[This May marked 100 years since the founding of the Actors’ Equity Association, which bills itself as “The Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United. States.” Equity, as it’s most often called by theater folk, means, of course, stage actors since, as people in and around show business all know, movie actors were represented by the Screen Actors Guild (founded in 1933) and radio and television performers by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (founded in 1933 as the American Federation of Radio Artists; AFRA and the Television Authority merged to form AFTRA in 1952). AFTRA was the only union representing actors which also included performers who are not actors: spokespeople, newscasters, anchors, announcers, voice-over artists, and other on-air TV professionals (SAG and AFTRA merged into one organization after years of trying; the single union, approved by the joint memberships in 2012, is now known as SAG-AFTRA.). AEA, the oldest of the country’s actors’ unions, originally also represented stage directors and choreographers but those members split off and formed the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (now called the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, or SDC) in 1959. Theatrical stage managers remained part of the actors’ union because it’s not uncommon for them to be cast in small roles or for actors in small parts to do double duty as SM’s or ASM’s. (They get paid for both jobs—that’s what union is for—but it’s still cheaper than hiring two people.)
[Other performers are represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), founded in 1936, which acts for opera singers, ballet and other dancers, opera directors, stagehands at opera and dance companies, and figure skaters. The American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) negotiates for performers in such fields as circuses, Las Vegas showrooms and cabarets, comedy showcases, dance revues, magic shows, and theme park productions and was formed in 1939. There are occasional overlaps with the actors’ organizations and many performers are members of multiple performing arts unions.
[Equity, which has about 49,000 members currently, wasn’t the first theatrical union, though. The National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, now called the International Alliance (or IATSE), which represents all stagehands, technicians, artisans, and craftspeople in TV, film, and stage, was established in 1893 and The American Federation of Musicians, which includes artists who play in the pit at musicals, was founded in 1896. Vaudeville performers organized as the White Rats in 1900, but the organization was defeated in a strike against the United Booking Office and the Vaudeville Managers Association in 1916 and disbanded. (The VMA was led by E. F. Albee, 1857-1930, the adoptive grandfather of playwright Edward Albee.) The Dramatists’ Guild, which bargains for playwrights, composers, and lyricists for the stage, was formed in 1912 (as the Authors’ League of America). (Screenwriters belong to the Writers Guild of America, East or West, 1935 and ’33 respectively.) All theater and performing artists’ unions are affiliates of the AFL-CIO through the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (Four A’s), formed and chartered by the AFL in 1919. (The American Federation of Labor began in 1886 and the Congress of International Organizations in 1935; they joined forces in 1955.) Nonetheless, Equity’s founding was part of the surge of labor organization in this country in the years before World War I.]
At the end of the 19th century, exploitation of workers by industry and businesses had become a common condition. Wages were low and working conditions, including those affecting the safety and health of laborers, were poor and employers had the upper hand with little oversight. The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which many historians consider the start of the modern labor movement, is a landmark example of that. Labor organizations and unions began to appear to negotiate better pay and conditions through collective bargaining and to demand safer and healthier work environments. The labor movement gained strength in the early years of the 20th century and after World War I. In this atmosphere of unscrupulous abuse, a group of actors convened in 1913 to form an actors’ union in order “to protect Actors from often appalling work conditions,” as Equity News described it (with the capital A) last June. Appropriately enough, the small band met surreptitiously in the library of Edwin Booth’s former home, according to a plaque in what by then had become The Players: “In this room, during the first three months of 1913, there met without permission, the small committee of four or five which ultimately led to the formation of Actors’ Equity.” (Booth, 1833-93, was the first American-born actor to achieve an international reputation. He bequeathed his 1847 Stanford White-designed townhouse on Gramercy Park South, which the Prince of Players purchased in 1888, to the club he established later that year as a meeting place for actors and prominent men—The Players was an all-male establishment until 1989—of other professions and fields who influenced the culture.)
