On Monday, Aug. 18, 1919, the best stage show in New York wasn’t on Broadway. It was raining in the city, and there was a subway strike. Yet 500 standees had crowded into the auditorium at the Lexington Avenue Opera House, at the corner of 51st Street.
The curtain rose on a cast of 150. All were members of the upstart Actors’ Equity Association, but none were being paid. The show was the first of a week of benefit performances put together by the union, which had stunned the theatrical world 11 days prior by going out on strike.
Marie Dressler taught hoofers a dance routine in about a quarter of an hour. W. C. Fields acted as master of ceremonies. Lionel and Ethel Barrymore performed the second act of The Lady of the Camellias. Eddie Cantor took the stage and joked that for once he was making as much as Ethel Barrymore. Eddie Foy and his various children performed. Silent film star Pearl White expressed delight at getting the opportunity to talk.
Sometime into the entertainment, a spotlight hit Ed Wynn, the phenomenally popular Ziegfeld Follies comedian, at his seat in the third row. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said with grandiose formality, “Justice Lydon has forbidden me to appear on the stage tonight. I am very sorry this has occurred, but of course the orders of the court must be obeyed.”
Indeed, the Shuberts and their fellow producers had brought a host of lawsuits down upon the actors participating in the strike. Earlier that day, Judge Lydon had issued an injunction against Wynn appearing on the Lexington stage, asserting that he was under exclusive service to the Shuberts. Choosing to obey the letter of the law if not its spirit, the comedian continued, “If I had been able to appear tonight, I had in mind telling you a story…” and proceeded to perform his whole act from Row 3.
Throughout the jam-packed evening, there were pleas for money. Ethel Barrymore pledged $1,000; brother Lionel did the same. Caught up in the moment, a teenage unknown named Tallulah Bankhead pledged $100 she did not have. (Her granddaddy down South wired the money soon after.) “The enthusiasm of the players for the cause went right across the audience and we got immediate return from them,” remembered Ethel Barrymore, “just like a ball being tossed back and forth; you threw it out to them and they threw it back to you; regular team play.”
By the end of the run, the show had raised a profit of $31,000. The young union’s war chest had grown from $13,000 before the strike to $100,000. Because it was rumored that the theatre producers might apply for a writ to impound the show’s bank receipts, the manager of the Lexington Opera House opened an account at the Harriman National Bank under the name of Isaiah 59:14, based on the biblical passage that reads, “And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.”
War had broken out between the nation’s producers and actors, and the first and most important battle was for the affection of a public that had been battered by labor conflicts for the past few decades. Average Americans had grown suspicious of the tactics of management and sympathetic to the plight of workers. Fellow workers showed their support of the striking actors in practical terms. Taxicab drivers pasted “Equity for Actors” on their windshields. One kicked a couple of actors out of his cab when he found out they were scabs hired by a producer to replace Equity performers. Local merchants, knowing actors to be among their clientele, pledged 10 percent of their receipts to the strike fund. Sam Gerson’s cigar store hung out a sign saying, “Striking actors: get your cigarettes here, and pay when you win.”
The producers were stunned as much as furious. This wasn’t the first they’d heard of Actors’ Equity Association—the union had been formed in 1913—but it was the first time they’d had trouble with it. The moneymen of the American theatre had seen actors’ guilds come and go over the years.
“The producers looked upon actors as silly children,” recalled Tallulah Bankhead, “vain, illogical, capricious, even slightly demented. How could artists hope to function in something so plebeian as a union?”
In fact, some actors did feel that a union was too plebeian for them. “Recognition of the Actors’ Equity under the peculiar existing circumstances would be a calamity,” wrote Minnie Maddern Fiske in a letter published in the Washington Post during the thick of the strike. Fiske, who had been a leading actress at the turn of the century, went by the regally proper stage name of “Mrs. Fiske” after she married a prominent theatre critic. “Acting is not manual labor, and the pay of actors cannot be scaled as the pay of manual labor is scaled. Actors, it should be needless to point out, are paid according to individual abilities…. The whole idea of linking a profession that, wholly apart from its economic conditions is, after all, an interpretative art, is intolerable.”
