- Historic Sites
The, Actors’ Revolt
HISTORY’S MOST PHOTOGENIC LABOR dispute lasted thirty days, spread to eight cities, closed thirty-seven plays, and finally won performers some respect
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
1919. The first full year of peace after the World War was a restless one. It saw the advent of Prohibition and the Black Sox scandal. The Communist Labor party of America was founded, while the Socialist party leader Eugene Debs went to jail. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
1919. The first full year of peace after the World War was a restless one. It saw the advent of Prohibition and the Black Sox scandal. The Communist Labor party of America was founded, while the Socialist party leader Eugene Debs went to jail. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And in the American theater it was the year of the actors’ revolt, when performers across the country went out on strike to win a standard employment contract and recognition for their union, the Actors’ Equity Association.
The union had been founded several years earlier, when 112 performers met at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in Manhattan to adopt a constitution and bylaws. Among these original Equity members were prominent players whose films still appear on late-night television: Charles Coburn, who had scored a recent hit in The Yellow Jacket ; Edward Ellis, the eccentric title character in The Thin Man ; and the British actor George Arliss, whose superb performance as Disraeli had made him so major a Broadway star that the producer David Belasco had handed him a blank contract, saying, “Fill in any amount you wish and I will pay it.”
Clearly this was not a crowd of novices who needed help in dealing with management. But recent changes in how actors earned their living had persuaded them they must band together. Since colonial times America’s theater companies had been headed by actor-managers, performers who had risen through the ranks to lead their own companies. Years of tradition defined the way each company operated and the actor’s place within the group.
But in the boom following the Civil War, as the theater surged along with the rest of the nation’s businesses, hitherto independent theater owners and managers began forming associations. Touring companies no longer traveled informally from one locale to the next but instead played circuits dominated by theater chains. A central booking office known as the Theatrical Syndicate took over the production, financing, and scheduling of shows. By the turn of the century, this syndicate could dictate which productions would play in what theaters, which actors would be hired, and on what terms. So tyrannical had the syndicate become that rather than accede to its demands the great Sarah Bernhardt chose to perform in a tent.
To the businessmen of the syndicate, the actor was not the backbone of the the- ater but merely a debit on an income statement, a commodity to be obtained as cheaply as possible. There was no standard contract and no minimum wage. Actors earned no pay for rehearsals, and because rehearsals were free, there was no limit to them. Eighteen weeks was not unusual for a musical show, and ten was average for a play. Under his two-year contract with the Shubert organization, the actor John Goldsworthy rehearsed for fifty-seven weeks and performed for twenty-two. An even less fortunate colleague rehearsed for twenty-two weeks and played only four nights. According to his contract, he was entitled to payment only for performances played—4 days out of 158.
Actors gave nine or ten performances a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Holidays, then as now, were peak attendance periods, yet managers paid half-salary for Christmas week, Easter week, and election week, regardless of whether there were any elections. If attendance fell, shows closed with no warning. More than a few managers skipped town while the last performance was in progress, taking the week’s receipts with them. The marooned actors, unable to pay their hotel bills, had to slink away in turn; that helps explain why so many innkeepers on the touring-company circuit posted the notice “We do not rent to theatricals.”
Many managers refused to pay transportation from New York to the first town on the tour or from the last city back home. Performers were expected to supply their own wardrobes, and the cost of elaborate costumes, which they could never use in what one actress referred to as “real life,” was often greater than the salaries they were paid, especially if the play closed early in the run. A great many actresses doubled as their own dressmakers, reworking their gowns season after season.