Saturday, November 18, 2017

Newsies Night Out Recalls a Grimmer Reality

The cast of Newsies at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater are caught mid-leap in one of their signature dance numbers.  Although most of the historic newspaper street peddlers were 8-15 year tears old don't expect to  see an adolescent cast.  Te choreography is too demanding.  With the exception of one precocious boy, the ensemble members are athletic 20 somethings or maybe even a tad older.

Last night my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I on one of our periodic Date Nights caught the production of the musical Newsies at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater.  As always this bastion of middlebrow theater catering to a rather senior suburban base—that’s us in spades—did a spectacular job with an attractive cast of talented Actors Equity professionals.  This dance heavy show also offered a rare opportunity for a large ensemble of male dancer to take center stage and shine in in muscular, athletic, and ballet heavy choreography. 
The leads were charming—Patrick Rooney channeled the brash cockiness of an Irish slum product a la young James Cagney, Eliza Palasz embodied the spunky independence with a dollop on naiveté of Judy Garland, and for our performance blonde Carter Graff conjured pre-teen Mickey Rooney.  It was probably no accident.  The reliance on these architypes if not stereotypes helped open up the story and make it accessible to an audience likely largely alien to both turn of the 20th Century slum poverty and a class conscious labor movement.
Before the show Kathy snapped Mr. First Nighter in all his suave sophistication in front of the convenient photo-op display in the lobby.
As a theatrical experience, we thoroughly enjoyed the show and would recommend it to anyone. But the play itself raised some questions beginning with its source.
Although I never saw more than clips from the 1992 film on which the subsequent Broadway show was based, the Disney Studio always seemed like an odd originator for this story based on an actual New York City newsboys strike in 1899.  After all Walt Disney himself had always shrouded the turn of the century in a gauzy glow of fond nostalgia in films from Pollyanna to Mary Poppins and in the Main Street America attraction that he made the centerpiece of Disneyland.  A gritty urban underbelly to middle class coziness was scarcely imagined.
Even more to the point, Uncle Walt was no friend of labor.  The Screen Cartoonist Guild strike at Disney in 1941 was one of the most bitter in Hollywood history.  Although a lengthy Federal mediation process eventually found for the strikers on every issue and forced Disney to accept a union shop and contract many top animators left the company in disgust and Walt could barely contain his fury or sense of betrayal.  He blame Hollywood Reds for his woes and latter would encourage and abet the House Un-American Activities Committee post-war investigations and in the subsequent Red hunt and studio blacklisting.  Even with Walt gone, the Disney company retained an anti-union culture that fiercely resisted any attempt to organize any parts of its far flung and growing empire.
None the less, the studio green-lighted a live action musical in which invested heavily and hyped intensively.  But Newsies was a big time flop at the box office  losing millions of dollars and generating a mini-crisis for the studio.  It turns out people would not pay to see singing and dancing urchins play out class warfare on the streets of old New York. 
Since then, however the movie achieved a cult following  through video releases largely because the intrepid young hero was played by Christian Bale, who grew up to be the Dark Knight.
After languishing mostly in obscurity for nearly twenty years, composer Alan Menken and  Lyracist Jack Feldman with the backing of the mighty Disney empire enlisted Broadway maven Harvey Firestone to write a new script.  It premiered to rave reviews at the at the Nederlander Theatre on March 25, 2012.  It went on to earn Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Menken and choreographer Christopher Gattelli plus a slew of other nomination.  The show ran for more than 1,200 performances.  

The creative team behind the Broadway version of Newsies, libretist Harvey Fierstein, lyracist Jack Feldman,  and composer Alan Menken made changes and choices that under cut the class struggle of the story and made it fairy tale with a male princes. 
Brilliant and edgy Broadway fixture Harvey Fierstein whose credits as an actor, writer, and deirector included Torch Song Trillogy.amd Legs. La Cage aux Folles, was the bold choice to completely overhaul the script.  And Fierstein turned out to be more conventional in his choices than would have been expected.  Although the first act sets the scene for the brutal conditions endured by the largely homeless street urchins who peddle the Big Apples papers and indulges in some bravado class war rhetoric, the second act pulls those punches.
The film’s romance between the tough swaggering and charismatic leader of the strike and the sister of his Jewish intellectual co-leader is jettisoned in favor of pairing him with a pretty young reporter channeling Nellie Bly who turns out to actually be the daughter of the Newsies’s exploitive boss, publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.  Even more egregiously and unbelievably she is abetted by the sons of two other power publishers including Pulitzer’s arch enemy William Randolph Hearst.  The inference was that wealthy liberal youth would erase the sins of their fathers.  Another cop out is depicting strike leader Jack Kelly as not just a street punk but as a secret and sensitive artist who Pulitzer becomes so impressed with after being forced to capitulate to the strikers that he magnanimously offers to hire him as a political cartoonist and waltz away with his stary-eyed daughter.  And everyone lives happily ever after. The End.  Fierstein remade the second act into a real Disney fairy tale with a male princess.
The real life Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 was less charming and far more dangerous.  It was another chapter in the grim class war that was a staple of turn of the 20th Century life, albeit with a somewhat happier ending than many conflicts.
The 1890’s was a period of heavy competition among the 15 major daily English language newspapers published in Manhattan and others in Brooklyn.  Respectable broadsheets like the Post, Herald, Tribune, Times, Morning Sun, and American were challenged by the more sensational Yellow Journalism sheets, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s Morning and Evening Journals.