The prideful Fiske was one of many actors who, as the New Republic put it, lived the values of the 19th century—a dangerous position in the cutthroat, industrial 20th. That attitude was the Achilles’ heel of the acting profession, and managers exploited it shamelessly. Fiske, a star, could afford to adopt a position of disdain for unions. It was the rank-and-file actor who suffered the petty indignities, abandonments and piddling wages.
A History of Disrespect
In the years leading up to the strike, performers had become the indentured servants of the stage, obliged to take part in weeks of rehearsal free of salary (up to 10 weeks for a play, 18 weeks for a musical). During certain weeks of the year, including the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Holy Week, and Election Week, actors perversely received half salary. Nearly all actors had to purchase their own costumes, and in the days when costume dramas were king, that could be a crippling expense. Hotel bills were also borne by the touring performer.
An actor’s stark terms of employment could be found in the black-and-white of his or her contract. One agreement from 1903 read, “The contract may be canceled by said employer immediately or otherwise in case of bad business, or any other cause, necessitating in the judgment of said employer the abandonment of the play or tour, or the disbanding of the company.”
Another notorious contract offered a dense, clause-heavy page with a line at the bottom for the actor’s signature. Unless signers turned the page over, they wouldn’t notice the 25 additional provisos listed there as “included in the contract.” Among these were $5 fines for such things as bad behavior, loud talking, lateness to rehearsal, liquor—or even laughter—in the dressing room, disrespect of the stage manager, and “hanging about” in the lobby; the forfeiture of a week’s pay for being seen drunk in a bar or missing a performance; a $2 fine for talking in the wings; and a $1 fine for the use of profanity. The vague charge of “conduct unbecoming ladies and gentlemen” could result in forfeiture of the fee for the entire engagement.
The managers were not puritanical authoritarians looking to enforce a strict code of conduct; their motives were entirely monetary. After all, by 1913, the theatre was the fourth-biggest industry in the country. Actors were the only “on trust” item on a producer’s balance sheet, and unscrupulous producers took full advantage of their vulnerability. Plays were paid for in advance, as was the scenery and its transport. Even the house manager got an advance—but performers routinely got suckered.
It wasn’t always that way. Until the late 1800s, the theatre was dominated by actor/managers, performers who assembled companies around their own talents and toured the nation. The managers’ fortunes rose and fell with those of their fellow thespians. But in the years following the Civil War, show business grew into its name. Routes and circuits were formalized. Booking offices were founded. From this fertile era of change emerged a cutthroat organization called the Theatrical Syndicate, comprised of six booker/owners who, by 1896, group-owned 37 first-class theatres, and soon nearly all of the top houses in America. The alliance constituted a powerful monopoly, with six men deciding which plays would run where and what percentage of the box office was theirs; they even dictated changes in scripts.
It took a trio of brothers from Syracuse named Shubert to step on the syndicate’s neck. Beginning in 1900, the upstart competitors began to take over some theatres and build a chain of theatres nationwide. For actors, the Shuberts may have been even worse than their predecessors, as they did nothing to reform labor conditions, sometimes stretching unpaid rehearsal periods to as much as 12 weeks.
Pointing to the office of Lee Shubert, high atop the Shubert Theatre, producer Morris Gest once quipped, “Every union in the theatre was started because of that man.”
Actors’ Equity Is Born
On Jan. 13, 1913, a few actors decided to give organization a chance, gathering for the purpose of “correcting or mitigating the abuses that have crept on the profession” and to decide “upon a uniform form of contract that would be alike acceptable to the fair-minded manager and the fair-minded actor.” William Courtleigh, a Canadian-born actor who played no other significant role in the creation of the union, deserves a place in its history for suggesting “Equity” as a name. The motion was unanimously carried. On June 19, Equity met with the Twelfth Night Club to invite women to join. Mrs. Thomas Whiffen, 68, was elected the first female member.
The union was formally founded on May 26 by 112 actors gathered in the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel on Columbus Circle, and actor Francis Wilson was chosen its first president. He was a bold choice, perhaps the last man on earth the Shuberts and the syndicate would wish to see elected the megaphone of American actors, as he’d tussled with producers before and won a settlement of $50,000.
