May I Help You Find Your Seat? We Sat Down With Broadway's Longtime Ushers
One of the first people you meet when you walk through the door of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City is Elizabeth Reed. She's part of a battalion of part-time workers who meet, greet and seat audience members at Broadway's 40 theaters.
"What we really try and do is enhance the patron's experience, from the moment that they walk in the door, to the end of that performance," Reed says.
Winners for the 70th Annual Tony Awards — Broadway's highest honor — will be announced Sunday night. Tonys are awarded to actors and playwrights, musicals and plays — but there are a lot of folks, like Reed, hard at work in the theater biz, who aren't eligible for nominations.
Reed became an usher when she needed to pick up some extra money while she was in grad school and has stuck with the job for eight years. For others — like Rufina Shayne — who works at the Cort Theatre, it was simply a matter of geography.
"You know, everybody from in the neighborhood works on Broadway," Shayne explains. "So, I guess I just asked somebody and they said, 'yeah, call this number.' It was the union."
Like all of the jobs on Broadway, from actors to musicians to box office personnel, ushers are union members. Michele Gonzalez is the newly elected shop steward at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, home of the musical Waitress. She's been an usher for 11 years.
"My grandfather worked backstage at the Neil Simon, when Hairspray was there," she says, "And that's how I came in. I came in when I was 16, with Hairspray."
With good pay and steady hours, Broadway's ushers stick around for a long time.
Dennis Scanlon, chief of staff at the Music Box, has been working there for 48 years — since he was 14. (When he's not at the theater, he works in accounts receivable at the Hunts Point produce market in the Bronx.) For the Scanlons, ushering is something of a family business; Scanlon remembers working alongside his father and grandfather when he first got the job. "My grandfather started here 84 years ago and my father, 74 years ago. ... And my daughters work here with me, too," he says.
Ushers on Broadway spend about 15 seconds greeting and directing each audience member. At the Winter Garden Theatre, where School of Rockis playing, Elizabeth Reed says she has occasionally run interference for celebrities in the audience, like Jack Black, the original star of the film, who came to see the Broadway version.
"One of the people in the audience recognized him, said 'Hi, Jack!' " she recalls. "Everyone in the theater literally stopped and pinpointed this poor man ... luckily, he had gotten a booster seat — one of the cushioned booster seats — for his son. So, I just promptly picked that up and kind of used it as a defensive blocking shield for the people who kind of trying to, like, jump on top of him."
Another recent problem, she says, is people clogging the aisle taking selfies. But, really, aside from handing out playbills and telling people to turn off their cellphones, the biggest part of the job is answering two questions: Where's the bathroom? And where's the bar?
Reed says most people are friendly. But sometimes it's rainy, people don't where they're going — and they're downright grumpy. Reed has just a few seconds to turn that mood around. So in every interaction she tries to communicate: "This is a happy show. Come on in, enjoy yourself."
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