The Theatrical Syndicate appeared in 1896. This organization, run by just six men, controlled the top theaters and bookings all across the United States. In about 1910, the Syndicate (whose name today sounds vaguely sinister and conspiratorial) was supplanted by the Shubert brothers (Lee, 1871-1953; Sam, 1878-1905; Jacob, 1879-1963), who remain the largest theater-owners in New York City and, I believe, the country, along with the other all-powerful theater-owners like David Belasco (1853-1931), John Golden (1874-1955), Oliver Morosco (1875-1945), and the great Florenz Ziegfield (1867-1932)—names that remained emblazoned on Broadway marquees for generations. According to Alfred Harding (1892-1969), editor of Equity magazine (published from 1915-73, the precursor of Equity News) and the voice of America’s stage actors for more than 30 years, the system’s original managers were themselves actors who “had promoted themselves from the ranks through ambition and executive ability.” They’d been replaced, however, by “men who regarded the theatre as a business and who set about reorganizing it on strictly business lines.” In the words of writer, lecturer, and former soap opera actress Lynne Rogers in “The Actors’ Revolt” (American Heritage, September 1996), “To the businessmen of the syndicate, the actor was not the backbone of the theater but merely a debit on an income statement, a commodity to be obtained as cheaply as possible.”
Theater in the U.S. was a touring system in those days, with long runs in home-base theaters a phenomenon of the future, and such organizations ran things the way they wanted, making demands no actor, playwright, or stage employee could oppose and ever hope to work in the theater again. Dictatorial producers set their own working conditions and pay scales without a standard contract: there was no minimum wage, compensation for rehearsals, or holidays; rehearsal time was unlimited; companies could be left stranded on the road; actors paid for their own costumes and had to maintain them at their own expense—which could be considerable, especially for actresses, whose costumes could cost more than a week’s pay. Actors and other employees were frequently abused. Charles C. Shay (1879-1934), president of the stagehands’ union, according to Equity’s website, told newspapers that often when he went into a theatre, he didn’t know which sub-basement was intended for the actors and which for the coal. Producer and director Jed Harris (1900-79) characterized this era as “dog eat dog and vice versa.”
When an actor got a job, she got a “contract” that might be as short as a three-sentence memo with the play’s title, the name of the part, and the salary to a multi-page legal document so complex and verbally dense that only an attorney could decipher it, but which indemnified the manager “in every contingency his lawyer could envision.” Peggy Wood (1892-1976), a stage, film, and television actress, remembered, “Once I rehearsed for 13 weeks for nothing—and then the show never got on. And when I was in a show, I had to buy my own hat, coat, dress, gloves . . . even my stockings.” Productions could close without notice and touring companies could be abandoned without pay in, say, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Managers were known to skip out while the cast was on stage, after pocketing the evening’s take, leaving the company with no funds to get back to New York because the contract required the actors to get themselves to out-of-town performances and back home again at their individual expenses. Actors could be engaged to rehearse for six to eight weeks for a drama and 16 to 18 weeks for a musical (standard is now four weeks—with pay and overtime obligations) and then be dismissed by the producers for any reason at all—or none whatsoever. The contract the actor signed didn’t obligate the manager to pay him for any of his time and work. Furthermore, most contracts had a “satisfaction clause” which provided that the actor had to play his part to the satisfaction of the producer—which pretty much made any argument against abuse virtually untenable. All the manager had to say was that the actor’s work hadn’t been satisfactory, and since the claim was self-sustaining, requiring no proof, the producer always won the argument and the actor always lost.
(Suing a producer was a stacked deck in any case. If the case was even heard, it would be in New York City where the production had started and where the producer’s office was located. But the actor was as likely to be in Chicago when it was called, the witnesses in New Orleans, and the rest of the company in San Francisco. Should the actor actually win a judgment against the manager, she’d likely find that, first, the producer had incorporated the company under a separate name and that subsidiary company had been undercapitalized and all its funds had been spent on the production and administrative costs. Laws of incorporation made it impossible to attach profits from other, successful shows produced by the same managerial outfit, each incorporated under different names. If any of this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Mel Brooks used it as the basis for the con at the center of the movie and stage versions of The Producers! The character of Max Bialystock was surely modeled on these unscrupulous producers—but when played by Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane, he’s a funny villain. Besides, he gets his comeuppance, so it’s a happy ending in Hollywood and Broadway terms. In real life—not so much.)