At first, producers didn’t pay more than polite attention to Equity. They didn’t have to. Though Equity was nearly a thousand members strong, it was still a middling outfit with little muscle behind it—not the kind of muscle that the mammoth American Federation of Labor had, with its 4 million members led by Samuel Gompers, the most powerful American labor leader of his time.
There was an obstacle to Equity joining the federation, however. The AFL gave out only one charter to each profession, and the White Rats Actors’ Union had the one for performers. The AFL was sympathetic to Equity and attempted to clear the way for the alliance, but the vaudevillian Rats wouldn’t budge.
News of Equity’s overtures to the AFL alarmed the United Managers’ Protective Association (UMPA), a then prominent loose organization of theatre owners, managers and bookers. So did Equity’s growing numbers—2,500 and rising. In 1917, UMPA was ready to talk again. Suddenly, things were moving fast. A contract was approved by the producers on Aug. 10, and two months later, it was adopted.
For the first time in history, the American actor had a standard working contract. Its benefits were handsome. After four weeks’ rehearsal in a play or six in a musical, a union actor was guaranteed two weeks’ work. Managers would pay for costumes of actresses earning less than $150 a week and for transportation. An eight-show workweek was established in most cases. Most important of all, UMPA promised to settle disputes through arbitration.
But something was amiss. Before Christmas had passed, Equity noticed that the Shuberts and their fellows were not using the contract they had accepted weeks before. So Equity turned to its members, asking them to sign a pledge stating that they would refuse to work under anything but the UMPA-AEA contract; offenders would risk expulsion.
Brinksmanship and Grudge Matches
By March 1919, Equity members comprised nearly 50 percent of legit theatre actors, including nearly all of the best and best-known ones, and there was talk of creating a closed shop—a union that bars employers from hiring any non-members.
Predictably alarmed, the producers called a meeting with Equity leaders at the Hotel Claridge on May 2. It did not conclude well. When producer Winthrop Ames rose to suggest revisions to the contract, Equity’s Wilson stood and offered a rebuke: “Five years ago we came before you with our hats in our hands. Well, it’s different now!”
From across the dining room came the sound of shattering crystal. David Belasco had brought his fist down on a wine glass. His hand bled. Trembling with anger, he swore he’d retire for good before he would accept the union.
Many producers disliked the recalcitrant, obstinate Wilson, remembering past troubles the comic actor had caused them, but Belasco hated him. “When [Belasco] spoke Wilson’s name,” said a fellow producer, “it came out as two long hisses, ‘Fransssesss Wilsssson.’”
That hiss now floated across the dining hall. “What [Belasco] said after that no one knows,” wrote Hopkins. “Pandemonium broke out…Two angry old gentlemen, nursing an antique grudge, had ruined our plans.” On May 23, the Producing Managers’ Association met and decided to sever relations with Equity and hire a lawyer.
Toe to Toe
After some jockeying, the White Rats finally relented, and the AFL issued a new international charter to cover the entire amusement field, encompassing a number of unions of equal standing, Equity included. On July 18, the Four A’s—the Associated Actors’ and Artistes of America—was formed. Equity now had muscle.
It was late July, the time when the new theatre season traditionally comes together—actors are hired, contracts signed. Backed by millions in the bank, the producers could bide their time. Actors, always hard up, could not. They had to stay on the offensive. It was time for a show of power.
Frank Gillmore, an even-tempered Shakespearean and leading man from London, was tapped as Equity’s commander in chief for the coming skirmish. The strike resolution was passed at the Hotel Astor ballroom on August 7 without a single dissenting vote. It read, “Until a satisfactory arrangement is made with it governing the working conditions of the actor, we will not perform any service for any manager who is a member of the Producing Managers’ Association, or who refused to recognize our Association, or to issue its contracts.” It passed on the first vote, and by 7 p.m., the strike was in effect.
Frank Bacon, an actor/playwright in a show called Lightnin’, was the first to join up: He ordered his company out and hung a sign over the marquee: “Lightnin’ Struck.” Things happened quickly after that, as a dozen other shows followed Lightnin’ into darkness. Long lines of people seeking refunds formed at box offices that were caught short of cash. Nearby movie houses did well that night.
