Who the furkus is Burton Turkus?

Burton Turkus was an attorney, an author, and most influentially to our industry, an arbitrator.

Waaaay back in the days of the original Promises, Promises, in April of 1963 to be exact, Mr. Turkus presided over an arbitration between, well, just about every theatrical union, and the then named, League of New York Theatres.

Here’s what went down 50 years ago . . .

There was a 13-day strike in 1960 known as the “Broadway Blackout” which was the result of the failure of Actors’ Equity and The League to come to terms on a new agreement.  The biggest outstanding issue?  The creation of a brand new pension fund for the Actors.

The Actors got their pension fund as a result of the walkout.  As part of the agreement, they graciously agreed to help The League lobby the City of New York for the removal of the 5% Admissions Tax that was levied on all theater tickets at the time.

The theory was . . . if they could get rid of this 5% tax, they could use that 5% to pay pensions to all the unions.  The league would be happy because they wouldn’t be paying any more than they already were.  And the unions would be happy, too, because they would all get pensions.  Happy-happy, joy-joy!

Well, it wasn’t so easy.

The two sides were successful in getting the City to do away with the tax on tickets (!) . . . but there was a disagreement in how much of that 5% should go to AEA, and, consequently, how much of the remaining amounts should be distributed to the other eight unions involved.

Make sense?

Simplified:  The 5% tax went away.  So they had a pot of 5%.  But how to whack it up?

Enter the esteemed Mr. Turkus, who, in the “Burton Turkus Award of 1963” (as it is affectionately referred), created a system for determining who got what.

First, the actual net “tax relief” that we ended up with after the repeal was a net of 4.5%, not 5%, or “the 045” (as it is also affectionately referred).

Next, in order to distribute the funds accordingly, BT examined the books of Broadway shows to determine what percentage of gross payrolls was attributed to the actors, what was attributed to the musicians, the stagehands, and so on.  These percentages make up the guts of the “Award”.

A complex chart was created which awarded different percentages of “the 045” to the various unions, depending on a few factors, like whether it was a play or a musical, and even how many musicians a show had.

Confused yet?

Let me use a specific example, using modern day numbers:

A production grosses $1,000,000 for a week.

4.5% or .045 of $1,000,000 is $45,000.

$45,000 is then allocated towards the pension of our various unions.

In a musical with over 16 musicians, The BT Award allocates Actors’ Equity 50% of the $45,000 or $22,500.  Local One gets 15% or $6,750.  Local 751, the Treasurers, got 1.88% or $846.00 and so on, until the entire $45,000 is distributed.

This happens every week on Broadway to this day!

Now, IF on your show, your 045 monies don’t pay for pension that you are responsible for, you still have to make up the difference (if the Treasurers actual pension on the salaries was supposed to be $1000, then you got billed another $154).  The .045 only contributes towards the pension due, but it doesn’t necessarily cover all of the pension due.

Why is this history lesson relevant?

The wise Mr. Turkus, who ended one of the most bitter disputes our industry has seen, and is known as a hero in certain circles, created this chart using the payroll allocation formulas that were in front of him at the time . . . that are now almost 50 years old.

Back then, the Actors made up the bulk of the payroll, which is why they got the bulk of the 045.  Things have shifted just a teensy bit over the years, and salaries for some of the other unions have increased dramatically . . . which has thrown the whole 045 off its axis.

It’s very common now that the amount due to Actors’ Equity greatly exceeds that amount that is actually due.  So you could “overpay” by thousands of dollars . . . and the 045 ain’t a Discover card.  There’s no cash back.

At the same time, shows can often have a “deficiency” to Local 1, meaning that their 045 contribution fails to pay for the entire pension due, which then means that the show has to make up the difference.

So, while you’re overpaying to one union, you’re underpaying to another, and you cannot apply the overpayment from one to the other.  You gotta make good on the underpayment, and the overpayment stays with the union.  (I remember Show Boat having a million-dollar overage at one time!)

