IATSE Local One protests 'ESPN Magazine' taping

Times Square theater marquees are flaunting such Walt Disney winners as “Toy Story 2″ and the legit productions of “Lion King” and “Beauty & the Beast.” But those two 12-foot inflatable rats sitting in front of Disney’s lavish new ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square do not come out of the Disney creature shop.

“These rats have giant red eyes and yellow teeth, and they’re foaming at the mouth,” said Bob Nimmo, TV business manager for IATSE Local One, the New York TV stagehands’ union.

Nimmo said his union has called out the rats to protest the non-union taping of “ESPN Magazine: The Sports Reporters” at a studio in the two-months-old ESPN Zone.

Sympathy for union

A spokesman for ESPN declined to comment on the protest. Dick Schaap, who hosts the “Sports Reporters” series, said he’s “uncomfortable” with the protest because “I’m a dues-paying union member. I have a lot of sympathy for the unions.”

Nimmo said the union had no problem with “Sports Reporters” when ESPN taped it at the HBO Studios on East 23rd Street in Manhattan because Local One stagehands worked on the show. Schaap said, “If it were up to me, I’d rather take it back to the HBO Studios,” a move that Nimmo said would lead to instant pest removal: He’d deflate the rats and put them back in storage.

Brand reminders

Insiders said Disney insisted on changing the venue of the taping this fall to the ESPN Zone in Times Square because the area within the restaurant where it’s taped is bristling with ESPN logos. According to this strategy, every time the show runs on ESPN, viewers will be constantly reminded of the brand name.

So the issue for Disney is whether the unwelcome publicity generated by the inflatable rats, which have lured a small army of TV cameras to the sidewalk outside the ESPN Zone, will cause the company to retreat from its brand-obsessed scenarios and slink back to the HBO Studio.

There’s a dispute over whether the presence of the rats has hurt business at the restaurant. Nimmo said he has seen a number of people change their minds about entering the ESPN Zone because of the rats and the union members handing out leaflets to passersby.

But Schaap said when he and the staff finished Thursday’s taping the restaurant was filled with diners.

If the rats and the pickets fail to stop the non-union taping, Nimmo said he will call on the Restaurant Workers Union to join the stagehands on the picket line, an act that could put a serious crimp in the restaurant’s revenues. Nimmo is convinced that such an action would definitely get ESPN’s attention.

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