It’s an old joke in the theater world, says Meg Doherty. When you meet someone new, the first question is: “What’s the restaurant where you work?”
At Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Doherty’s former employer, both professions are put together. At the kitschy, chaotic, joyful, retro, red-booth filled eatery on Broadway and 51st, the waitstaff sings from "Rent" and "Hamilton" while fetching your side order of ranch dressing.
The restaurant is a showcase for performers looking to make it big at the theaters down the street — and typically offered flexible work hours to let servers pursue their dreams. But after a change in management earlier this year, that welcoming atmosphere has changed.
That led some employees to form a union, which was followed by mass firings, and continuing protests by former employees outside the diner. Which is all calling into question what the future will look like for the Stardust, which has been a cocoon and beloved shelter for musical theater actors trying to make it in NYC.
Sing me a song
It’s a frenzied hustle for those performers who make the city’s theaters tick — who have to hone their craft, be able to drop everything to make auditions, plus work a side gig to pay the rent. Ellen’s Stardust, named after the founder’s wife who was an aspiring actress and former Miss Subway in the fifties, let you do all three.
Doherty, whose specialty is jazz standards and tends to tell patrons that she sings music “your nana likes,” has a typical origin story. Six years ago, she got a job at Ellen’s and had just finished her first week of training when she got cast in a production of "Hairspray." Doherty, 32, would have to be away for six weeks. But her managers congratulated her, asked her just to get her shifts covered and said they’d see her soon.
Since then Doherty says she has taken leaves of up to six months. The job was there when she returned.
She and other employees say that all changed earlier this year.
Owner Ken Sturm told amNewYork in a statement that he realized the restaurant needed to operate “more efficiently to better serve our customers, so we made adjustments.” He says that employee terminations were done for “valid reasons” that had nothing to do with union activity.
The newly minted union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and point to the funny timing of union forming and the terminations.
As for those “adjustments.” Some made the restaurant a cleaner, more smoothly functioning place. Others, like a change to the scheduling system that made schedules less dependable and subject to greater employer approval, meant waitstaff had less flexibility to reliably catch auditions or take time off for regional jobs.
Maintaining livable conditions for hourly workers is an issue across the city — Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed legislation concerning similar scheduling requirements for fast food employers last week.
But it’s particularly relevant at a place like Ellen’s, which would just be a dumpy TGIF alternative without singers like Bianca Madison, who goes by her stage name, also fired last week.
Madison, 29, took off three weeks during filming for the HBO series "Vinyl." Then she came back, bringing her obsession for "Hamilton" and sharp memory for lyrics with her, at least until last week. Without accommodating and supporting workers of that caliber in their artistic projects, you might as well turn the place into a karaoke joint.
The fired employees hope that doesn’t happen — both for their own sakes and for the diner’s: It’s the kind of supporting player art-friendly-cities can’t do without.
To the barricades
The performers have been picketing outside the diner, hoping to get their jobs back and also bolster the working conditions of workers still there. They say that means fixing the scheduling, improving infrastructure and performance space in the old building, and generally supporting performers rather than treating them as replaceable.
On Friday, around 25 union members and supporters alternated between show tune standards and solidarity chants. Signs borrowed Broadway slogans — “To the union! To the revolution” and “Rise up.”
“Save our Stardust” one said plaintively.
One singer who had not yet been fired consulted quietly with her former colleagues.
“Into the lion’s den,” she said before entering.
Inside, two male performers were sleepily singing “Blow us all away” to the sparse early crowd. The crowd might stay sparse if the restaurant doesn’t do what it can to nurture its talent and assuage the angry musicians outside.
That would mean fewer encores for “Suddenly Seymour,” a crowd favorite. Less confetti made spontaneously out of receipt ribbons, or reunions with little girls who’ve returned to the restaurant to see particular singers, their parents nudging them ahead.
Doherty says she’s not sure what’s next — perhaps a job at the sports bar down the street. Maybe walking dogs. “Something to pay the rent.”
She’d never expressly intended to be a waitress, she says. “But that place was magic.”