By Kevin C. Fitzpatrick
Assistant Club Historian
August 6, 2019
A century ago this month the biggest story in show business was unfolding, an event with repercussions that are still felt today. This was the Actors Strike of 1919, a labor action that closed Broadway for a month and gave stage actors a standard contract. At the center of this activity were The Lambs–on both sides of the strike–who would ultimately negotiate its successful conclusion and win lasting rights for actors. At the time it was just 45 years old with perhaps 2,000 members, more than the fledgling Actors Equity Association which launched in 1913. Of the 21 original Equity council members elected, only one actor was not a Lamb.
What brought about the strike? As the theater business evolved in the early 20th Century, the old relationships between actor and manager changed. Producers became more business-like, theaters were organized into syndicates, sending actors on railroads for weeks and controlling who performed in which theaters. As Lambs’ historian Lewis J. Hardee wrote, actors were no longer “engaged” they were “hired.” And they were never “released,” they were “fired.” Actors had to accept what was offered, or else be blackballed. Because there wasn’t a standard contract or minimum wage, managers were free to play one actor against the other for the lowest salary. Contracts included a “satisfaction clause” that allowed managers to fire an actor as “unsatisfactory” for any reason, with no way for the actor to ask for redress. Actors had to furnish their own costumes and shoes, but the worst of it was the pay. Actors were not paid for rehearsals, they were expected to rehearse a play for 10 weeks and a musical for 18 weeks without payment. When shows launched, managers could add extra performances on holidays or special occasions with no additional pay; actors could be asked for 9 or 10 performances a week (sometimes even 14) for a full year. Transportation was a factor: when a show closed on the road the producer didn’t have to return the cast home to New York. It was up to the actor to get back on his or her own dime.
ACTORS EQUITY ASSOCIATiON
Actors’ Equity formed in 1913 and throughout the World War I era tried to solidify its standing with producers with a standard contract. After the war ended in 1918 the talks progressed slowly, but overall the Producers’ Managing Association (P.M.A.) did not want to work with Equity. The year 1919 was noteworthy for scores of WWI homecoming parades and rising tensions in the country. Race riots broke out across the U.S. in 25 cities during the “Red Summer” and strikes closed railroads and mass transit. Actors complained that managers were overworking them and treating them less as artists and more as workers to be hired and fired at will. Equity met with managers in the spring and early summer, and got nowhere. The theater businessmen ridiculed the actors with zeal, and turned down their offers to negotiate. Powerful producers such as Flo Ziegfield were strongly against the union; The Follies that summer had Lambs member Eddie Cantor in the lead who was an Equity member.
In July, Equity presented the P.M.A. with a standard contract with seven demands:
1. Transportation to and from New York when on tour;
2. A limit on free rehearsal time;
3. Protection from dismissal without pay for actors who had rehearsed more than one week;
4. Two week’s notice;
5. Compensation for extra performances;
6. Full pay for all performance weeks;
7. Some reimbursements for women’s costumes.
The producers met on August 6 and turned down the Equity offers. The following day the actors waited at the Equity office at 160 West 45th Street for the answer. None came by the close of business. A committee was then formed to decide which shows would close and when. Equity took into account which closings would have an adverse effect on its own actors who needed to make a living. The idea of only closing five or six shows was expanded.
THE STRIKE BEGINS
On August 7, several hundred actors rallied at the Hotel Astor, which stood on Broadway, between 44th and 45th Street, one block west of The Lambs. That night the actors declared war on the Producing Managers’ Association. The walkout was led by Lambs member Ed Wynn, a comedian starring in The Gaieties of 1919 at the Winter Garden. The 83-member cast walked out of the Shubert production, and took 12 other shows with them. This was the beginning of the greatest strike to ever happen in show business. As the strike progressed, 37 more shows closed and 16 were prevented from opening that season. It brought Broadway to a standstill and had ripple effects across the U.S.
At the flashpoint was veteran actor Edward Hugh Sothern, who was also a director, producer, and writer. He had joined The Lambs in 1891 and was an early member of Equity. He tried and failed to broker peace between the actors and producers. Sothern set up a pre-strike meeting with producers and actors at the old Forty-fourth Street Theater, but talks collapsed. When the strike was called, he quit Equity in protest. The first actor arrested was a Lamb, Richard Gordon, who was living at the clubhouse. Police seized him outside the Winter Garden when he allegedly tried to prevent theatergoers from entering. He was hauled to the long-gone precinct house on West Forty-seventh street and charged with disorderly conduct. Meanwhile on West Forty-fifth Street hundreds of actors blocked traffic outside the Equity offices. This was the scene of all major activity during the weeks-long strike.
ON STRIKE !
On the first day of the strike one of the most beloved matinee stars of the era stood up for his fellow actors. This was John Drew, who had joined The Lambs in 1880 and was a major box office draw. He came over from his longtime residence at the Hotel Algonquin to say he was joining the strike, and gave a statement that his nephews, John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore, supported Equity. Drew read a letter from his niece, Ethel Barrymore, she aligned herself with Equity’s goals. All of them would perform in benefit shows in the days to come to help pay the bills of less-famous actors.
