- 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
But as the days passed, it became painfully clear that Equity needed funds far more desperately than the managers did. Each day of the strike cost thousands of dollars, and there had been only $13,500 in the treasury when the walkout began. What the union needed was a benefit, a dazzling fund-raising event.
Monday, August 18, was set as the opening night of a week of benefit performances, advertised by a grand parade from Columbus Circle to Madison Square. Tickets for the first night’s show, at the Lexington Avenue Opera House, at Fifty-first Street, quickly sold out, and five hundred standees filled the aisles. For the opening number Marie Dressier, surrounded by 150 chorus people, explained to the audience that the producers demanded six to sixteen weeks to prepare dances, but she and the choreographer Kuy Kendall would try to teach this chorus a dance routine in six to sixteen minutes. In a 1919 foreshadowing of A Chorus Line , the audience watched the dancers make mistakes, apologize, correct them, and perform the routine right before their eyes.
Then , with W. C. Fields as emcee, Eddie Cantor, Charles Winninger, Pearl White, and dozens of others displayed the talents that had made them stars. There was serious acting as well, including Ethel and Lionel Barrymore playing a scene from The Lady of the Camellias .
At the point in the program when Ed Wynn had been scheduled to appear, the spotlight darted about the house until it landed on a figure seated in the third row. The audience immediately recognized Wynn, who rose from his seat to explain that a judge had forbidden him to appear on that stage. He said, “I had in mind telling you a story, and if I could have appeared on the stage, this is what I would have told you. …” Standing in the aisle, he gave his performance. The finale was a paraphrase of Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral, rewritten to refer to the conflict between Equity and the managers. It brought down the house.
After eight nights of benefit performances, the strike fund gained $31,000. But the managers’ pockets were very deep. Would that sum be enough? Ethel Barrymore spoke at an Equity meeting: “Our ammunition is money, and I am sure there are a lot of people who are feeling poor. I think some of us who have more money should be the first to contribute. If I can get 199 actors to give five hundred dollars each, I am ready with my check for five hundred dollars to start off.” No sooner had she spoken than Ed Wynn handed her a check, and a split second later Equity’s president, Francis Wilson, doubled the amount. By the end of the meeting she had a pile of checks totaling $21,500. The body then declared Ethel Barrymore and Marie Dressier the “Committee in Charge of Getting the $100.000.”
On August 26 Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, returned from the Paris Peace Conference, where he had headed the United States labor delegation. Whisked from his stateroom to an Equity meeting, he told the members, “Whatever influence or power there may be in the great American Federation of Labor to help you, rest assured that power and influence is behind you until the end.”
The actors were delighted. And the managers suddenly paid attention. The teamsters put a fleet of touring cars at Equity’s disposal. The nine thousand members of the bill-posters’ union refused to post bills for non-Equity theaters. Stagehands and musicians closed a show in Washington, D.C., because the production was booked into a Shubert theater. The motion-picture machine operators voted not to turn a crank in any theater converted to a movie house to circumvent the strike. There’were walkouts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence.
Finally, on Wednesday, September 3, the producers agreed to look over Equity’s Basic Agreement and Standard Minimum Contract. Representatives of both sides met the next day to iron out differences. When it appeared that the managers, attempting to rewrite clauses already agreed upon, were backing out one more time, Equity sent telegrams to 169 stagehand-union locals, readying them to declare the Shubert-owned and -operated theaters unfair. Realizing at last that they could not win, Erlanger and the Shuberts prevailed over Albee.
Equity’s leaders met with the managers on the evening of Friday, September 5, at the St. Regis Hotel. In the early hours of September 6, the two sides signed the first Equity contract and showed it to reporters camped in the hotel lobby. Equity’s negotiator, W. B. Rubin, seized the moment to lean across the table and say to the managers’ lawyer, “Let’s draft the Chorus Contract now.” Giving his opponent no time to rest or reflect on what he had agreed to, Rubin won concession after concession for the chorus.
The strike was over.