JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
Return to Press page

"Legit Pay Raise Was Reckless"
(Originally printed in Variety's 43rd Anniversary Issue, December 1976)

by Joseph Stern

(Following an in-depth discussion of events that were reported in Daily Variety at various times throughout the period that raises in Equity's HAT-BAT contract minimums were announced nad put before union's general membership, Producer Stern, who acted as adversary and headed a group that opposed the increases, gives some inside information that was not available at that time.  Stern collects all the events and presents them from his own perspective.  Stern is still a member of Equity and a producer.)

On April 9,1976, the Coast branch of Actors Equity Association put Into effect a 40% weekly salary raise on the HAT-BAT production contract. It was an action that was to change the entire face of the Los Angeles Theatre movement. It was a reckless act, done without imagination, insight, or courage.

The Los Angeles acting community became aware of the proposed salary .increase last January when members of the Los Angeles Actors Theatre were asked to sign a form acknowledging an impending salary increase on Feb. 15. This took place rather off-handedly at the Hollywood branch of AEA when LAAT had come in to post bond for a new production. "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" was the only production that was operating under the HAT contract at the time. It was being produced by three members of AEA. The show had employed some 50 members of AEA during the previous year and no one had been informed of the impending raise that was to eventually close the show.

Shortly thereafter, LAAT and myself, one of the producers of "Are You Now," dispatched telegrams to Donald Grody and members of Council at New York's main AEA headquarters asking for more time to study the issues. New York responded by not ratifying the Western Advisory Board proposal in lieu of an upcoming AEA membership meeting. Ten days later a rather large turnout of Los Angeles actors attended the meeting.

The mood was set by Edward Weston, Western Regional Director of AEA. when suddenly in the middle of his report/minutes he recited the history of the union and the years of exploitation and struggle. Was he trying to tell the membership something at this eventful meeting? He succeeded in inciting an already tense atmosphere setting actor against actor without any real understanding of the issues at hand. At the conclusion of the report a motion was made from the floor that a moratorium be granted on the new HAT-BAT contract for 90 days so that there might be time to study the proposal.

The members were then given permission to discuss the motion before a vote would be taken. The discussion that ensued had very little to do with the motion but became a rallying point which intimated that if one was for the motion they were management-oriented and those against were resisting exploitation in a profession has had a long history of it.

Finally a vote was taken and the motion carried by a slim margin. Everyone left the meeting hall somewhat emotionally battered and feeling as if he belonged to one group or the other. The real issue was all but forgotten: a majority of the membership present requested 90 days to study and discuss a rather serious, proposed new contract.

The eight-member HAT-BAT Committee that had made the salary increase recommendation to the WAB In December, 1974, expanded to 13 by adding five at-large members. This was done by soliciting written requests at the conclusion of the membership meeting. At this point, I applied for membership on this special committee but was told I missed by the luck of the draw and if there were any drop-outs, or problems with attendance, I would be contacted for a possible replacement. Of the eight standing members no one in the last 15 years had ever worked under a HAT contract, none were familiar with the theatres in Los Angeles or San Francisco that qualified under this contract.

During the next month I waited patiently to be called by the committee to give at least some facts and figures since my show was the only one performing under a HAT contract and had been running for a year. Instead I heard only from two at-large members of the committee who were eager for information and my thoughts. Finally, the situation became so unbearable I contacted the chairman of the committee and asked to meet with him privately. He agreed and we met. whereupon I outlined my thoughts and recommendations for the contract and requested a meeting with the committee.

I appeared before the committee the following week. At the outset l I couldn't resist a comment on the empty chairs at the meeting since I would've killed for one of those chairs in the last month. I introduced myself, citing my 12 years of Equity membership, which included my years as deputy and participation in two contract battles in New York. Indeed, I was so anxious to prove myself a regular guy and union man, I was ready to recite lines from "On The Waterfront."

The following is the sum and substance of my remarks to the committee on that day:

"Ladies and Gentlemen. I believe we are at the crossroads in Los Angeles 'Small' Theatre and we must look closely at the consequences of this new contract. If the so-called Smaller Theatre is to continue to flourish because this new contract will affect all the theatres including the very fragile 99-seat Waiver Theatres (all theatres of 99 seats or less have a hands-off policy from AEA which means AEA rules do not apply to members in regard to salary or code'). In 1975 there were only seven HAT contract productions. Only one was financially successful and ran for a considerable length of time. Indeed, in the past five years since the 99-seat Waiver rule went into effect there has only been one successful HAT production. There were approximately 140 Waiver productions last year.

"We can deduce two things from this. The thrust of the L.A. Small Theatre is not commercial, but rather contained and work-oriented and the corresponding audience is minimal. The success of 'Are You Now' and the emergence of LAAT, which had two highly praised HAT contract productions last year, could mean the beginning of a healthy legitimate theatre movement and, more importantly, an audience willing to support it which it has not done In the 15 years since the heyday of the Players Ring and Gallery Theatres (two successful 200-seat theatres In the 1950's and eary '60s).

"In the history of this contract there has never been more than a 15% increase. This is a 40% increase that can only be passed on to the consumer (audience). At the present time there is a very small audience who will not spend more than $7.50 for a ticket to a 200-seat theatre.

"The argument has been raised that why should the actor go without? Let me point out that my production breaks even at 70%. In order to run the show, the boxoffice treasurer and asst. receives $105 per week (union $425); company manager receives $75 (ATPAM: $315); no l.A. ($220 per week); no publicist (ATPAM: $315); the theatre rent is $400 per week (normally $600 per week). There is no salary or royalty for the producers. The author and director defer their royalty when the gross is below break-even. There is no place to get the money from.

