The Radio City Rockettes’ dazzling Christmas outfits. The tutus and feathers that adorn the company of the New York City Ballet. The catsuits of “Cats.”
If you’ve seen it on a New York stage, Ernest Winzer Cleaners has probably cleaned it.
Before a viral pandemic dropped the curtain on performances this month, a team of 20 full-time employees at the Bronx dry cleaning business would work 12 hours overnight to get Broadway’s costumes back into fighting shape for the next day’s shows. For over a century, Winzer has picked up the sweat-soaked outfits of Roxie Hart and Eliza Doolittle and trucked them through Midtown Manhattan to Cedar Avenue in the Bronx, where the business has operated since 1908.
But since March 12, when the coronavirus shut down productions on and Off Broadway, the cleaners at Winzer have been working a fraction of the hours they used to — four, maybe six at the most.
“If there’s no Broadway, there’s no business,” Paul Harrison, the dry cleaning manager at Winzer, said over the phone on Wednesday. “There’s no work.”
The Winzer crew is part of a much wider ecosystem of workers — ushers and theater staff, stage hands, musicians — left without a steady gig now that shows don’t go on.
Stage productions make up about 75 percent of the clients at Winzer, which handles the costumes for anywhere from a dozen to 30 shows each night. Two years ago, the operation earned a special Tony Award for its contributions to the industry.
The theater district has always provided a reliable workload — but Broadway is shuttered until at least April 12, potentially longer. The staff saw some work “trickle in” this week from other clients after the shutdown, Mr. Harrison said. “Next week, we don’t know.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of unknowns here,” said Bruce Barish, who owns the business with his wife, Sarah, in a phone call on Tuesday. “We’re doing what we can.”
Mr. Barish is considering the company’s options while Broadway remains shut. At some point, he said, the work will dry up — he may have to lay off his staff for some time, or temporarily close.
But in the long run, he is hopeful: “We’re going to be here,” Mr. Barish added. “I’m not planning on this putting us out of business.”
Mr. Barish is the third generation in his family to run the operation after his grandfather bought it from Ernest Winzer, who was known for keeping Broadway clean, in the early 1950s. The business has stayed in the same spot in the Bronx, moving only once — to what was then an abandoned building across the street — when the Major Deegan Expressway was built.
The chemicals and technology Winzer uses are roughly the same as most other dry cleaners, Mr. Barish said. It’s their reputation over the century — the furry “Cats” costumes really weren’t that difficult to clean, he insists — and a bigger, specially made machine that sets them apart in the business.
“Not only do they come and pick up the clothes and deliver the clothes in a wearable fashion in plastic, they also repair items, especially if you’ve noted them with a special telltale safety pin with a colored ribbon on it,” said William Ivey Long, a six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer. “Red ribbon means ‘Fix me.’”
Winzer, he added, has cleaned the costumes for “literally every single Broadway show I’ve ever worked on,” a number now north of 75.
Mr. Harrison said he is fortunate — he has been able to plan ahead and save some money to pay the rent for the next couple of months in case he and the other Winzer employees are laid off. After that, he said, “it’s just like anybody else: definitely uncertain.”
“I’m hoping that Broadway gets up and running as fast as possible, because this is our livelihood,” Mr. Harrison said. “It keeps food on our table, it keeps our families fed, and if they’re not performing, it’s a trickle-down effect. It hits us first.”