The producers, it seemed, were caught off guard. “I didn’t think the boys would go so far,” sniffed producer Sam Harris. “Starve the actors out,” blustered Belasco. In the papers the next day, the managers accused Equity of “alignments with notorious destroyers of good will and peace; public vilification of managers; pernicious and untrue propaganda—a complete demoralization of all that it had taken years to build up.” The strike had sent the theatre “into the valley of venom, and we are called upon to hate those we have grown up with.” One producer would later describe the month-long strike as a “reign of terror.”
Despite personal visits by producers—a number of them former journalists—New York’s newspapers sided with the actors. News of show closings decorated the front page of the New York Times for several days running. Heywood Broun, powerful columnist and drama critic of the New York Tribune, wrote, “The actor is in a disadvantageous business position as long as he must bargain individually. This is so generally recognized that the right of collective bargaining has been won in almost every other industry in the United States.”
The Stars Align
The strike presented a dilemma for the bona fide stars. Headliners already had what Equity’s everyday players were fighting for—they could go either way, depending on their conscience and sense of justice. Most actors who doubled as managers left the union, and others—like Alfred Lunt, just then on the brink of stardom—wavered but ultimately stayed with the union.
The support of the Barrymores, America’s most famous theatrical family, was critical to both sides. Ethel was off to visit her cousin Georgie Drew Mendum on 44th Street when the car was stopped by a mass of people. She had to get out and walk but had no clue what the uproar was about. “It’s the strike,” said Georgie. Ethel hadn’t read the papers. “Strike?” she asked. “What for?” Georgie laid out the facts of the situation. Barrymore had no gripe against her producers, Frohman and Hayman. The syndicate men who had caused so much misery for so many had made her queen of the Empire Theatre. Still, she was an actress. “I ought to belong to Equity,” concluded Ethel, forgetting she was already a lifetime member.
Georgie urged her cousin to go to Equity headquarters immediately, knowing the effect such a visit would have. A cry went up from the crowd when Barrymore was spotted outside the union’s brownstone at 160 West 45th Street. She was carried up the stairs and hoisted onto a table. Choristers kissed her hands and the hem of her dress. Barrymore later wrote that the scene reminded her of the French Revolution. “I’m with you, whatever it is,” said the bewildered actress.
Producer Alf Hayman (Al’s brother) was furious with Ethel. He warned her that he was cabling Mrs. Patrick Campbell to come over from London to play Lady Helen Haddon in the upcoming production of Déclassée, a part slated for Barrymore. “I’m sure she will be very good,” replied Ethel.
Ethel’s brothers, Lionel and John, followed her lead and offered their solidarity. So did their debonair, magnificently mustachioed uncle, John Drew. James O’Neill wired his support to Francis Wilson.
One actor stood solidly in opposition to Equity: George M. Cohan. Few men had a name as big. He was a true phenomenon—star, writer, director and producer of most of his shows. His “Over There” had become the anthem of World War I. He was a giant. Yet the strike had shuttered his hit, The Royal Vagabond. His refusal to join in the struggle became instantly infamous: “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.”
Soon after, a sign appeared in Times Square: “Elevator Operator Wanted: George M. Cohan need not apply.”
Some shows managed to limp on. Cohan himself stepped into The Royal Vagabond, and, by promoting seven chorus members to lead roles, he managed to put on a makeshift show. At the 44th Street Theatre, the Shuberts hastily assembled a vaudeville bill that didn’t in the least resemble The Gaieties of 1919, which had been playing there. They did the same with Monte Cristo, Jr. at the Winter Garden.
Equity members picketed and paraded, often savvily. Fifteen cars filled with the prettiest actresses the union could find sailed down to Wall Street, source of the financing for many shows. “We are not after more pay, but fair play,” read their banners. Prior to the first benefit show at the Lexington Opera House, a parade proceeded down Broadway. In an effort to counter its effect and curry favor with the press, managers handed out cigars to newspapermen along the parade route.
