks. Lennon added that no meetings had been scheduled.
Radio City Entertainment said in a statement that the union had walked away from the negotiating table and was holding "the `Christmas Spectacular,' its 300-member cast and crew as well as hundreds of thousands of patrons" hostage.
The union accuses Cablevision, 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."
The labor strife has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the "Christmas Spectacular" - a show that has entertained children and adults for seven decades. People pay up to $250 a ticket to watch the Rockettes high-kick to Christmas tunes.
"We have the whole night to do absolutely nothing," said Alaura Imperioli, 16, of the Bronx, who had planned to see the canceled Wednesday night show with tickets won through the New York Post.
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 Employes. He would not comment on whether the walkout would continue Thursday.
Though Lennon said the union-represented Rockettes were supporting the musicians in their walkout, Radio City officials said that was not the case and Claffey believed there was a no-strike provision in the Rockettes' contract.
The Rockettes reached a contract agreement with Radio City Entertainment last month. A message left for the union representing the Rockettes, the American Guild of Variety Artists, was not immediately returned.
More than a dozen Broadway musicals went dark in March 2003 for four days after the musicians' union walked out, and theaters lost millions in revenue. But when the union struck the New York City Ballet in 2000, performances of "The Nutcracker" went on as scheduled with taped music.
Last week, hundreds of musicians and supporters held a boisterous, music-filled protest on Sixth Avenue in front of Radio City Music Hall.
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.