NEW YORK – Sisters Elizabeth and Savannah Powers came to the 'tween shopping Mecca American Girl Place to watch their favorite characters on stage in "The American Girls Revue." Too bad Uncle Guard, Cornelia and the majority of the cast were outside waving protest signs on a picket line.
The actors claim the New York retail store and theater, part of the American Girl empire, is guilty of unfair labor practices, withdrawing proposed salary raises after they expressed interest in joining the Actors' Equity Association.
"I went to school four years to become an actor," said Kalynn Dodge, who walked out of Thursday's rehearsal to protest in the sweltering heat. "The next step is to become a member of the union, and we want to take the next step. It's not right."
Jerry Miller, who plays Uncle Guard in the revue, said he wanted health insurance, and he wanted someone to negotiate contract terms for him.
"I'm not a negotiator -- I don't know what I'm supposed to be asking for," he said.
The show went on inside the Fifth Avenue theater, but some scenes were cut and some of the roles went unfilled. Parents weren't offered refunds for their $32 tickets; they were allowed to come back to see another show for free.
But Elizabeth, 5, and Savannah, 9, are from Indianapolis and won't be able to return in a few weeks. The two seemed pretty content after a trip through the retail bonanza, where their dolls had a makeover and got new wardrobes. Their grandmother, Anne Powers, wasn't so happy.
"It's not right we couldn't decide if we wanted to see this show without the right actors," she griped.
Other parents were more amenable to the actors' complaints.
"We didn't see a show, but we still think they deserve their money," said Dawn Figlo, from Staten Island, who came with her two girls, Daria, 4 and Kirsten, 6.
Actors' Equity Association spokeswoman Maria Somma said the union approached the actors last fall about joining. Performances started in 2003, and there are three shows, "Revue," "Circle of Friends" and "Bitty Bear's Matinee," with a total of 18 actors; 14 want union representation.
Somma said the company has been unresponsive and when American Girl representatives said salaries wouldn't be raised, the actors had no choice but to strike.
American Girl spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos said the company respects the right to choose whether actors want union representation.
"We believe a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board is the most appropriate way to decide this issue without disrupting the workplace," she said in a statement. "Since June, American Girl has suggested Actors' Equity Association file a petition for a secret ballot election. At this time, Actors' Equity has chosen not to file such a petition."
Somma said she hoped union officials would meet with the company on Friday so the actors could go back to work.
American Girl, created in 1986, is a subsidiary of Mattel Inc., and targets girls ages 9 to 12. It has grown from a tiny company based in Middleton, Wis., to a behemoth, with more than 12 million dolls sold and more than 111 million books published.
Girls can now buy clothes for themselves and their dolls, plus everything from face wash to musical instruments. Overall sales were $436 million in 2005. There are two other retail locations, in Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Actors' Equity Association represents 45,000 stage actors and managers across the country.