Actors had tried to organize against the producers’ whims earlier also. In 1895, actor Louis Aldrich (1843-1901) led the formation of the Actors’ Society of America in reaction to the practices of the growing Theatrical Syndicate. The Society attempted to regulate and standardize contractual obligations between performers and producers but proved so ineffective that in December 1912, 100 of its members met to decide whether to continue or dissolve itself. The declining membership decided to disband the Actors’ Society; however some still felt the need to continue the struggle even though, as Harding wrote in his 1929 book The Revolt of the Actors, “every previous actors’ association had been wrecked by factional fights or by the hostility of the managers.” So the actors formed a committee to devise a different, more persuasive, organization which took a name that reflected their goals: Actors’ Equity Association.
The comic actor Francis Wilson, Equity’s first president (1913-20), recognized the reality of this renewed endeavor’s chances, but remained hopeful: “I have seen so many of these attempts start and fail—but I am an optimist and am always willing to try once more.” As Equity News saw it last September, this could have been the new union’s motto during those early days—trying, failing, and then trying again. (I’m reminded of playwright Samuel Beckett’s 1983 comment from Worstward Ho, his penultimate novella: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”)
So on 26 May 1913, 112 actors met in the Elks Hall of the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel at 2 Columbus Circle (later the site of the controversial “Lollipop Building,” which served as the headquarters for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs) to establish AEA. They signed “articles of agreement,” a constitution, and by-laws; the proceedings went smoothly but without a lot of notice by the theater owners and producers. At first, the new union engaged in some minor disputes, “feeling our way,” as actor, theater manager, and playwright Edwin Arden (1864-1918) wrote in the monthly Equity magazine. By 1917, Equity negotiators and theatrical employers reached an agreement on conditions and pay, but few producers actually put it into practice. The contract was very fair, Equity News’s Peter Royston reported that a producer told Wilson (1854-1935). When would they start using it, wondered the Equity president. “When you make me,” the producer snapped.
Wilson saw that for the nascent union to have a future, it would have to link itself with the burgeoning labor movement. This was accomplished when the American Federation of Labor formally recognized Actors’ Equity on 18 July 1919. The move conferred on the actor’s organization the right to demand fairer treatment in the workplace, alongside workers in mills and factories, but, perhaps just as importantly (as we’ll see shortly), the right to strike. The union’s most important challenge in the years of its infancy, however, was arguably the way some of its own members understood the craft of acting itself. Equity President Wilson affirmed:
For awhile [sic] a lot of us felt that there was something lacking in actors which prevented them from organizing. But when we realized that the actor was not exceptional in this at all and felt and knew that not only the musician and the stage mechanics were like us in that respect, but that even our own States united for the purpose of strength, both defensive and offensive, the whole question was solved for us and we knew that the only difficulty would be in making the point apparent to the actor himself.
For many performers, acting couldn’t be equated with organized labor. As historian Sean P. Holmes, author of Weavers of Dreams, Unite!: Actors’ Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America (2013) wrote, many actors believed that “as an art form that depended for its effect on engagement with emotions and the illusion of spontaneity, acting was incompatible with the values of objectivity and rationality at the heart of the emerging professional cultures of the early twentieth century.” As actor Blanche Bates (1873-1941) declared, “We are not laborers with calloused hands . . . and what we have is something that cannot be capitalized. What we give cannot be weighed or measured.”
Bates, however, overlooked that producers indeed “capitalized, weighed, and measured” the performers’ labor in calculations that frequently left them out in the cold without money. A response to Bates’s challenge seemed to come from pioneer film actor, director, and producer Fred Niblo (1874-1948) when he asserted, “It is not art to get up at four o’clock in the morning and catch a train. It is not art to travel in a vile-smelling day coach all day—a day coach so old and terrible that railroad companies only keep it to haul actors in . . . .[.] It is downright labor.” It was going to be the jobs of the new Actors’ Equity leadership to bring the emotional and spontaneous stage artists to the bargaining table with the theater’s money men and impresarios.
