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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
Dressing rooms, usually in the cellar or the attic of the theater, were filthy and unheated and rarely had running water. Charles Shay, president of the stagehands’ union, told reporters at the time that he often did not know which subcellar had been set aside for coal and which for the chorus.
Finally, there was the satisfaction clause. Ignoring the long tradition of giving two weeks’ notice prior to dismissal, managers would label actors “unsatisfactory” and fire them on the spot, sometimes as they came offstage from their last scene in the play. Jack Hazzard was fired after playing twenty-five of the thirty weeks guaranteed in his contract although he had received excellent notices. Given no reason for his dismissal, he sued for the remaining five weeks’ pay. The case was heard six years later by the New York State Court of Appeals, which decided in favor of the manager, ruling that the satisfaction clause made it unnecessary to prove an actor’s work was poor.
To improve these abysmal working conditions, the performers knew they needed an organization to stand between them and their employers, so that disagreements could be settled quickly and without fear of reprisal. They wanted a standard contract to cover seven points: free transportation from New York and back again; a limit on free rehearsal time; two weeks’ notice; protection from dismissal without pay for actors who had rehearsed for more than one week; no increase in the number of extra performances without pay; full pay for all weeks played; and some reimbursement for women’s costumes.
Equit’s founders soon discovered that forming a union was one thing, and getting the managers and producers to recognize it was another. The managers politely sent representatives to meet with Equity’s leaders, but the discussions never resulted in decisive action. Whenever agreement seemed close at hand, the managers would suddenly object to a clause, or ask for another meeting, or simply be too busy planning their forthcoming shows to take the final step. By 1919, after six years of wrangling, the two sides were no closer to adopting a standard contract than they had been when the talks began.
Matters might have continued in this way indefinitely had the managers not decided to follow the bad advice of one of their leaders, E. F. Albee. A pugnacious theater owner who had successfully broken the National Vaudeville Artists union, Albee convinced the producing managers that the way to deal with Equity was to take the offensive: Attack Equity’s leaders, shaking the faith of their followers in every possible way. Eure as many prominent performers as possible from Equity by offering them more money and better contracts. Organize a rival union headed by as many prominent players as could be found. Promise this union everything it wanted. And refuse to negotiate with Equity.
Faced with this newly aroused opposition, Equity’s leaders realized they needed allies to survive. Following the example of their colleagues in the musicians’ and stagehands’ unions, they applied for affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. This tactic was not immediately popular with Equity’s members, many of whom were still reluctant to identify themselves with organized labor. But at a highly charged meeting at the Hotel Astor, Equity’s president, Francis Wilson, entreated the actors to stand alongside Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, and Walter Damrosch, all members of the American Federation of Musicians. “Why should the actor hesitate?” asked Equity magazine. “Is it professional false pride, or stupidity, or empty-headed vanity? Ours is not a profession. It isn’t even a trade. It hasn’t the dignity of a vocation. It’s only a job! And half the time we don’t get paid for it.” Of the more than nine hundred Equity members crowded into the ballroom, all but twenty-one voted to join the AFL.
At first Equity’s application was turned down. The AFL had already granted a charter to an organization of vaudeville performers called the White Rats. But a series of intricate negotiations led at last, on July 18, 1919, to the creation of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the Four A’s), an umbrella organization covering the entire entertainment field. The Four A’s then recognized Equity as representing theater actors; a separate organization was set up for vaudeville performers. Bolstered by their AFL affiliation, Equity’s leaders could now consider a strike.
In late July, just as casting for the 1919 season was to begin, the manager-approved Actors Cooperative Association began to gather strength. To the surprise and dismay of Equity’s leaders, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Coburn were listed among its 160 members. Coburn’s production of The Better ‘Ole , with himself in the lead, was a hit at the Booth Theater. As an actor-manager, he explained, “I am on both sides, and it is verv hard for me.”