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Disney puppeteers cry foul over show closure

Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES -- Puppeteer Art Vega has worked in the "Disney Junior -- Live on Stage!" show at Disney California Adventure for 14 years, delighting children with performances featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

But his work is scheduled to end April 9, when Walt Disney Co. plans to close the current version of the long-running show, which stars puppets that have been a fixture of the Disneyland Resort since the attraction opened in 2003.

The entertainment giant's decision to end the puppet show comes after a contentious two-year period during which the puppeteers joined a union, the American Guild of Variety Artists. And Vega and some of his fellow puppeteers allege that Disney is closing their show in retaliation for their decision to do so.

"It's really disappointing and heartbreaking that a company would take people who have worked extremely hard over the years and treat us this way," said Vega, 35.

The guild filed two National Labor Relations Board complaints against Disney in 2015 alleging that the company, headquartered outside Los Angeles, reduced work hours and took other retaliatory actions against 29 puppeteers after they signaled they could unionize. Ultimately, Disney and the union settled the matter, leading to back pay for the workers.

In response to claims that the cancellation of the show was retaliatory, Disneyland Resort spokeswoman Suzi Brown said in a statement: "We constantly evaluate our entertainment offerings and make changes to provide compelling reasons for our guests to visit time and time again."

Brown said a new version of the "Disney Junior" show is expected to return without puppets. The puppeteers could audition for roles in this new show, which is expected to include technology upgrades that would allow Disney to more quickly refresh content. The puppeteers also could transfer to other roles at the resort, Brown said. She added that Disney and the guild remain in talks over the affected workers.

The dispute is a window into the complex dynamics of labor relations at Disneyland Resort, which includes California Adventure and Disneyland Park. More than 20 union affiliates represent the majority of the 29,000 workers who are employed at the property.

"This group of puppeteers ... had a very tough time," said Steve Rosen, the guild's business representative working with the puppeteers. "Overwhelmingly, they have come and said to me, 'We don't regret this for a minute.' Not a lot of people would do that."

Although some puppeteers feel otherwise, Rosen said he had no evidence that Disney's decision to the end the show was retaliatory, but he said the union would file another complaint with the NLRB if he learned this was the case.

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