Dim Lights on the Great White Way

11/26/2007 10:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was clapping wildly and shouting "brava" to Rosie Perez on Sunday during the curtain call for The Ritz when two cast members stepped forward and announced something that left me stunned.

If they are right, there's an unintended consequence to the Broadway stagehand strike that literally could be a matter of life and death for some less recognizable members of the theatre community - and could leave many others sick and/or financially destitute.

Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, a truly great American charity, is losing $40,000 a day - more than a quarter million dollars a week - in voluntary contributions every day the strike continues, they told the audience.

This time each year equity performers lucky enough to be working on Broadway take the stage at the end of each show and personally ask the audience to help people in the theatre community who are living with HIV/AIDS.

They sell CDs and autographed posters and programs, and often auction items from plays and musicals. (The earrings Perez wore on Sunday brought $1,000 from a generous man and his very pregnant wife.) After the curtain, cast members traditionally stand at theatre doors with silver buckets and accept cash contributions - a catchy sight on Sunday since the cast of The Ritz features several hot guys clad in bath towels. During the original run of Hairspray, Harvey Fierstein even auctioned personalized voice mail recordings to help the cause.

Last year, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS gave more than $8 million in direct assistance grants to entertainment industry professionals and performing artists with a wide range of needs (physical treatment, medication, employment, rehabilitation, counseling, legal services, etc...) related to HIV/AIDS and to hundreds of smaller community based organizations outside New York.

This year, the money isn't coming, because most shows (25 really big ones in the really large theatres) are closed. But that story hasn't received a lot of notice.

Sadly, attention has focused on the effect the strike is having on the supper crowd at nearby Restaurant Row. Joe Allen, legendary owner of the restaurant of the same name, was central two weeks ago to the obligatory Times "impact story" headlined "In Theater District Bars, Many Glasses Are Half Empty."

The reporter noted that at Allen's restaurant, "Sinatra played, the low lights flattered older women, the veal was said to be delicious. Mr. Allen, fastidious in velvet, sat at a table passing on a story he had heard about the chief carpenter at the Belasco (theatre) -- or maybe it was the Minskoff -- who was losing $8,000 a week because of the strike."

He quoted Allen saying, "I saw them picketing the other day on 44th Street and thought to myself, 'That's the hardest they've worked in years."

I love his banana cream pie, but I don't empathize with Allen. He'll survive.

I live in Manhattan and teach journalism. I go to way too much theatre, and I work to keep up with the news, which is one reason the announcement at the end of the play floored me so. I depend on local news to bring things like this to light.

It also hit me hard because I have such a history with this disease.

I survived the dark days of the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was killing so many men so fast that the rest of us were going to funerals and support groups like zombies while President Reagan didn't even have the courage or decency to say the word "AIDS" publicly.

Back then, during a span of about two years, 11 friends of mine - close friends - passed away from HIV-related illness. Three others took their lives after a positive diagnosis or due to anxiety and depression from what was happening to us all.

Josh. Phillip. Eddie. Moore. Jim. Jim. Rick. Roy. Steve. Paul. Jim. John. Checko. Tom.

Those aren't names of people I just knew. I lost dozens and dozens more acquaintances. Those are 14 friends I lost during two winters and two summers in my early 30s. I had known two of them since childhood; three were fraternity brothers in college. I met the rest through work and social networks - my first group of friends out of college - and saw them almost every day for years until they moved home to die or passed away in hospice.

That all seems like a horrible dream, I told a friend on Sunday over coffee after the play.

I wondered last week when the United Nations announced that 33.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide what that really meant now to us in America, where it seems like social services and medications are institutionalized and readily available, and the anger, fear and horror of the 1980s has subsided.

Then, serendipitously, I went to a matinée of a Broadway musical set in a bath house, ironically staged at Studio 54, and was reminded that the consequences of the strike - and The New York Times coverage of it not withstanding - reach far beyond Restaurant Row.

Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS is a heroic group founded during an era when our national media and many of our national leaders let us down. It has a proven track record of directly helping sick and destitute actors and artists whose work enriches all our lives.

Financial statements
that show grant recipients and other expenses right down to phone bills and postage, are online and easy to read. So are forms that provide a whole slew of ways for decent and blessed people to help offset one real, unexpected and horrible effect of the strike.