"At this time there are only three theatres that have more than 200 seats and less than 399 all three arc being used to show pornographic motion pictures. There are five 199-seat theatres. Four are non-profit and are not for commercial rent. There is only the Hollywood Center Theatre, which is bring used for the current 'Are You Now.'  I recommend that you reclassify the contract according to the gross capacity so that the 199-seats would be HAT 3 and those between 200 and 399 seats would be HAT A. This would not be unlike New York's Off Broadway and Middle House Contracts.

"The LORT contract is the exact equivalent with its A B C and D classifications determined by gross capacities. The HAT A and B classification would have different salary minimums.

"At the present lime the actors receive 20% of the gross above $4500. This could be lowered according to the size of the cast. An example: casts of seven to 10 would get 20% of everything over $4000; six or less over $3500. This would prevent management from benefiting from small cast shows.

"The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes Stagehands Local 33 and lA's -Box-Office and Treasurers Local 857, as well as ATPAM do not recognize the 199-seat theatres as union houses. AEA must also make a distinction, otherwise we will create a sellers market; that is to say that all large cast shows will be forced to go to larger houses or 99-seat Waiver theatre.

"Either way the landlord will have the leverage with the knowledge that the new contract forces management to come to them. Six weeks after 'Are You Now' opened at the HCT, three theatres of different sizes contacted me and bid against each other In order to get us to move in."

At the conclusion of my remarks the chairman went around the table for questions, rebuttal, etc. Not one member of the committee had a question or response of any kind. They thanked me and I never heard from them again. When I asked a member of the committee I knew what they thought of my plan, he said that there weren't enough 199-seat theatres to warrant reclassification of the contract. When I pointed out that they constituted 60% of the existing theatres in L.A. he had no answer.

On April 11 the original 40% pay increases were put Into effect by the West Coast Branch of AEA after ratification by the WAB and Council in New York. They acted on the recommendation of the special HAT-BAT committee. After 90 days of discussion this 13-member committee voted by four to three to make the same original recommendations. Only seven members were present at this final vote. Their recommendation was made without a written report of their findings.

The WAB requested a report from the committee. Whatever report was finally given to the WAB I have not been allowed to read. Weston told me it was private union business. He pointed out that even though I was a member of the union I was also a producer and that they would be passing a law that would prohibit me from attending union meetings in the future. A law was passed last spring that prohibits actor producers from attending union meetings for one year after the close of their show.

As of this writing the following has transpired since the enactment of the new contract.

1. On April 11, after a 14-month run. "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" closed.

2. The Los Angeles Actors Theatre has become a free theatre and has added a 99-seat theatre to their already existing 199-seat theatre. There are no future plans for HAT contract productions in this theatre.

3. The Hollywood Center Theatre has had two HAT contract shows, one a one-woman show that ran six weeks, and a 20-character play ("Soul Alley") that employed 10 non-Equity actors that ran four weeks.

4. Theatre West (a non-profit theatre) had a limited engagement of "The Price." This also fulfilled an obligation to AEA that stipulates that they do two HAT contract shows a year in return for a 99-seat Waiver status in their 199-seat theatre.

5. The Las Palmas Theatre (399 seats) reopened after many years of pornographic movies with a successful production of "Boy Meets Boy." However this was a non-Equity production which AEA picketed for one night.

6. Myself and William Devane (director of "Are You Now"), under our banner of Actors For Themselves produced, "The Changing Room," at the 90-seat Odyssey Theatre. Twenty-seven members of AEA took part in the production. They worked without pay for four months. We were unable to move the production to a HAT contract even though we sold out the entire run. The pay raise made the breakeven point at 85%. We would only employ members of AEA. We encountered exorbitant rent proposals from landlords of 399-seat theatres.

There are additional facts about this production that bear close study. At the end of the run we were paying $600 per week for rent (actually Tuesday through Friday traditionally weak nights). This was 50% more rent and 100 less seats than we had at HCT for "Are You Now." The theatre rent at HCT represented 12% of the operating budget. Our rent at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre represented 50% of the operating budget.

7. A 99-seat Waiver production called "Scandals" was done for a reported cost of 125,000 in which no actors were paid in the large cast.

8. "The Last Meeting Of The Knights Of The White Magnolia" moved from a Waiver production to a HAT contract. During the first six weeks of its run it lost approximately $300 a week. It employed no other unions and had no company manager. This production could've been done for $250 a week less under the old contract.

9. During the past six months most of the existing 99-seat theatre rents have doubled. Three of these theatres have received between $600-700 dollars for split weeks. This is more than the going rate for 199 and 299-seat legitimate theatres. Several 99-seat theatres have been built and more are being planned.

Conclusion: The relocation of actors formerly living on the east coast has created an expanding legitimate Theatre in the last two years in Los Angeles. All indications are that this pattern will only increase. It is painfully obvious that the existing structure of the Coast branch of AEA is not equipped to deal with this rate of growth. The leaders and paid administrators of AEA must acquaint themselves with the problems and present conditions of the Theatre in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The existing HAT-BAT contract and 99-seat Waiver Rule are outdated and do not address themselves to the current state of the theatre. They are breeding a nonproductive theatre and certain inequities that can only spell its downfall before it's hardly begun. No contract is isolated from another contract or set of rules or, in this case, nonrules. All are dependent upon one another.

There can be no such thing as a "hands-off" policy wherever AEA members meet and work or else there is exploitation. A few cannot be the beneficiary of a special ruling. Most importantly we have to solve our own problems. They are different from New York and. therefore, must be dealt with by those who have studied and worked within them.

Return to Press page