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New York City Honors the Career of Thomas O'Donnell of Teamsters Local 817

Teamsters Local 817 President Thomas R. O'Donnell (l) is greeted by Museum of the Moving Image Chairman Herbert S. Schlosser at the ceremony held in recognition of O'Donnell's longtime service. Photo courtesy of Ann Billingsley.

March 5, 2012 - Congratulations are in order to Thomas O’Donnell, a mainstay of New York City’s entertainment industry. After a lifelong career in the City, during which he spent more than 50 years as the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 817, O’Donnell has retired.

O’Donnell first won the Presidency of Teamsters Local 817 in the fall of 1961 by six votes. Since then, Mr. O’Donnell has won the confidence of his members in the last sixteen local union elections. During these 50 years of leadership, the Local’s membership has quadrupled. He has raised the members’ health and pension benefits to the highest standards, in not just the Teamsters, but also the larger entertainment community. In 1965, he created a collectively bargained scholarship fund that would be a hallmark of his leadership. Starting with a 1% employer contribution, Local 817 has been able to provide to the children of its members free tuition and free room and board to any accredited university or college in the United States.

O’Donnell can also be credited as one of the driving forces that led to the revitalization of the City’s film industry in the late 1960s and the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. Before then, productions often needed up to 50 permits to shoot in the City, and filming on location proved to be tricky and complicated because of numerous factors. The City had earned a reputation of being difficult to film in, and productions weren’t eager to spend much, if any, time shooting on the streets of New York.

That started to change in 1966, when Mayor John Lindsay signed Executive Order Number 10, which included the creation of a City agency to assist productions filming on location and make the City more film friendly. Part of these efforts also led to talks with the local unions to consider changes to work rules and practices for any projects that shot substantially in the City.

According to Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York City, published by Rizzoli: “A] key union – Local 52, representing grips and electricians – voted to cut a special deal for films made substantially in the City. Tom O’Donnell local president of the Teamsters agreed – and with the two powerful leaders on board, the other unions fell in line.”

With all of these factors now working together to promote the City as a film location, the results were extremely positive. In one year, the number of feature films shot in New York shot up from 11 to 25. Today, production is thriving. In 2011, 188 films shot on location here, and television has broken records this season with 23 primetime series based in the five boroughs.

O’Donnell also collaborated with the Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting on the creation of the “Made in NY” Scholarship Fund. The scholarship fund was made possible by a generous donation from Teamsters Local 817 to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City in support of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Since the fall of 2008, the “Made in NY” Scholarship has been awarded to outstanding students who attend New York City College of Technology and who are pursuing a baccalaureate degree in the Entertainment Technology field.

As a founding member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, O’Donnell was also instrumental in leading Local 817’s important contributions to the revitalization of the Astoria Studio and the formation of the Museum of the Moving Image, seeing the need for a museum that would look at the process as well as the art of film and television. The heart of the Museum is its core exhibition Behind the Screen, which celebrates and explores the world of work and collaborative spirit at the center of the filmmaking process.

“Tom O’Donnell played an important role in the revitalization of film and media production in New York, and was among a small group of industry, civic, and nonprofit leaders whose hard work and dedication led to the formation of the Museum of the Moving Image,” said Carl Goodman, executive director of Museum. “It is a tremendous privilege to be honoring Tom and his remarkable career.”

O’Donnell was a founding member of the Council of Motion Picture and Television Unions and has also served on the Mayor’s Advisory Board for Film, Television and Theatre. Amongst his many accolades, he received the Crystal Apple Award from Mayor Rudy Giuliani in recognition of his contributions to the film industry. In 1998, he was named Entertainment Man of the Year by the Theatrical Mutual Association, and in 1999 he was honored by the Director’s Guild of America for his outstanding efforts to uphold labor’s rights while encouraging film production in New York.

O’Donnell was honored for his various contributions to the City’s entertainment industry at a special benefit on March 3, hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image.
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