The Producing Managers’ Association was formed just to answer to the actors. Of the 40 or so members, half were Lambs, and now they were in direct opposition of their brother Lambs. One of these was George Broadhurst, producer and writer, who had been elected in 1891 (and namesake of the Broadhurst Theatre). At the time he was producing The Crimson Alibi at his theater and said the closing was unjustified because ten of the cast had Equity contracts that did not include the customary two-week dismissal clause. He was furious that actors were breaking their contracts. John Golden, who also had a theater named for him, was a successful producer who sided with the P.M.A. after 20 years as a Lamb. The producers used the offices of Cohan and Harris as a war room: George M. Cohan (elected 1911) and partner Sam Harris (1910). Cohan, Harris, David Belasco, Morris Gest, Marc Klaw, and Arthur Hopkins resigned from the club during the strike. Cohan, who was abbot of The Friars at the time, also quit that club and announced he’d never return to either clubhouse.
E.F. Albee and the Keith Booking Exchange tried to supply vaudeville performers to fill the Broadway musical roles. Telegrams and letters from actors across the country eager to break into Broadway came into producers’ offices, the managers reported. Managers attempted to raise weekly pay from $75 to $250, to no avail. This did not help the theaters reopen, because the actors held strong, and musicians and stagehands respected the strike. Equity said as the strike opened it brought in vast numbers of new members, claiming 2,000 joined, according to the Times. This wasn’t even counting the separate “chorus girls’ branch” in existence in the era.
The Lambs had four main members involved in the strike negotiations. Equity president Francis Wilson was elected to the club in 1900 and was the union’s first elected leader. Vice president Bruce McRae, elected in 1905 and frequent leading man with Ethel Barrymore, walked out of a David Belasco production, The Gold Diggers, with Ina Claire. Equity recording secretary Grant Stewart (elected 1891) worked with executive secretary Frank Gillmore (elected to the club in 1893). Gillmore said on the first day of the strike, “We have just taken off our coats. The assistance of the stagehands is not at all necessary; we would appreciate it, of course, but we do not require it. We think we can win alone.”
Playwrights, including Lambs Irvin S. Cobb and Augustus Thomas (Shepherd from 1907-1910), tried to end the strike. The writers were often go-betweens with the two warring groups and held their own meetings at other hotels.
By August 21 the strike went national, with virtually all theaters in Chicago going dark after the musicians and stagehands joined the actors. Albany stepped in to support Equity on the state level: Equity representatives Ed Wynn and fellow Lamb DeWitt Jennings traveled with actress Marie Dressler to meet with Governor Al Smith and address the annual meeting of the State Federation of Labor. The P.M.A. was vilified for its actions. The strike news was on the front pages of every newspaper daily, and the theater producers were seeing their names constantly dragged through the press. The P.M.A. was delivered a shock in early September when the Stagehands Organization hit 200 Shubert theaters and theaters tied to them in the U.S. and Canada with orders to close.
A marathon all-night session was held at the Hotel St. Regis on September 5-6. This was the first time the P.M.A. had actually sat down face-to-face with Equity members during the whole strike. At 3:00 a.m. the strike was declared settled. The actors won a standard contract and the right to have Equity act as their bargaining agent. It was Lambs council member Augustus Thomas who walked into the hotel lobby that morning, surrounded by actors, managers, reporters, and the public, to announce the conclusion of the strike. Lamb Francis Wilson, Equity president, agreed the strike was over. Producer Arthur Hopkins confirmed the P.M.A. accepted the terms.
The strike tore the club apart, and the aftermath was felt for years. Lifelong friends passed each other on the streets without speaking. David Belasco had marched in Lambs Gambol parades in 1909 and now ten years later said, “Starve them out!” in 1919. DeWolf Hopper said John Golden was his enemy. The shepherd during the strike, R.H. Burnside, thought the atmosphere in the Fold was so hostile he offered to resign. The council refused and he remained onboard until 1921.
In 1922, Augustus Thomas, credited with bringing the parties together, was named by New York play producers to be the executive chairman of the P.M.A. It was hoped he would prevent another strike, but they also asked him to veto plays that may be deemed immoral or indecent. The producers reacted to the public asking for a “purifier” of Broadway. The hit Avery Hopwood comedy The Demi-Virgin caused a scandal and was withdrawn after scolds deemed it indecent and the authorities shut it down.
Frank Gillmore was elected Equity president in 1928 and was a lifetime member of The Lambs until his death in 1943. If you visit his gravesite in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, final resting places of thousands of actors, you’ll see his gravestone has the AEA logo carved on it. George M. Cohan, did return to The Lambs and Friars, but never got an Equity card. In 1959 when fundraising was held for the Cohan statue that’s in Duffy Square, Equity gave a modest $100 donation, the same fixed amount given to all such requests.
Today, Equity has more than 51,000 members, including actors, dancers, singers, and stage managers. The standard contract it established a century ago is still in place, and strengthened with health insurance and tax assistance.
During the centennial of the strike (August 6 to September 5, 2019) Follow The Lambs on our social media for daily “strike reports”:
The Lambs will mark the strike settlement during an event at our clubhouse, now on 51st street, on Monday Sept 9th.
Hardee, Lewis. The Lambs Theatre Club. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006.
The New York Times, May-October, 1919.