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Union says play, but Radio City says no way

Music Hall won't allow striking musicians to perform ‘Christmas Spectacular’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Disappointed musicians clutched their instruments outside Radio City Music Hall as thousands of ticketholders streamed past Thursday for the annual “Christmas Spectacular,” where recorded holiday music replaced the usual live orchestra in a bitter labor dispute.

The musicians 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 the first show of the season went on with taped tunes.

“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 dispute did not affect the world-famous Rockettes dance troupe, one of the major attractions in the holiday fixture of the last seven decades. But the labor dispute raised questions about this year’s show, particularly after stagehands conducted a one-night walkout Wednesday in support of the musicians.

Radio City Entertainment, which produces the show, denied that the musicians were locked out.

“We told the musicians in no uncertain terms that until there is an agreement, and there is no possibility of them walking out on future performances, they remain on strike,” management said in a statement distributed outside the music hall.

Negotiations were ongoing, said management spokesman Barry Watkins.

Audiences still enthusiasticThe lack of a live orchestra did little to dampen the enthusiasm of many patrons leaving the first of two shows Thursday.

“It was just as great without the orchestra,” said Dorothy Weed of Norwalk, Conn. “It was fantastic!”

Wednesday’s strike forced cancellation of a preseason performance that night, stranding hundreds of disappointed ticketholders as several dozen musicians picketed outside the Manhattan landmark.

The show, featuring the chorus-line kicks of the Rockettes dancers, is known around the world. Tickets run as high as $250.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the dispute “very unfortunate.”

“New York City is about live music, nobody suggests for a second that you would have the same quality of performance if you just play a tape, and I would just urge all parties to look not at just what’s in their interest but what is in the city’s interest,” he said.

The orchestra’s contract expired in May. 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.”

Because there was no picket line, all other unions at Radio City went to work as usual.

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