Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rave Reviews When Actors Organize and Strike

Marie Dressler, founding President of Chorus Equity, center, and actress Ethyl Barrymore, at far right in hat on the picket line of the 1919 strike.

Two long time interests of this blog, labor history and the performing arts in America intersect today.  On August 7, 1919 the Actors’ Equity Association launched a bitter 30 nationwide strike for recognition and improved working conditions.
The stage had always been a challenging career choice.   Although a handful of stars working in major theaters could make a good living, even become rich, most performers toiled at miserable wages with no pay for rehearsals which could last for weeks before a major show was launched and continue during the duration of a shows run.  They often had to pay for their own costumes and make-up.  Those in traveling shows often had to pay their own train fare and traveling expenses.
And, of course, there was the basic problem of the ephemeral nature of the jobs—they were hard to come by and fiercely competed for in auditions and if hired an actor worked at the whim of producers and directors.  Labor unionists considered performers almost impossible to organize because of this.
But in the first decades of the 20th Century an already tenuous situation was becoming worse as major producers and theater owners followed the example of production industries and organized themselves into a virtual trust, the Theatrical Syndicate which tended to fix wages at an even lower level for journeyman performers and who could end an actor’s career at the snap of their fingers with a black ball.
In 1910 the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a strong union of stage hands was formed and was soon able to wring concessions from producers.
Inspired by this development The Players, a handful of leading actors in New York City began secretly meeting at Edwin Booth’s mansion to discuss organization. 
That led to a meeting held at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel on May 26, 1913 where Actors’ Equity was founded by 112 professional theater actors  They drafted the association’s constitution and elected Francis Wilson, then a major star and close friend of Booth, as President.  That makes this year the centennial of the union.
Despite the prestige of its founders, Equity grew slowly and had difficulty in improving conditions.  At first a professional organization which included actor/producers like Booth, it could make little headway against the power of the Theater Syndicate.
Following the success of the stage hands, Equity founder Frank Gillmore led a movement to transform the organization into a real labor union.  Elected Executive Secretary in 1919, he led Equity into membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) on July 18, 1919.
Moving quickly, he secured a pledge from the powerful stage hands union to honor its picket lines and launched the nationwide strike weeks later.  The strike lasted 30 days, spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays, and prevented the opening of 16 others.  Producers and theater owners lost millions of dollars.
During the course of the strike Chorus Equity under the leadership of comedienne and future movie star Marie Dressler was formed and joined the action after the first 5 days.  That prevented producers from trying to put all girl reviews on their stages to keep the theaters open and fill the seats.
Over the course of the strike Equity grew from 3,000 members to more than 14,000, almost all of the working actors in major cities.
The Syndicate, its power permanently broken, had no choice but to recognize the union and sign a five year agreement to improved conditions of employment.  In a tough year for the union movement in general, it was considered a major victory.
Equity went on to a long and progressive history.  It was a leader in the Civil Rights movement and in demanding non-discrimination.  Unlike its cousin the Screen Actors’ Guild under the leadership of Ronald Regan, Equity refused to co-operate with the McCarthy Era blacklist of suspected Reds.  It led lobbying for public funding from the arts which eventually resulted in the creation of the National Endowment of the Arts. It also led the fight against AIDS, which heavily impacted its membership.
The union’s history has been punctuated by strikes, especially a bitter walk out in 1961 that dimmed Broadway lights for 13 days but won the creation of the Equity-League Pension & Health Trust Funds.
In 1952 Chorus Equity merged with the Actors.  Directors and choreographers split from the union and set up their own organization in 1959.
In today’s fractured theater scene with many local and regional theaters, Of Broadway, Off-off Broadway, and non-profit companies, Equity only retains tight control over Broadway productions, touring companies, and a handful of major venues in other cities.  Equity performers are allowed to appear on a limited basis in some non-equity productions, especially top level dinner theater and regional theater.  Actors working in the lively independent theater scene, however, are generally poorly paid and often work for nothing.

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