Now, Actors’ Equity, recognized the issue over the years and created opportunities for Producers to use their “overages” on National Tours of a show after they play on Broadway .  They’ve even used that overage for a reduction to their health payments at one time.

And that’s all good . . . but I don’t think it’s enough.

I’ve got another idea.

It’s time for a Burton Turkus, Jr. to come in, toss out the archaic old formulas and come up with something new.  And maybe this one can also handle the annuities that shows also pay to the unions.

I know, I know, the unions that are getting the overages aren’t going to take to this very well.  (I think my phone has started ringing already)  Why would they?  I wouldn’t want to . . .

But it is the right thing to do.

With all due respect to the great Mr. T, the 045 has to be readjusted, reconfigured, or simply trashed sooner or later.  These aren’t the days of  the original Promises, Promises anymore.  Our economics are vastly different now, and we can’t rely on economic formulas designed in the days when a brand new Ford Mustang cost $2,495.

Mr. Turkus deserves to be in the Broadway Hall of Fame.  But his Award needs to be retired.

If you would like to read the actual Burton Turkus decision from 1963 (it’s quite fascinating) and see the percentage distribution charts, click here.

What will tomorrow’s audience want from their theater?

Yesterday, we chatted about how difficult it is to get the multitasking generation to the theater because they can lay on their couch and channel surf, web surf and Wii surf, all at the same time.

That got me thinking . . .

There have been a number of theories tossed around lately about how the current crop of musicals on Broadway have a certain sound or are from popular musical catalogs, because the current theater-going demographic (folks 40+) is the first group of theater-lovers who grew up on rock and roll.

Simply put, the traditional sound of musicals has changed, because the traditional audience has changed.

Well, in the 1980s, another entertainment game-changer hit the stores:  the personal computer and the video game.

According to my calculations, that puts us about 10 years away from the next group of 40 year olds who grew up on something that their parents didn’t; a something that had a major impact on their lives, and their entertainment.

So . . . if Rock and Roll had such an effect on our product . . .  can you imagine the effect that the computer will have on our product?  Or the video game?

Or, I guess what I’m saying is . . . our audience is about to turn upside down pretty dang soon.  The computer is the car of the last 30 years.  And that’s going to have a ripple effect and change what people want from their theater.

If you’re a writer, get ready to adapt and expand, because our audience is going to want so much more if we expect them to turn off and sit still for two hours.

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Update:  I wrote the above blog two days before this article about the “Theater of the Arcade” appeared in the NY Times.  Read it here.  Interesting stuff on its way.

How I get my theater news.

If you enjoyed yesterday’s blog, then you shouldn’t thank me. You should thank Mr. Thomas Cott.

Tom has worked in a lot of areas in the entertainment industry over the last 25+ years, from marketing to producing to fundraising and so on. He’s an incredibly dedicated believer in spreading ideas and information in order to encourage education, which by its nature encourages change.

Tom runs a news clipping service called “You’ve Cott Mail,” where he serves up a handful of the day’s most interesting arts related articles from publications, blogs, newsletters, etc. from around the globe.

It was in a recent edition of “You’ve Cott Mail” that I discovered the article that I blogged about yesterday, hence the props due to Tom.

If you’re not signed up on Tom’s list, visit his site and click on the link on the left for YCM.  You’ll be glad you did.  “You’ve Cott Mail” is a like a vegetable that tastes like french fries.  It’s oh-so-good for you and should be consumed daily, but it also tastes great going down.

And if you’re looking for more than a handful of the day’s articles, then make sure you bookmark supersite, www.BroadwayStars.com, started by one of the original theater bloggers, James Marino.  All of the news that’s fit to type is on that site.  I refresh the page about 30 times a day looking for the latest news.

Consuming news in the 21st century is not like it used to be when you had one paper, or one TV channel.  The best news sources are like giant buffets, serving up dishes of all different types and temperatures from all over the world (e.g. HuffPo).

“You’ve Cott Mail” and BroadwayStars are the two of the best buffets in town.  And I gorge myself at both every day.

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