Equity’s launch didn’t meet with universal good will. The Shuberts, in a trade paper they owned, editorialized, “In no other profession or art do egotism and jealousy show themselves more luridly.” George M. Cohan (1878-1942), an actor himself but also a producer and director, declared, “Before I will ever do business with the Actors’ Equity Association, I will lose every dollar I have, even if I have to run an elevator to make a living.” Actors’ Equity reports that a little while later, someone in Times Square raised a sign that read: ELEVATOR OPERATOR WANTED. GEORGE M. COHAN NEED NOT APPLY. In July 1913, the New York Review, a weekly theater journal published from 1912-19, editorialized: “An actors’ union . . . is doomed to failure . . . [.] Every actor considers himself the nonpareil of his own line and wants a larger salary than any other competitor. Therefore to regulate pay and form of contract would be an impossibility, because on these questions no set of actors will stand together.”
When asked about the prospects for success of the new union, producer and manager Daniel Frohman (1851-1940), one of the Syndicate six, snapped that “actors will never stick together,” but, as the New York Times phrased it in 1916: “Realizing at last that, when all is said and done, after the applause has subsided and the curtain been rung down, actors are human beings first, next workers, and then, if you will, artists, they have now decided with startling unanimity to taste some of the twentieth century benefits that go to organized artisans.”
After the 1917 contract failed in practice, most of the members of the United Managers’ Protective Association, the professional organization of theater managers, bookers, and producers, left to form the Producing Managers’ Association in the winter of 1918-19. In its first act, the PMA repudiated the 1917 contract and issued one of its own, rejecting Actors’ Equity as the negotiator for actors, declaring that managers would henceforth deal with performers individually. This action finally impelled Equity to appeal to the AFL, which chartered the young union as a member of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. At a membership meeting on 7 August 1919 at the Astor Hotel in Times Square, Equity declared war on the PMA. That evening, the casts of 13 shows walked out of their theaters. New York’s actors were on strike, what the New York Times in 1929 called “the greatest the theatre has ever known.”
Equity had 2,700 members on paper, but no one knew how many would actually respond to the strike call. There was a bare $13,500 in the union’s treasury, all it had to fight the combined power of the management of the legitimate, vaudeville, burlesque, and movie theaters which had come together the day before the actors walked out. George M. Cohan, who sided with the producers despite his status as a beloved performer, and the PMA even financed a rival organization, the Actors’ Fidelity League, derisively called “Fido” by Equity members, enrolling hundreds of distinguished and established actors. The PMA put out a call to agents and casting offices all over New York City for any would-be actor in their files. Actors relegated to the sticks in threadbare productions, most of whom had been given scant respect, if any at all, in the managers’ offices, were offered lucrative (and potentially star-making) roles on Broadway if they’d come in and keep the shows open. Surprisingly, most refused and stuck with their young union. The great Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959), matriarch of the Drews and the Barrymores, two of the American theater’s most prominent dynasties, lent her prestige—and contributed considerable funds—to the effort. “I don’t know how to make a speech, really,” said the legendary actress, “but I am with you heart and soul, and more than that. Don’t be discouraged. Stick!”
The managers then turned to vaudeville and tried to recruit the acts to take their performances to the Broadway houses in danger of closing, but many of the former White Rats, the vaudeville and burlesque performers organization that had been beaten by the managers three years earlier, had no stomach for strike-breaking. They and the legit actors found a common supporter in a surprising quarter. When the managers put the vaudevillians into taxis to take them to the Broadway theaters, the cabbies, themselves union men, were delighted to take the performers home instead—and let the management pay the fare! (One tobacco store posted a sign in its window stating: STRIKING ACTORS GET YOUR CIGARETTES HERE, AND PAY ME WHEN YOU WIN.)
