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Celebrations Dinner Theatre staff out of jobs after abrupt closure

Carson Mauthe couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief when he found out he was out of a job while picketing for higher wages.

The 14-year employee of Celebrations Dinner Theatre and shop steward for United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 832, which represented over 30 striking Celebrations employees, heard the news through headlines.

“One of our co-workers said kind of jokingly … we’re no longer coworkers, we’re just friends now,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Celebrations Dinner Theatre staff on strike'

Celebrations Dinner Theatre staff on strike

On Friday evening Celebrations Dinner Theatre, which had been in operation within Canada Inns Fort Garry for more than 25 years, announced its abrupt, permanent closure amid job action staged by its unionized employees.

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Mauthe worked as an “additional cast member” who dressed up in costume and interacted with guests during dinner service and shows. He, along with dozens of other co-workers, took to the picket lines Sept. 6 when contract negotiations weren’t fruitful.

“We loved and believed in that place so much. It just hurts so much when the owners don’t believe in us. And we did our best,” he said.

The venue had been featuring Mama Mio!, a production honouring disco-era legend ABBA, but on Sept. 8 Celebrations lowered their curtain for the last time.

Sheila Breer, a patron of Celebrations, took the news by surprise.

“I was actually kind of miffed, quite honestly,” she said. “It seemed like they don’t want to work with the union.”

Unionizing amid difficulties

The cast voted to unionize around seven years ago during a period of what Mauthe said was rough times in the theatre: hostility from management, understaffing, revocation of ticket-sale bonuses, all while wages stayed stagnant.

“Things were going downhill fast. We saw it as an opportunity to not only protect our jobs, but to protect the theatre … we can’t do a quality job if we’re not given a quality work environment,” he said.

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After a vote to unionize, the shop steward said there was a general sense of relief among staff.

“It felt like a security blanket,” Mauthe said.

Some staff remained non-union, such as bartenders and cooks (who are employed by Canad Inns) and stage performers who were independent contractors.

Fast-forward to 2023, the 500-seat theatre was hitting near-capacity on slow days and had been “busier than it ever was” yet the venue was still operating with fewer staff than what was needed, Mauthe said.

Once negotiations began after working for three years under an expired contract, employees asked for higher wages and a costume per diem – as they were still paying out of pocket.

After turning down the employer’s final offer, in the most-attended union meeting since agreeing to organize staff voted unanimously to strike, and picketing began.

Two days after job action commenced, staff found out through friends and media reports they were out of a job.

“Three days later, we got an official email. And that was that.”

Meager profits reason for shut down: owner

Bob Cunningham, owner of Act Three Entertainment, which operates Celebrations and two other dinner theatres in Alberta, did not reply to emailed requests for comment, but a statement on Celebrations website cited the “ever-increasing cost of goods of every kind, increased cost of wages, rising interest rates, and left-over debt from a global pandemic” as reason to close their doors, along with lower attendance numbers.

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Refunds for tickets to upcoming shows are in the works, the statement reads.

“For the entirety of this time span, profits remained small and infrequent, with as many years ending in a loss as those that ended in a meagre profit,” the statement said.

“All the while we thought that someday perhaps we could build the client base to the point where the profits would become more worthwhile and more consistent. We have now reached the conclusion that this is never likely to be the case.”

Having seen the ebbs and flows of attendance over more than a decade of employment, Mauthe calls that a bluff.

“I have been seeing the same people, serving the same people for 14 years. And it’s just supremely insulting to them to say, ‘We had to close down because you weren’t coming enough.’”

“The whole idea that they had to close down because they couldn’t make enough money tells me two things. They don’t respect their customers or they don’t know how to run a business.”

Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832, agrees.

“It’s shameful that the business model for Celebrations didn’t account for paying employees a fair wage or offering them any benefits, and the employer chose to close their doors instead of treating their employees with the respect they deserve,” Traeger said in a statement.

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While it may be the end of Celebrations Dinner Theatre as Winnipeggers know it, Mauthe senses it’s not the end of dinner theatre in the city.

“We sold a product of joy, we sold a product of laughter. We sold a product of just forgetting your troubles. That’s the product we sold. We honoured and understood that.”

Click to play video: 'Celebrations Dinner Theatre shutting down after 25 years'

Celebrations Dinner Theatre shutting down after 25 years


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