Skip to main content

The, Actors’ Revolt

June 2024
14min read

HISTORY’S MOST PHOTOGENIC LABOR dispute lasted thirty days, spread to eight cities, closed thirty-seven plays, and finally won performers some respect


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.”

TO THE businessmen of the syndicate, the actor was not the backbone of the theater but merely a commodity to be obtained as cheaply as possible.

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.

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.”

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?


LILLIAN RUSSELL sent a telegram: “The Shuberts owe me $100,000. … If any miracle worker can be found to collect it, I will be glad to turn it over to the Actors’ Equity. Best wishes.”

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.

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!”

LANDLADIES of the rooming houses where chorus girls lived stopped asking for the weekly rent. Gimbel Brothers offered jobs to any actors who needed them.

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.”

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.