Meanwhile, the producers, enjoying little public support and having no shapely picketers to send out, turned to the law. The Shuberts filed suit against not only Equity and its officers, but also 184 of its prominent members (including a few who were dead). They sought half a million dollars in damages and held the union and its individual members responsible. Process servers swarmed about the city, serving papers on picketers at theatres and strike headquarters. Equity quickly sent Francis Wilson and other officers out of town, lest they be served. Elevator operators and janitors started tipping off Equity bigwigs when they saw a server coming.
In their defense, the Shuberts cited the Danbury Hatters’ Case as their legal precedent. They couldn’t have angered labor more had they poked Samuel Gompers with a sharp stick. The case was a particularly sore spot in labor circles. In the 1914 landmark ruling, the owners of D.E. Loewe Hatters in Danbury, Conn., had sued boycotting union members as individuals, holding them responsible for losses. The courts agreed, and as a result, many union members lost their homes and life savings. Management had stepped in a hornets’ nest—relying on that case surely set the AFL permanently against their cause. But the managers loved the tactic. The Shuberts printed the names of the Winter Garden cast in papers in New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Chicago. The producer Morris Gest used it to attempt collection of $250,000 from the striking cast of The Five Million. Actors who had wavered in their support of Equity now had no choice but to climb aboard—it was the union or personal destitution.
In Praise of Federations
By Aug. 16, 18 shows were dark. Another five scheduled productions were abandoned before they went up. Soon after that, the unions walked out of the Winter Garden. The stage, the New York World declared, was now “completely disorganized. [The strike had] brought to a standstill the entire machinery of the American dramatic stage in the most prosperous year in the native theatre’s history.”
On Aug. 26, Equity met at the Lexington Opera House, where the union entertainments continued to be sellouts. A rumor flitted about the room that AFL chieftain Samuel Gompers had just disembarked the U.S.S. George Washington. During the strike, Gompers had been in Europe attending the Peace Conference at Versailles. The managers went to the ship to meet him, hoping to co-opt the labor leader, while Wilson and Gillmore tried to stretch out their meeting in hopes that he would appear. Wilson was about to adjourn when a “short, square, stocky figure” entered the auditorium. Gompers took the stage to an ovation three minutes in duration.
“Whatever influence or power there may be in the great American Federation of Labor to help you, rest assured that power and influence is behind you until the end,” Gompers said. He then warned, “The future depends not upon the managers but upon you. Many a good cause has gone a-glimmering because of the failure of the men and women to maintain the spirit of the cause…You have aroused the managers to an understanding of your power. They are alert. But they have not only their own brains, but can buy brains by the pound. As sure as life and death, if you weaken, the treatment you received in the past will be as nothing compared to that which you will receive in the future.”
Gompers’s involvement—which, from most points of view, seemed inevitable—spelled doom for the producers. The AFL’s power was soon evident, as well. Gompers took a train to Washington, D.C., to meet with the AFL’s executive counsel. Soon after, a call came from Washington, ordering the 412 stagehands employed at the Hippodrome out. The cast followed. Six thousand theatregoers expecting to see Happy Days were turned away.
It was a thunderbolt. The shutdown took everyone by surprise. The Hippodrome had been left alone by Equity because it was a vaudeville house, owned by the United States Realty Company.
Theatres were closing in D.C., Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Providence and St. Louis. Suits filed by the Shuberts and others had come up empty. By Sept. 3, the peace-making contract was in order. Equity would be recognized, all suits against the union would be dropped, there would be an eight-performance week, arbitration would be accepted, and striking actors would not be discriminated against. Strangely, there was nothing in the wording about money, aside from a provision assuring actors extra pay for added performances. At that point, the actors were more interested in rights than remuneration. (A minimum wage wouldn’t go into effect until 1933.)
The news made headlines across the country. In inch-high letters, the front page of New York’s Evening Mail trumpeted, “Strike Off. Theatres Reopen.”
The strike had lasted an entire month, and by the end, Equity had grown from a couple of thousand members to 14,000, and its treasury had swelled from $13,500 to $120,000. Losses to the theatre industry were estimated at $2 million.
“The maddest joy was evidenced around the Equity headquarters in 45th Street,” noted the World.
Robert Simonson has written for the New York Times, Time Out New York, the Village Voice, Variety and Playbill.com, where he was editor from 1999 to 2006. This article was adapted from his newest book, Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theatre (Applause, 2012).