When these tactics mostly failed, the producers turned to the courts. In 1914, the Hatter’s Union had struck its employers and boycotted one company. The company retaliated by suing the union and the membership individually for the loss of income, and the federal court upheld the employer’s claim, costing many union members their homes in payment of the judgment. The Shuberts took the same tack against Equity, hoping to force a settlement. But the impresarios miscalculated and the plan backfired. The hatters’ loss was a sore spot for organized labor, and upon hearing that the Shuberts were trying to use the tactic again, other labor organization came to Equity’s support. The stagehands’ union took a vote and announced that “at the proper time we intend to strike if it busts the organization.” IATSE’s president declared that “if this is to be our rock of destruction I can’t think of a better rock to be destroyed on.” At the AFM, the musicians assured the actors that “when the musicians join in there’ll be a grand symphony.” Five days after the start of the strike, chorus performers organized, under the leadership of Hollywood star Marie Dressler (1868-1934) who had started as an $8-a-week chorine, as Chorus Equity and supported the actors. (In 1955, Chorus Equity and Actors’ Equity merged.) On 18 August, after the PMA refused the stagehands’ and musicians’ demand that the managers recognize and meet with Equity, IATSE and the AFM walked out, closing four productions that had withstood the actors’ strike. Following this, the theatrical unions closed one show after another; only one New York production, William A. Brady’s At 9:45 at the Playhouse Theatre, remained open. (Brady, 1863-1950, who began as a prizefight manager and developer of Coney Island Amusement Park before getting into producing, was also a director, theater-owner and -operator, house manager, and performer. The Playhouse, demolished in 1969, was used for exterior and interior location shots for Mel Brooks’s 1968 film, The Producers.)
The strike spread and PMA-controlled theaters in Chicago and Boston were also closed by walk-outs. In Washington, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Providence, and St. Louis, theaters that were expected to open on 1 September, Labor Day, remained closed because of the action. The managers saw their support evaporate in the face of spreading labor solidarity and the losses from the closed productions were hurting their bottom lines. Days of negotiating followed and on 6 September, after an all-night session, the PMA agreed to recognize Equity as the representative of legit actors and signed a standard contract which contained more workplace safeguards than Equity had originally demanded. The strike had lasted 30 days, enveloped theaters in eight cities, closed 37 shows and prevented the opening of 16 others, and cost around $3 million (equal to just under $42 million today). AEA’s membership, at a mere 2,700 at the start of the strike, had grown to over 14,000. The $13,500 in the union’s treasury had grown to $5,000 a day during the action in spite of the expenses incurred, and was $120,000 (over $1½ million in 2013 dollars) when the strike was over.
The victory over the PMA, along with its affiliation with the AFL and the Four A’s, accorded Actors’ Equity the strength to go up against other powerful managerial adversaries. In 1929, the actors’ union, then the only representative for the profession, fought motion picture producers for many of the same rights and securities the 1919 strike won for stage actors. (The Screen Actors Guild wouldn’t form for four more years.) Cohan never signed an Equity contract but was given special union dispensation to work in the legit field; the approximately 700 Fidos of the rival organization, never recognized by the AFL, were invited to join AEA as long as they resigned from the League. Most former Fidos eventually got Equity cards.
(In an ironic footnote to this historic incident, when Oscar Hammerstein II, 1895-1960, was promoting the statue of George M. Cohan that stands in Duffy Square in the Theatre District, producer Max Gordon, 1892-1978, asked Equity for a donation for the proposed monument. AEA’s executive director replied: “George Cohan and Equity did have their ‘differences’ . . . [.] He never accepted Equity and fought it all his life . . . [.]” Nevertheless, the union made a token contribution of $240, the cost of a lifetime membership. Hammerstein responded: “I do not dispute your right to continue a resentment so deep. I must, however, refuse to cooperate with you in pin-pricking George’s ghost.” The great librettist returned the $240; the statue was unveiled on 11 September 1959.)
[The history of the Actors’ Equity Association is too diverse to be contained in one post so, just to prove that there is a second act in American labor history, especially as it pertains to actors, I’ll continue this account in Part Two later this week. Please return to ROT to read the conclusion of the tale of the stage actors’ union.]