Eighty-three years ago, Dennis Scanlon's grandfather got a job ushering at the Music Box Theatre. Not long after, Scanlon's father put on the uniform -- yes, they used to wear outfits with burgundy bow ties -- at the same intimate 45th Street playhouse, built in 1920 to house Irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue."
Scanlon, who commutes to work from Floral Park, has been patrolling the aisles of this unusual family business for 47 years. He is now chief usher and, some days, he brings his two grown daughters in from Long Island to work as substitutes.
Debbie Cappadona, chief usher at the Longacre Theatre, just got her 35th year pin. Sherry McIntyre, chief at the Barrymore, started 38 years ago, including 18 years overseeing "Cats" at the Winter Garden. "I watched scenes over and over and over. I just loved them," she says, adding a shrug of playful defensiveness, "I was young."
Then there is John Barbaretti, ticket-taker at the Barrymore and, with 20 years experience, the relative newbie in the group. Since his mother ushered at the Imperial for 50 years, sometimes bringing actors home for spaghetti and not retiring until 89, it is safe to say this special world is in his blood.
Shows come, shows blow away with the transient winds of Broadway. But these people -- ones we see at the theater yet don't really notice -- are a big part of the continuity that keeps this increasingly impersonal high-powered industry feel like family. These four I met all work for the Shubert Organization, but the other two theater owners, the Nederlander and Jujamcyn companies, also have their own usher communities. Everyone knows everyone.
With the blare of cellphones, glare of texting and pizza boxes in the audience these days, ushers may be seen as the first line of defense against the galloping rudeness in the theater. They prowl the aisles before curtain, urging people to turn off their devices and, during late seating, they might be able to glower or shine their light at just the right offender at the right moment.
But cut them some slack. They are not the cellphone police. "We can't confiscate the phones," says Cappadona, reasonably. "When phones go off, we usually cannot find the culprit. We can see the flash, but usually can't see where they're flashing." Backstage staff can spot the disrupters on monitors that face the audience, but, as theatergoers know from experience, there isn't much the ushers can do that isn't almost as disruptive as the ring itself.
In most other ways, the job is much as it has always been. Ushers still help find our seats and, in ideal situations, graciously keep the peace. Almost everyone these days wears black, with the same tie/scarf and a name tag. Audiences dress far less well, which disturbs ushers who have seen standards sink to the level of shorts and flip-flops. When Cappadona sees theatergoers nicely dressed, she actually compliments them.
Ushers all arrive an hour before curtain time, which is more confusing now that daily times change, often drastically, from the 8 p.m. tradition. Cappadona, who has a two-hour commute from New Jersey, feels especially bad for people who arrive in time for the 8 p.m., never knowing the play started at 7. Or 7:30. She still remembers the family with two kids who were misinformed by their hotel concierge. "The parents were practically crying," she says, still sad for them.
Half the ushers can go home around 30 minutes into the show. The other half stays until the audience leaves. The routine is divided into shifts. An usher is "on" for four performances, "off" for four. They work six days, eight shows a week.
These are union jobs (a union representative said they don't give out salary information), except for some of the ushers at some nonprofit Broadway houses, and they are on a smaller contract. Off-Broadway usually has volunteers who work in exchange for the free ticket.
Ushers have to keep their eyes on everything and are not allowed to sit throughout the whole performance. Ticket-takers have to stay in the lobby through the entire show, though they can sit down. Barbaretti hadn't seen "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" until eight months into the run at the Barrymore.
When a show closes and one's assigned theater is dark, ushers can sub at other theaters. Cappadona, the boss at the Longacre, is an usher at "Curious Incident" at the Barrymore until ""Allegiance," starring George Takei, begins previews at her home theater in October.
Scanlon chose to take a rare summer vacation from the Music Box until "King Charles III" begins in October. Since "Shuffle Along," a new musical starring Audra McDonald and based on one of the first all-black Broadway hits, starts in March, Scanlon, who, like McIntyre, also has a day job, isn't likely to have another break for a long while.
It's fun to assume these people know things we can't find out elsewhere. It's true, and, sometimes, they'll talk. For example, Toby, the pet rat in "Curious Incident," has his own guest list of people allowed to meet him after the show.
When Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig co-starred in "A Steady Rain" in 2009, they used to buy scratch-off lottery tickets for everyone every Friday. Craig continued the irresistible tradition when he returned to Broadway in "Betrayal" in 2013. And then there was Jackman's ultimate adorableness during his 2003 smash, "The Boy from Oz." Told that Barbaretti's usher-mom was a huge fan and was celebrating her 80th birthday, the star called her onto the stage at the start of the second act, the one in the night club, and danced with her.
These good stories imprint on the whole community. Actors who aren't so nice, well, nobody will tell me. When she starred in "Amy's View" in 1999, Judi Dench was what Barbaretti remembers as the "most gracious fun lady," especially during the brunches held for the whole company before Sunday matinees. Scanlon has amused memories about the morning-after brunches for "One Man, Two Guvnors," which starred James Corden at the Music Box in 2012. "The cast was out all Saturday night and really needed the coffee," he remembers fondly.
Everyone misses the Cafe Edison, the low-cost Jewish diner that was forced to close last season to make way for white-tablecloth gentrification. Many restaurants used to even have ushers' discounts. "Broadway used to be a more neighborly place," laments Barbaretti.
And yet, he still loves the job for being like a "social club. I love meeting these people. Even when they aggravate me when they're coming in, I have something to talk about after the show." And when people storm through the doors exclaiming this or that hit was "the worst thing I've ever seen," he often plays the diplomat, interrupting their rant to say, "Perhaps the playwright just isn't your taste. That doesn't mean it's bad."
Then there is the sense of responsibility for things beyond an usher's -or any mortal's -- control. As McIntyre confesses, "I feel responsible for the weirdest things. When a noisy fire truck goes by, I feel sorry -- as if I was supposed to do something about it."
All naturally root for their shows to get good reviews and run forever, but, among themselves, they may be tougher critics than the professionals. It's the casts with really nice people that break their hearts, even when they know the shows are stinkers.
Among memories of gallows humor, Scanlon remembers the time some poor man died in the audience of the Kerr Theatre. As the gurney took the corpse out and his wife followed, two people hurried down to take their better seats. "It's so New York," he says, not in an entirely disapproving way.