Bruce Springsteen is back on Broadway. The workers are coming back too.
Jim Barry, masked and ready, perched at the top of the theater’s stairs, placing his hands around the outstretched smartphones so he could more easily distinguish the seat numbers.
“How are you? Nice jacket.”
“Go this way – it’s an easier walk.”
“Do you need help sir? The bathroom is right there.
It was Saturday night at the St. James Theater.
Bruce Springsteen was back on stage.
The fans were back in the seats.
And, 15 months after Broadway was shut down by the pandemic, Barry, who worked as a usher at St. James for 20 years, was back at work, handing out compliments and reassurance as he directed people to the mezzanine. , the toilets, the bar.
“Springsteen on Broadway” is essentially a one-man show, but its return has already brought work to about 75 people at the St. James – not only Barry, but also 30 other ushers and ticket takers, as well as product vendors. derivatives. , bar staff, porters, cleaners, machinists, clerks, a pair of managers and an engineer.
More shows and jobs will return in August and September as Broadway’s 41 theaters slowly come back to life. Ultimately, a Broadway rebound promises to benefit not only theater workers, but hotel workers and bartenders, taxi drivers, and workers in the many industries that rely on theater traffic, which can be huge. : In the last full season before the pandemic, 14.8 million people saw a Broadway show.
Barry, a sociable 65-year-old grandfather from Staten Island, loves the theater to be sure, but also relies on work for income and basic health insurance.
“This job is not for everyone, but I made it my own,” he said. Barry, a solidly built man with white hair who is often mistaken for a security guard, prides himself on being punctual, jovial and polite. “I can tell someone by patting me on the back where the bathroom is, while telling someone in front of me where their seats are, and also waving to someone in the corner.” This is controlled madness.
As he returned to work after the shutdown, there were a few changes to master. He had to wear a mask – they’re mandatory for employees, but not for customers – and struggled to feel comfortable making small conversations through the fabric. And the tickets were now all digital, which meant his signing gesture, which involved passing tickets behind his back as he accepted, reviewed, and returned the offered stubs, was no longer useful; instead, he needed to figure out how to quickly decipher all those different screen fonts.
Still, he was delighted to be back.
“No matter what happens, nothing can make me feel bad, because I’m back home and the boss is home,” he said. “This is where I want to be.”
Barry, originally from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, took an unusual path to the theater industry. For 27 years he worked in the banking industry, first as a cashier, then as a bank agent in Times Square.
He saw theater from time to time and loved it. As a teenager, he saw Danny Kaye in “Two by Two”, and later he saw “Jesus Christ Superstar”. (“I couldn’t believe it was so fantastic.”) But the production he remembers most enthusiastically is “Grease,” at the Royale Theater; a friend allowed him to go on stage before the show. “It gave me the virus,” he said.
So when he decided he needed to earn more money and started looking for a second job, he contacted one of his clients at the bank, a woman who worked as an employee at Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five Broadway theaters, including the St.. James. She asked if it would be open for the inauguration.
It was 2001. The first shift he worked was during a dress rehearsal for “The Producers”, which was about to open. “You know you belong when your body is enveloped in euphoria,” he said.
He was addicted. For years he continued to work full time at the bank, while also working evenings and weekends at the theater; in 2016 he quit the bank for good, and now he works six days a week in the theater (shifts are short – a full bailiff’s shift is 4.5 hours, but at each show half staff can leave 30 minutes after the curtain, which is two hours after their start time).
It is union work, for which the standard salary is $ 83.78 per show; Barry has the highest rank of director, so he earns around $ 710 per week and supplements his income with Social Security and a small bank pension. He was kept afloat during the pandemic by unemployment; although he missed the theater, he was also happy to have more time to spend with his girlfriend.
He has trouble commuting – it can take up to two hours to get to work, depending on whether he’s driving or taking a bus, and how bad the traffic is. He arrives early, puts on his Jujamcyn uniform (black suit, black shirt, black tie, with a red J on his chest) and sits at the door of a theater on West 44th Street which he calls “my porch”, while enjoying a coffee rolling and greeting passers-by, sometimes posing for a photo with a passing actor.
Although he enjoys the theater, seeing shows other than the ones he’s working on is difficult – he’s usually on duty when other shows are in progress. But it usually happens to adults.
In his own theater, he saw a mixture of hits and flops. With the latter, he said, “you feel bad for everyone.” What if he doesn’t like a show he’s working on? “We have the luxury of lobbies. “
There are, of course, headaches to deal with – intoxicated customers and pushy videographers – but he prides himself on doing it civilly. For the cell phone scoffers, whose ranks have grown since he started, he will sometimes be content to hover, which generally makes people feel ashamed of complying; other times he’ll use a flashlight or a head grip to get someone’s attention, and every now and then he’ll say something like, “Please don’t do that. If they see you, I’m gonna be in trouble. (At “Springsteen on Broadway,” no photos or videos are allowed before the arcs.)
How much does Barry enjoy being a part of the company? In March, sad that he wasn’t at work for his 20th birthday at the theater, he and his girlfriend walked to Times Square and posed for a photo outside each of Broadway’s 41 theaters.
“There’s this old adage, when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” he said. “I am so lucky – I like people to feel good when they come to us.”