- 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
Leading lady to man: “Did you know that the producer of this play will not recognize the actors’ union?”
Man: “Did you say the producer of this show won’t recognize the union?”
Lady: “That’s right, I said the producer of this show won’t recognize the actors’ union.”
The cast of Lightnin ’ hired a bus and draped it with a banner declaring, LIGHTNIN’ HAS STRUCK ! On August 12 a squad of fifteen limousines driven by leading men and filled with what reporters called “the prettiest strikers in history” motored down Fifth Avenue toward the financial district. Their banners proclaimed WE ARE MEMBERS OF THE ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION; WATCH YOUR STEP IF YOU BUY TICKETS TONIGHT; WE ARE WILLING TO ARBITRATE BUT THE MANAGERS ARE NOT ; and WE ARE NOT AFTER MORE PAY BUT FAIR PLAY . The members of the Curb Exchange, now the American Stock Exchange, declared a recess to give the motorcade an ovation.
Later that same afternoon the Chorus Equity Association was born. From the moment a strike had been proposed, the chorus people had been eager to help. As they were not at that time considered true actors, there was no legal place for them in Actors’ Equity. Nevertheless they came—singly, in groups, in whole companies. And they had a vital interest in the struggle, because of course any musical that went on strike automatically threw the chorus out of work. Now, with their own organization, they could demand their own standard contract and receive orders from their own leaders to walk out.
Hundreds of people gathered at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Marie Dressier, who had started her career as a chorus girl earning eight dollars a week, was unanimously elected president of Chorus Equity. Ethel Barrymore, representing two of the nation’s foremost theatrical families, the Drews and the Barrymores, lent her prestige to the ceremony. “I don’t know how to make a speech, really, but I am with you heart and soul, and more than that. Don’t be discouraged. Stick!”
They cheered as their new executive secretary, Frank Gillmore, assured them that “the chorus shall not rehearse more than four weeks without payment. … After four weeks’ rehearsal you will receive one-half week’s salary per week, and you will not be expected to pay for your shoes and stockings. When the managers started this thing they did not know what they would be up against!”
Someone shouted, “The Hippodrome girls have walked out and are coming in!” With seating for five thousand, the Hippodrome was perhaps the largest and most extravagantly appointed theater anywhere. Marching two by two, the dancers—the Rockettes of their day—paraded into the room to applause, whistles, and foot stomping. More than eleven hundred new members signed up that day. The police had to disperse the crowds around strike headquarters to allow a postman to get through to deliver the mail.
The number of new applicants threatened to swamp Equity’s volunteers, but offers of help kept pace. Frank Case, proprietor of the Algonquin Hotel, contributed enough free space for the entire Publicity Committee and its clerical staff. Lillian Russell sent a telegram: THE SHUBERTS OWE ME $100,000 ON ONE OF THEIR CONTRACTS WHICH THEY NOW CLAIM IS SACRED. IF ANY MIRACLE WORKER CAN BE FOUND TO COLLECT IT, I WILL BE GLAD TO TURN IT OVER TO THE ACTORS’ EQUITY. BEST WISHES . Landladies of the rooming houses where many of the chorus girls lived stopped asking for the weekly rent while the dancers were out. The management of Gimbel Brothers, the huge department store on Herald Square, offered jobs to any actors who needed them. And the window of one cigar store bore a sign: STRIKING ACTORS GET YOUR CIGARETTES HERE, AND PAY ME WHEN YOU WIN .
With their New York theaters dark, the managers were losing enormous sums of money each day, but income from their touring companies in other cities covered their costs. So Equity now extended the walkout to the nation’s second-largest theater town, Chicago, where Hazel Dawn was starring in Up in Mabel’s Room . She and the cast walked off the stage.
Rumors flew: The managers were weakening; Lee Shubert was ready to reopen his theaters. No, just the opposite, the managers were resolute and prepared to keep their playhouses closed indefinitely. Addressing this latest threat, Frank Gillmore said, “A theater remains a theater only so long as actors are performing there. Without actors the theater is nothing but a building. The actors’ talents can be as easily exercised in a hall, in a tent or even on a vacant lot. The public will gather to see the actor no matter where he acts. Therefore, if the theaters are closed to us, we shall organize companies to tour the country just as Mrs. Fiske and Madame Bernhardt did.”