Saturday, November 30, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Working On Thanksgiving

I am not one to be overly bothered by Christmas Creep.  It's standard procedure these days, for retailers to set out their holiday wares around Halloween. 

Costco gets a pass from me. Though their decorations were for sale in August, they were among the few big box stores to
buck the trend and remain closed for Thanksgiving.
Long gone are the days when the day after Thanksgiving was the special day when decorations popped up all over the place.  My beloved Costco, in fact, sets out their first Christmas Decorations for sale in August (but in their defense, they do not actually decorate the store, they are simply selling balls, bangles, and wrapping paper).  None of it bothers me in the least.

But this year, everybody is rightly riled about the expansion of Black Friday into Thanksgiving Day. 
This scene was repeated all over the country this week, but with a twist.  In past years, foolish morons started lining up  for the Big Black Friday Specials on Thursday night.  This year, people actually pitched their tents outside big box stores Wednesday night.  That's right, they ignored any Thanksgiving celebration in order to camp outside stores all night Wednesday and all day Thursday, just so they could be the first in the door to snag a special (which we are being told really isn't one: an examination of all those incredible "doorbuster" prices reflects that those prices are exactly the same as they were last year). 
What began as a trickle of stores last year is now a flood;  retailers all over the place began their holiday sales Thursday night this week, some as early as 6 PM.  This bothers more than 60% of the population, according to a poll I read, but it doesn't stop the rest of the country from camping out all day on Thanksgiving to get those Big Deals.  This bothers me as much as the next guy, as the biggest offenders here are the big box stores which pay their workers minimum wage;  these employees live on the edge of poverty and cannot afford to refuse to work, even on the holiday.  And because these stores stayed open over 24 hours, you can bet absolutely everybody on the payroll was working at one time or another. 
This was my first job as a waiter, at JoJo's Burgers and Brew, a glorified coffee shop. (I'm in the lower right hand corner.)  The restaurant was open 24 hours a day, and I worked many holidays, including Thanksgiving. Even once I graduated to steak houses, I still worked holidays.
Amid the outcry regarding this atrocity, I have heard nary a peep about the other workers who have always worked Thanksgiving.  I waited tables 13 solid years in Los Angeles, and I worked each and every one of those Thanksgivings. 
At Reuben's Summerhouse in Woodland
Hills, CA, holiday work was a given.
Everyone on staff worked New Year's
Eve, it was the biggest dinner of the year.
Management had a heart; they offered the
staff a bit of a choice for the other hols.
We could choose to take either
Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas
Day, or New Year's Day off, and work
the other three. I worked every
Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and
New Year's Day.

I worked every one of those New Year's Eves too, as well as many Christmas Eves, New Year's Days, and even a few Christmas Days, not to mention every Easter and quite a few Fourths of July.  But here's the difference:  though I did not have much of a choice to work these holidays, I was at least rewarded with a bump in income.  Patrons who chose to go out to eat for Thanksgiving and other hols were in generous moods, ordering liberally and tipping accordingly.  So, the waiter's income did indeed go up during those shifts.
This dude became a media hero this week.  He's Tony Rohr, and he worked for Pizza Hut 10 years, from lowly beginnings as a cook to his present position as general manager of an Indiana outlet.  During that time, the chain remained closed only two days each year: Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Until this week, when the owner of Tony's unit ordered the restaurant to remain open.  Rohr refused to force his employees to work, and was fired.  The outcry went national, and the corporation intervened, "encouraging" the local franchise owner to reconsider.  He's been offered his job back.
The brouhaha regarding workers being forced to work on Thanksgiving brought up lots and lots of memories of my time as a waiter.  I loved the work, as it was fast-paced, stimulating to the mind, and best of all, when you left the restaurant at the end of the shift, you had money in your hand.  There was something quite satisfying about working your tail off all night, and leaving with the immediate results of all that labor.
This oddball musical was a hodgepodge of styles, with music written by five, count 'em five, composers, including Craig Carnelia, Mary Rogers, Stephen Schwartz, and (get this) James Taylor. Its original cast included Patti Lupone, Bob Gunton, Joe Montegna, and Lynn Thigpen, but those heavy hitters could not save it;  the show closed after only 36 performances.
This week's Dance Party comes from Working, a musical which has a bit of a cult following these days.  It was not a success in New York in 1978, and the creators have tinkered with it incessantly ever since. 
This PBS adaptation is available on DVD.

Actors love it, as the musical numbers are all little monologues (very few group numbers), and always  accompany spoken speeches as well. So despite its failure in New York, the show has had a lively life on college and high school stages. 

Eileen Brennan as the Millworker in Working.
The show is really just a loose conglomerate of working people, from all walks of life, telling their stories, and is based on Studs Turkel's book of interviews, which he called Working:People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
This week's star informs us that "It's An Art," and I agree.  Waiting tables is exhausting work, both physically and mentally, but if my body could still do it, I'd still do it.
I wrote a bit about the musical version of Working years ago when Turkel died, and included one of my favorite songs from the musical, written by James Taylor and performed by singer Jennifer Warrens, but enacted by the late great Eileen Brennan.  That clip, as does the one below, comes from the PBS adaptation of Working, featuring a starry cast but in a truncated version.  Here we have Rita Moreno describing her life as (you guessed it) a waitress.  The song is written by Stephen Schwartz, who did a bit better with Godspell and Wicked and Pippin.  In honor of all those unsung workers who break their backs and flatten their feet waiting tables on holidays, Happy Dance Party:

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