Equity's First Act: How Actors Shut Down Broadway, Won an Eight-Show Week, and Scored a Major Victory for American Labor

By Simonson, Robert | American Theatre, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Equity's First Act: How Actors Shut Down Broadway, Won an Eight-Show Week, and Scored a Major Victory for American Labor


Simonson, Robert, American Theatre


ON MONDAY, AUG. 18, 1919, THE BEST STAGE show in New York wasn't on Broadway. It was raining in the city, and there was a subway strike. Yet 500 standees had crowded into the auditorium at the Lexington Avenue Opera House, at the corner of 51st Street.

The curtain rose on a cast of 150. All were members of the upstart Actors' Equity Association, but none was being paid. The show was the first of a week of benefit performances put together by the union, which had stunned the theatrical world 11 days prior by going out on strike.

Marie Dressler taught hoofers a dance routine in about a quarter of an hour. W. C. Fields acted as master of ceremonies. Lionel and Ethel Barrymore performed the second act of The Lady of the Camellias. Eddie Cantor took the stage and joked that for once he was making as much as Ethel Barrymore. Eddie Foy and his various children performed. Silent film star Pearl White expressed delight at getting the opportunity to talk.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sometime into the entertainment, a spotlight hit Ed Wynn, the phenomenally popular Ziegfeld Follies comedian, at his seat in the third row. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said with grandiose formality, "Justice Lydon has forbidden me to appear on the stage tonight. I am very sorry this has occurred, but of course the orders of the court must be obeyed."

Indeed, the Shuberts and their fellow producers had brought a host of lawsuits down upon the actors participating in the strike. Earlier that day, Judge Lydon had issued an injunction against Wynn appearing on the Lexington stage, asserting that he was under exclusive service to the Shuberts. Choosing to obey the letter of the law if not its spirit, the comedian continued, "If I had been able to appear tonight, I had in mind telling you a story ..." and proceeded to perform his whole act from Row 3.

Throughout the jam-packed evening, there were pleas for money. Ethel Barrymore pledged $1,000; brother Lionel did the same. Caught up in the moment, a teenage unknown named Tallulah Bankhead pledged $100 she did not have. (Her granddaddy down South wired the money soon after.) "The enthusiasm of the players for the cause went right across the audience and we got immediate return from them," remembered Ethel Barrymore, "just like a ball being tossed back and forth; you threw it out to them and they threw it back to you; regular team play."

By the end of the run, the show had raised a profit of $31,000. The young union's war chest had grown from $13,000 before the strike to $100,000. Because it was rumored that the theatre producers might apply for a writ to impound the show's bank receipts, the manager of the Lexington Opera House opened an account at the Harriman National Bank under the name of Isaiah 59:14, based on the biblical passage that reads, "And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter."

War had broken out between the nation's producers and actors, and the first and most important battle was for the affection of a public that had been battered by labor conflicts for the past few decades. Average Americans had grown suspicious of the tactics of management and sympathetic to the plight of workers. Fellow workers showed their support of the striking actors in practical terms. Taxicab drivers pasted "Equity for Actors" on their windshields. One kicked a couple of actors out of his cab when he found out they were scabs hired by a producer to replace Equity performers. Local I merchants, knowing actors to be among their clientele, pledged 10 percent of their receipts to the strike fund. Sam Gerson's cigar store hung out a sign saying, "Striking actors: get your cigarettes here, and pay when you win."

The producers were stunned as much as furious. This wasn't the first they'd heard of Actors' Equity Association--the union had been formed in 1913--but it was the first time they'd had trouble with it. …

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