Peddler of sensationalism rivals Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal were the targets of the Newsboys' Strike when they hiked the price of bundles.  Both faux populists, each was first and foremost a ruthless capitalist.
The battle for circulation, particularly between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers, was often literally fought out on the streets with gangs of thugs hired to wreck delivery wagons, burn piles of papers at distribution points, and assault vendors on the streets.  Even the “respectable” papers engaged in this activity to one degree or another.
There were about 10,000 newsboys—and a few newsgirls—on the streets of Manhattan and thousands more in Brooklyn and outlying areas.  They were both cannon fodder and ground troops in the circulation wars.
Depicted in popular literature as plucky little businessmen rising in the world, most of the newsboys, some as young as six years old and ranging to their late teens, were desperately poor.  In fact the majority were homelessorphans, run-a-ways, abandoned cast offs.  Many slept on the streets.  Some found refuge in homes for waifs.  Some squatted in empty buildings.  Others slept dozens to a shared room in some of the city’s worst slum tenements.  Some still lived with large, impoverished and usually immigrant families who need all hands to eke out a living.

Documentary photographer Jacob Riis captured the brutal reality for the street urchins who peddled papers.
The kids were generally hungry, dirty, and cold.  They were also tough as nails and regularly brawled for control of the best locations both with and without the encouragement of company circulation agents.  Contemporary writers sneeringly compared them to feral dogs.
Kids lined up as early as 4:30 in the morning outside circulation docks.  They bought their newspapers by the bundle of 100.  That was about all smaller children could carry.  Some had wagons or carts and were able to take several bundles.  Before 1898 they paid 65 cents a bundle and sold them for two or three cents apiece, depending on the paper.  The papers were un-returnable and kids generally stayed out until the sold the last one.  Often on the streets for fourteen hours, a street hawker might make 30 cents a day, barely enough to eat.
Conditions had generated conflict for years.  The first recorded newsboy strike was way back in 1866 and there had been strikes, mostly for reduced cost for bundles, again in 1884, 1886, 1887, and 1889.  But none had been well organized or lasted more than a day or two.  Papers had no trouble using the natural gang-like rivalries among the sellers themselves, hired plug-uglies, and blackballing strike leaders to crush the strikes.
The Spanish American War was a bonanza for the newspaper business.  Hearst had practically created the war himself with dramatic accounts of the Cuban Insurrection and the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harborLurid accounts of action caused papers to literally fly out of the vendors' grimy hands.  Taking advantage of the situation, all of the papers raised their prices to 85 cents a bundle.  Despite the increased costs, newsboys were able to marginally prosper on vastly increased sales.
When the war was over, newspaper sales plummeted to pre-war levels or even lower.   All of the papers except those owned by Pulitzer and Hearst returned to pre-war pricing.  The papers probably expected trouble, but were confident that they could handle it.  They were wrong.
The street urchins had evidently been learning something from watching labor struggles unfold in front of them on the streets, particularly recent street car and Teamster strikes.  They learned the value of mass picketing and of going after all avenues of the papers’ circulation.  And they may have been listening to street corner orators about the value of solidarity.

Lewis Hine, another famed New York documentary photographer caught a glimpse of the sheer toughness of the vendors in this 1910 photo.  Don't mess with them.
Although sometimes portrayed as a spontaneous action, the refusal of newsboys to handle Pulitzer and Hearst papers on July 20, 1899 seems to have been well planned in advanceManhattan vendors secured the cooperation and support of newsboys in Brooklyn, then considered almost a different world.  For several days thousands of boys from both sides of the East River massed on the Brooklyn Bridge snarling traffic and blocking circulation to the entire of Long Island.  Similar actions around trains bound for New Jersey blocked circulation on the other side of the Hudson including markets in suburbs like Yonkers, Up-State New York, and Connecticut.
Almost daily rallies of as many as 5000 vendors clogged key points in the city

No photos of the real strike leader Kid Blink are known to exist and his real name remains showered in mystery, but Herald cartoonist caught him in sketches published on July 30, 1899.
Amused and delighted at the misfortune of their rivals, other papers, especially the Times sympathetically chronicled the struggle, particularly the rousing speeches of the strike leader identified only as Kid Blink for his eye patch.  Estimated to be 13 or 14, he was credited with the organizing skills of a mini-Napoleon.  Whether he was the strike true “leader” or just a colorful spokesperson, the Times loved to record his speech in exaggerated street argot:
Me men is nobul, and wid such as dese to oppose der neferarious schemes how can de blokes hope to win?
Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.
The papers fought back with everything they had.  Goons attacked rallies and tried to pick of individual strikersPolice were roused to bust heads and make arrests.  Calls went out for scabs, confident in the popular maxim of railroad robber baron Jay Gould that he could always hire half the working class to shoot the other.  But the strikers held firm.  And scab peddlers met with rough justice from the fists and clubs of strikers.
As the strike dragged on, circulation of the Pulitzer and Hearst papers plummeted while their rivals profited handsomely from their losses.  It was reported the circulation of the World dropped from 360,000 papers daily to less than 125,000.

You can imagine the editor's glee at the New York Sun for being able to poke a rival with this headline.
After two weeks the press tycoons ran up the white flag.  Although they refused to lower the bundle price, they did agree to buy back unsold papers, which made peddling them marginally profitable again.  The competing papers, with their lower bundle prices, also felt compelled to start buying back copies, lest the ire of the newsboys turn on them.
The reform was lasting.  Unfortunately the newsboys’ organization was not.  It disappeared along with Kid Blink and other colorfully monikered figures like Barney Peanuts, Race Track Higgins, Crazy Arborn and Crutch Morris.
But their victory lived on.  And, I guess, that is something to sing and dance about.

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