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West Warwick fire overshadows the Guild's 30th Follies


The catastrophic February 20 fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick will lend an undercurrent of solemnity to what would have otherwise been a more raucous and freewheeling event -- the 30th anniversary edition this Friday, February 28 of the Providence Newspaper Guild's annual Follies.

The Guild, which represents about 450 reporters, photographers, and other workers at the Providence Journal, launched the annual satiric revue of the past year in Rhode Island news after a bitter 13-day 1973 strike at the newspaper. After a modest start, the event has become a can't-miss affair, and 1200 movers-and-shakers routinely turn out for the cash bar and extravagant buffet at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts. Another highlight is the participation of a mystery guest, such as US Representative Patrick Kennedy or Senator Lincoln Chafee, who takes part in a skit poking fun at his or her own foibles.

Guild administrator Tim Schick, who first witnessed the Follies in 1990, recalls being blown away by the event, "in terms of the humor, the scale of the show, who attended, and the quality of the performance." When it comes to the participation of Guild members in somewhat elaborate song-and-dance numbers, he adds, "You see these people and [think] who would have known they had it in them?"

Prior to the West Warwick fire, the main subtext to the Follies was the ongoing dispute between Journal management and the Guild, whose members have been working without a contract for three years. Many Guild members suspect the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, which bought the Journal in 1997, is trying to break the Guild, although Belo and Journal officials have denied this. Regardless, in one sign of the bitterness of the scrap, high-level Journal managers haven't attended the Follies -- a break from past practice -- since 2000.

Off-the-record contract talks between management and the Guild have been taking place since October 2002, a development that came after a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled in the union's favor on unfair labor practice charges, but it remains to be seen whether a contract agreement will be reached. "We're at a delicate stage," says Schick, citing pay and benefits as points of contention. "The process is agonizingly slow. Everyone's aware of that. Our job is to get the job done, and if we felt it was a waste of time, we wouldn't be meeting." Mark T. Ryan, the Journal's executive vice president and general manager, didn't return a call seeking comment.

The Follies, which began as a way to heal the wounds of the 1973 strike and showcase the non-journalistic talents of Guild members, is typically a time for fun and frivolity. In celebration of the event's longevity, the Guild will be selling posters with reproductions of the collected covers of the programs for the last 30 years.

But the West Warwick fire, which began after a pyrotechnics display by the band Great White and claimed the lives of 97 people, offers another troubling reminder for some Guild members of how much things have changed at the Journal. In the minds of many insiders and long-time observers, the Boston Globe and New York Times outpaced the Journal's own coverage of the fire's aftermath.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: February 28 - March 6, 2003