Jake Bowman, like most of his fellow performers, loves his job.
But playing the part of a swashbuckling knight at the Medieval Times dinner theater in Buena Park comes with risks. And in his case … $18.50 an hour.
“I fractured my thumb last month,” the 33-year-old Anaheim resident said. “I had a sword in both hands and my opponent’s sword came down right at the joint of my thumb. I couldn’t make a fist for a month.”
That wasn’t the first incident. During his pervious tenure at Medieval Times in Dallas, he was kicked in the back by a horse and suffered a hairline fracture to the spine in his lower back. Such are the risks of live performance.
In an effort to address safety concerns and secure higher wages, performers at the Buena Park castle are looking to unionize.
On Friday, the venue’s 50 knights, queens, squires, horsemen and stablehands submitted a petition for a union election to the National Labor Relations Board that calls for a vote on whether to join the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA).
The move comes on the heels of a union victory at Medieival Times’ Lyndhurst, N.J. location where the workers’ 26-11 vote secured AGVA membership. The Dallas-based company operates a total of 10 Medieval Times dinner theaters, with additional locations in Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Scottsdale and Toronto.
Erin Zapcic, who portrays a queen at the Buena Park castle, said the employees gathered signatures with a supermajority expressing support for a union. The performers notified management of their intention to unionize but received no response, so they filed the petition.
Her primary concerns center around safety.
The theater has been operating with limited staff since it reopened in June 2021 after a COVID-19 shutdown, Zapcic said, and it’s left the door open for potential injuries.
“We do 16 shows a week, so the knights don’t have time to properly rest,” the 39-year-old Los Angeles resident said. “And when we’re short on stable hands they don’t have time to do all of the safety checks that are needed, like ensuring that the saddles are tight.”
Zapcic fell from her horse last year just as she entered the tunnel that brought her onstage.
“I was very lucky because I just bruised my thigh, but I had to be off the horse for a couple weeks and was not allowed to ride,” she said.
Representatives with Medieval Times management could not be reached for comment Friday.
Money is another issue.
Employees at Medieval Times just received a $1 an hour raise, but many are still scraping by, according to Susanne Doris, secretary treasurer at AGVA’s national office.
“We just want them to be paid for the skills they have,” she said. “We’ve had some employees tell us that there’s no way they can afford to live by themselves on the money they’re earning, and others say they can’t afford a car for transportation. This is critical.”
Zapcic earns $21.50 an hour but said that’s far less than the $30 to $35 an hour similar performers make at Universal Studios and other Southern California theme parks.
Julia McCurdie, who also plays a queen at Medieval Times, agreed.
“I also work at Disneyland and I see stunt performers there with no horseback riding skills who are making $33 to $35 an hour doing stunt shows that are five minutes long. Meanwhile, our knights are doing two-hour shows, two to three times a day and throwing themselves off of moving horses. It’s alarming.”
McCurdie said new hires, referred to as squires, are making near minimum wage.
“I’ve seen a lot of knights get carried away in an ambulance,” she said. “It’s a fun place to work and we all really love our jobs, but I feel like they’ve been getting away with paying low wages. These people could go work at In-N-Out and make $25 without hurting their bodies.”
Bowman said management has been vague in addressing the unionization drive.
“They sent someone from the corporate office to talk to us about what a union does, and encouraged us to make the best decision for ourselves,” he said. “But that was a little awkward because we had already made our decision.”
The performers and Medieval Times management have multiple meetings scheduled next week, Bowmand said, and the sessions are expected to continue until a union vote is passed.
“There is no doubt that we’re underpaid,” he said. “I don’t expect to get what people at Disney are making because that’s a major corporation. But we have a realistic expection of wages that would allow some of our guys to afford their rent.”