December 2010

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Rockefeller Center's Christmas Tree Keeper

When Bill Abbate started working as an electrician's helper at Rockefeller Center in 1961, the Bronx, N.Y., resident was told by his boss that the job might only last six months.

That suited Abbate, a street-corner doo-wop singer from the age of 14, just fine. His band, the Consorts, had just signed a contract with ABC-Paramount and some neighborhood friends like Dion Dimucci and the members of the Del-Satins had already hit the big time.

The job lasted more than six months. After a discussion with his girlfriend, now wife, Joann, Abbate chose stability over the uncertainty of stardom and entered Local 3's building maintenance apprenticeship program at the complex of buildings that was declared a national landmark in 1987.

Forty-eight years later, in 2009, Abbate, the coordinator of high voltage to the 12 buildings of Rockefeller Center, retired after achieving some unexpected fame as the man responsible for supplying the power to 40,000 lights and setting the star atop Rockefeller Center's celebrated Christmas tree, a tradition going back to 1931.

Usually arriving during the second week of November, Rockefeller Center's tree—between 75 and 100 feet tall and 36,000 pounds—is rigged in place and made ready for 20 electricians who climb up 10 sections of scaffold to install circuits and bulbs.

In 1996, the New York Daily News described how, while he worked on the tree, Abbate's granddaughter, Brianna, was born with a heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery. Abbate, reported the Daily News, kneeled in front of the tree and said a prayer, joined by his whole crew. On another occasion, he remembers his crew being called off the scaffold by supervisors during a blizzard as high winds shook the tree.

Originally, 120 20-amp circuits were installed. Then 10 more were added. Incandescent lights powered by 120 volts, three-phase service to the tree once required 1,500 amps. With new LED lights, the amperage has been reduced by half, says Abbate.

"I always consider myself a lucky guy because my first job was my last," says Abbate, who relished the diversity of his responsibilities, ranging from emergency motor changes to keep the center's 14,000 tons of cooling units working to cool buildings and providing power to world famous movie sets like "Valley of the Dolls," all topped off by yearly climbs up the scaffold and into the famous tree. Nearly every day on the railroad commute from his Long Island home was something to look forward to.

"Bill was the best, my right-hand man," says Charley Cassely, Abbate's co-foreman at Rockefeller Center. "When Bill set his mind to get something done, it got done."

When Rockefeller Center installed a new substation in 1988, Abbate enrolled in classes at the Multi-Amp Institute in Texas, preparing to take charge of the station, which takes 13,000 volts from Con Ed's six feeders on the street and steps it down to around 4,000 volts, then further down to 480 volts for smaller pumps and equipment.

Among Abbate's accomplishments, says Cassely, was working with Local 3 to strengthen safety training. "I enjoyed doing that stuff," says Abbate, who warned newly-hired workers that the utility, Consolidated Edison, sometimes comes in and presses to get jobs done too quickly. "I told crews not to let anyone rush them. The most important thing is to return home safely and in one piece."

In retirement, Abbate says, "I'm getting back to my music, putting some chords and harmony together and playing guitar and keyboards."

"I never looked back, "says Abbate of his music career and his pact with Joann to leave it behind. His band, The Consorts, brought "Barbara Ann"—originally recorded by the Regents—to the forefront before it became a Beach Boy's classic. Some of his friends ended up making a living with their music. But many of them paid a price Abbate says he's happy to have avoided.

"My friends in the music business were always on the road, never sleeping in their own bed," he says. "I worked eight hours on a job I enjoyed and came home to my family every night," he says.

"I am grateful to Local 3 and my employers for everything I have," says Abbate.

New York Local 3 member Bill Abbate's annual job was to throw the switch to light the famed Christmas tree.