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All work and no play -- but plenty of pay -- for Carnegie Hall's backstage toilers

October 21, 2009 |  9:47 am

Carnegiehall Go East, young man -- if your ambitions run toward making a bundle overseeing behind-the-scenes setups for the performing arts, and you don't mind not having a life outside of work.

As noted Monday by Bloomberg News, the top five stagehands at Carnegie Hall earned an average of $431,000 in salary and benefits during the 2007-08 fiscal year -- which ended 2 1/2 months before a bucket of economic ice water awakened many in the arts and elsewhere to a new reality.

Some 3,000 miles west, at our own Music Center, those well-paid New Yorkers' top five peers -- two head carpenters, two heads of props and a head electrician -- averaged $221,000, according to the downtown performance center's 2007-08 tax return posted at Guidestar.org.

The Carnegie crew put in 80-hour average work weeks for their loot, according to the venerable hall's tax return. All that overtime translates into $103 an hour in wages and benefits.

DasRheingoldStage

Going by the Music Center's tax statement, you'd think the old stereotype of driven New Yorkers versus laid back Angelenos still applied: It says its top stagehands averaged 35-hour workweeks, which would give them a pay-and-benefits package that, on a per-hour basis, is even better than their Carnegie Hall peers.'

However, a person familiar with the New York and L.A. stagehands' labor contracts said L.A.'s five department heads pull long hours too, far more than a 35-hour average week.

Carnegie Hall's deal, negotiated by the same Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) that represents Broadway stagehands, is considerably more lucrative than the one that IATSE's Local 33 has at the Music Center for both wages and benefits, said the source, who asked not to be identified to avoid offending the Music Center.

Arguably, the Music Center's top stagehands have a more complicated job than their peers at Carnegie Hall, where big opera and musical theater productions aren't on the agenda. Among the tougher assignments a head stagehand could face would be a scene like the one pictured here, from the "Die Walkure" segment of Los Angeles Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring Cycle." On the other hand, given the high number of touring performers who pass through Carnegie Hall in rapid succession, there's a lot of loading in and packing up to do while working against the clock.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a separate group of head stagehands for Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl -- and the top earner, who handles audio, made $295,000 in wages and benefits in 2006-07, the last year available on the Guidestar site.

Only three others at the Phil made more: President Deborah Borda, at $1.25 million; music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, $1.12 million; and concertmaster Martin Chalifour, $433,000.

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center, in Costa Mesa, the highest paid stagehands, both of them head carpenters, averaged $165,000 in salary and benefits for 07-08, with a reported 40-hour work week.

The moral of this story, parents, is to push your kids to join the school drama club -- as techies.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Carnegie Hall; A scene from Wagner's "Die Walkure" at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credits: Akira Ono/AP; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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