- 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
As E. F. Albee had suggested, the managers let it be known that those who joined the Actors Cooperative Association would receive higher salaries than they had ever earned before. The managers even promised to pay the actors “a little something” to tide them over until rehearsals began. What, they asked, was Equity offering its members so that their families could eat? Albee added a daring new proposal. Why not create a superorganization of the owners and managers of all entertainment theaters—vaudeville, movie, and burlesque houses as well as legitimate theaters—thereby assuming control over the whole entertainment industry in the United States and Canada?
His plan made the front page of the New York Morning Telegraph : MANAGERS FORM ONE BIG COMBINE. VAUDEVILLE, BURLESQUE AND FILM INTERESTS AFFILIATED WITH LEGITIMATE PRODUCERS AT MEETING. TAKES IN ENTIRE COUNTRY. ACTORS THUS PREVENTED FROM WORKING IN ONE BRANCH WHILE STRIKINC; IN ANOTHER .
Consider the array of power now lined up against Equity. Most formidable were the Shubert brothers, who now owned theaters in cities across the country, reportedly employing more actors than all the other managers combined. Among the Shuberts’ allies were Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., John Golden, Oliver Morosco, and David Belasco, whose theater marquees still light Broadway today. Klaw and Erlanger, George M. Cohan and his partner Sam H. Harris—the list went on. The managers’ announced intention was to crush Actors’ Equity, and their resources were considerable.
Equity called a membership meeting for August 7 in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Astor. During it the great Shakespearean actor E. H. Sothern strode down the center aisle asking to be heard. The cheers that greeted his appearance turned to stunned silence and then to boos and hisses as he urged the more than two thousand actors in the audience to find a way to work with the new Actors Cooperative Association. His motion that Equity attempt to reopen negotiations was shouted down amid cries of “No!” A resolution to strike was then offered and carried unanimously.
That evening at eight-twenty the cast of Lightnin ’ informed the management of its theater that it would not perform that evening. Lightnin ’ was Frank Bacon’s first Broadway success after a twenty-year career in stock companies and on the road. Now the star, author, and part owner of a hit show, Bacon was looking at his first chance to make some money. If the strike failed, he risked losing everything. He led his company out.
“I’m an actor, author, and manager,” he explained, “but when this strike began my wife said to me, ‘We’ll stick to our own people. I can still cook on a one-burner coal-oil stove, if necessary.’ So, we’re sticking.”
After the Lightnin ’ sign went dark, twelve more shows joined the strike. Among these was The Gaieties of 1919 , starring Ed Wynn. When the popular comedian appealed for the support of the theatergoers awaiting refunds at the box office, the crowd cheered, hoisted him high in the air, and paraded up Broadway. That day Equity received twelve hundred applications for membership.
The managers counterattacked. George M. Cohan promoted seven chorus members to featured players to replace the striking stars of his play The Royal Vagabond and pledged a hundred thousand dollars of his personal fortune to Equity’s destruction. “Before I will ever do business with the Actors’ Equity Association,” he said, “I will lose every dollar I have, even if I have to run an elevator to make a living.” Producers of The Gaieties and Chu Chin Chow substituted vaudeville acts and reopened their doors. Edgar Selwyn hired a plane to shower the theater district with leaflets assuring audiences that The Challenge would play at the Selwyn Theater as planned.
But Equity stood fast. The minutes of the next day’s council meeting recorded gifts and expressions of support: “Miss Francesca Rotoli, faithful to A.E.A. Refused to understudy Miss Arnold … Miss Rita Rommilly’s mother has a tea-room at 535 Fifth Ave.—will take care of as many people as are sent over … Mrs. George Graham is opening a doughnut shop on 49th st. & 8th Ave.—expects to turn in $1,000 monthly to A.E.A.”
In the streets, striking performers cheerfully picketed their own theaters, strolling back and forth in front of the box offices, engaged in animated conversation.