Despite Hollywood’s ever-deepening fiscal troubles, certain major stars still rake in eight-figure salaries when they do a flick, and seven-figure salaries for stars (including for TV work, we hear) remain as common as botox touchups. Back on the East Coast, meantime, Broadway actors — not stars but character actors, chorus folk, swings — aren’t doing as well, but they’re working, which is more than you can say for 85 or 90 percent of Actors’ Equity members in Gotham. Yet even scale is a lot more than most New York theater artists make — more, certainly, than the thousands of actors in the Big Apple forced, like plantation slaves, to toil under the outmoded, regressive, punitive, ostreperous Showcase Code that Equity apparently intends to leave unchanged until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ or Utah becomes a blue state, whichever comes first. Those woebegone thousands would indeed be more than happy to trade in their flimsy Metrocard compensation for the chance to earn some scale.
So, given the economic stratification of an industry that never seems to improve, you’d think the news that a Carnegie Hall techie earned over a half-million dollars last year would set me off. The story, written by the ever-intrepid Philip Boroff of Bloomberg News, certainly has something of a viewpoint. Here are the first three graphs of the story:
After you practice for years and get to Carnegie Hall, it’s almost better to move music stands than actually play the piano.
Depending on wattage, a star pianist can receive $20,000 a night at the 118-year-old hall, meaning he or she would have to perform at least 27 times to match the income of Dennis O’Connell, who oversees props at the New York concert hall.
O’Connell made $530,044 in salary and benefits during the fiscal year that ended in June 2008. The four other members of the full-time stage crew — two carpenters and two electricians — had an average income of $430,543 during the same period, according to Carnegie Hall’s tax return.
Boroff also notes that “only Artistic and Executive Director Clive Gillinson makes more than the stagehands.”
Well, disagree with the following if you like, but doesn’t the lede suggest there’s something wrong with a stagehand (or propmaster, to be precisely) earning a half-million dollars a year? What is wrong with that? All right, perhaps there is an argument to be made that there’s something extraordinarily wrong with such a figure if the full-time technical crew at Carnegie was at a high level: 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 full-time people. Who can afford such indulgences during the Great Recession? When I was in Washington, D.C., for the American Theatre Critics Association annual convention in 2008, we took a backstage tour of the Kennedy Center and the full-time technical staff could as if it could have filled a small village. (I’m sure someone will find the exact numbers, but it still appeared impressive.)
But Carnegie Hall does all it does, presents all it presents, with all of five full-time stage crew: the $530K fellow, Dennis O’Connell, plus two carpenters and two electricians. True, notes Boroff, the four “had an average income of $430,543 during the same period.” But in a facility with, as Boroff also notes, an operating budget of $84 million, does this not appear to be a lean, mean scene? If you assume these five salaries totals up to $2.5 million, that’s a whopping, eye3-popping 3 percent of Carnegie’s budget. Horrors!
Does anyone else find it interesting that Bloomberg News doesn’t decry what commercial producers on Broadway earn or what Broadway theater owners earn or what major Hollywood stars earn but that it’s somehow desirable to analyze Carnegie Hall’s tax return, which is public, through the lens of what its technical crew earns? How about we agree on this: When the entertainment industry and those who cover it are ready, meaningfully ready, to redress the upchuck-worthy disparity in income between the have-nots, the haves and the have-mores, we’ll accept the idea that $530,044 is perhaps too much for a Carnegie Hall stagehand to make in a year. Until then, good for Mr. O’Connell. It shows that at least one of the little guys has been able to get ahead.