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Actors’ Equity Association surfaced in the early years of the 20th century as a viable labor union for stage actors who had previously been at the mercy of management. Before Equity, as it became known, gained viability, standardized contracts were unheard of in American theater. Actors gave 8 to 10 performances a week and worked 52 weeks a year. They were expected to rehearse for as much as 3 months without pay. Actors were also required to furnish and care for their own costumes. On road tours, they paid their own hotel bills and transportation costs. Holidays and election week were peak seasons in the theater, and profits quickly mounted up. However, actors were required to work at half pay during those periods. In the summer of 1919, actor dissatisfaction gained momentum, and Equity called a strike, shutting down theaters in all major American cities and crippling the entertainment industry. The strike, which gained the support of stars such as Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore, was successful because of the significant loyalty of Equity members and widespread support from local businesses and the media. That success led to an 8-hour workday for stage actors and financial concessions for lower-paid actors. The strike also established Equity as the voice of stage actors and stagehands for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, theater managers continued to garner power. Through the Theatrical Syndicate, six men maintained tight control over the entire industry. By the end of the 19th century, the syndicate owned 37 major theaters. Actors had formed the Actors’ Society of America in 1896, but it proved to have little clout. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Schubert Brothers began amassing even greater power by building a chain of theaters all over the United States.
Although leading stars were often able to dictate their own terms, the majority of theater actors did not even make minimum wage. Contracts specified that actors could be fined or dismissed not only for missing performances or public drunkenness but also for activities such as laughing or talking loudly in their dressing rooms or for simply being “unsatisfactory.” Theater musicians had already organized, establishing the American Federation of Musicians.
The Actors’ Equity Association was formed by 112 actors in May 1913 at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel under the leadership of Charles Coburn, Edward Edis, and George Arliss. The comic actor Francis Wilson served as the first president. At the time, theater was the fourth-largest industry in the United States, but actors were able to claim only minute amounts of profits. Even though Equity accepted the need to affiliate the group with organized labor under the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, they were unable to do so until the White Rats Actors’ Union, which represented vaudevillian actors, agreed to step down as the voice of American actors. That move in 1919 cleared the way for the creation of Associated Actors and Artistes of America. Known as the Four A’s, the group encompassed all aspects of the working world of the American theater.
In 1919, theater managers formed the Managers’ Association and refused to recognize Equity as a viable union. Equity members responded by going on strike. When the strike began, Equity’s war chest consisted of only $13,000. A major benefit held on August 18, 1919, at the Lexington Avenue Opera House in New York City raised $31,000 in a single night. The gala was emceed by W. C. Fields, and performers included Eddie Cantor and Pearl White. The comedian Ed Wynn had been banned from appearing on stage by a court order. Undaunted, he gave his performance from the audience.
Opposition to the strike was led by powerhouses such as George M. Cohan, the Schubert Brothers, Florenz Ziegfeld, and David Belasco. Nevertheless, the actors stood firm, and management lost $3 million after theaters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Providence went dark. By the end of the month, Equity membership had risen to 14,000, and the war chest had swelled to $110,923.
The provisions of the settlement guaranteed actors at least 2 weeks of work after rehearsing for 6 weeks for a musical, and 4 weeks for other plays. Costume and transportation costs were to be paid for all actors earning less than $150 a week. Actors were guaranteed an eight-show workweek, and management agreed to abide by arbitration.
When the film industry began drawing large audiences in the 1920s, theater began a steady decline. The number of theaters in the United States decreased from 1,549 in 1910 to 674 in 1925. At the same time, the number of touring companies dropped from 236 to 34.
Equity unsuccessfully attempted to extend its reach to Hollywood. Instead, the film, and later television, industry came to be represented by groups such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Equity ultimately formed alliances with these groups.
Over time, Equity won additional concessions for its members. In 1933, a minimum wage for stage actors was finally enacted. The minimum wage continues to be important since only 17 percent of Equity’s 47,000 members, who range from Broadway actors to those appearing on stage in Las Vegas and at American theme parks, earned less than $15,000 from stage work in 2008. Equity has also established rules for auditions, rehearsals, and work hours and conditions. Striking and threatening to strike continue to be viable tools for protecting the rights of Equity’s membership. Equity has also established health plans and pensions for its members, and the group has endorsed causes such as rights for gay and disabled actors and protecting the landmark status of venerable American theater buildings.
- Actors’ Equity Association. “Equity Timeline, 1913–2013.” http://actorsequity.org/AboutEquity/timeline/timeline_intro.html (Accessed February 2014).
- Eyring, Teresa. “Actors and Money.” American Theatre, 25/1 (January 2008).
- Holmes, Sean P. Weavers of Dreams, Unite! Actor’s Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
- Rogers, Lynne. “The Actor Revolt.” American Heritage, v.47/51 (September 1996).
- Simmons, Renée A. Frederick Douglass O’Neal: Pioneer of the Actors’ Equity New York: Garland, 1996.
- Simonson, Robert. “Equity’s First Act.” American Theatre, v.30/3 (March 2013).