Weavers of Dreams, Unite!: Actors' Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America

Weavers of Dreams, Unite!: Actors' Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America

by Sean P. Holmes

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Published to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the Actors' Equity Association in 1913, Weavers of Dreams, Unite! explores the history of actors' unionism in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the onset of the Great Depression. Drawing upon hitherto untapped archival resources in New York and Los Angeles, Sean P. Holmes documents how American stage actors used trade unionism to construct for themselves an occupational identity that foregrounded both their artistry and their respectability. In the process, he paints a vivid picture of life on the theatrical shop floor in an era in which economic, cultural, and technological changes were transforming the nature of acting as work. The engaging study offers important insights into the nature of cultural production in the early twentieth century, the role of class in the construction of cultural hierarchy, and the special problems that unionization posed for workers in the commercial entertainment industry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252037481
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sean Holmes is deputy head and faculty member in the School of Arts at Brunel University in London.

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Weavers of Dreams, Unite!

Actors' Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America

By Sean P. Holmes


Copyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03748-1



The Great Text in Our Economy Today

The American Theater in an Age of Organization

Up to that period bookkeepers, scrubwomen and actors were about the only body of people who had not combined for protective purposes. —FRANCIS WILSON, Francis Wilson's Life of Himself

"Nearly every trade, profession, and occupation has its organization," actor Frank Gillmore observed in a speech to the small and exclusively male group of performers, playwrights, and producers in attendance at the inception of the Actors' Equity Association (AEA) in early 1913. "Indeed," he went on, "'organization' might be called the great text in our economy today." A self-appointed spokesperson for a section of the acting community that was both proud of its classlessness and inveterately class-conscious, Gillmore ignored the fundamental conflict of interests that divided organized labor from organized capital and, whether deliberately or not, glossed over the differences between trade unions and professional associations. Neither an economist nor a political scientist, he had little or no interest in exploring the distinctions between the competing modes of organization at work in industrial America in the early twentieth century. His point was simply that the failure of American stage actors to respond collectively to the problems that they encountered in the theatrical workplace set them apart from most other occupational groups and did so in ways that worked entirely to their detriment. By clinging to an anachronistic individualism, he asserted, they were condemning themselves "to accept injustice with seeming gratitude and sometimes [to] eat humble pie as a daily meal." "Such a condition," he warned them, was "apt to sap one's manhood and to rob one of that healthy self-respect without which no work of supreme artistic importance can be done."

Less a manifestation of what Richard Hofstadter, in his classic history of Progressivism, termed "the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization" than a warning to the unorganized against the consequences of not organizing, Gillmore's speech had a galvanizing effect on the theatrical community in the United States. For all of its evasions, elisions, and omissions, it resonated with the men and women who earned their living on the so-called legitimate stage, a group whose collective sense of identity was inextricably bound up with a wider set of debates about cultural hierarchy and the nature of acting as work. For actors and actresses who were able to lay claim to it, theatrical legitimacy was a source of status, something that identified them as artists rather than mere entertainers and thereby set them apart from other, supposedly lesser performers. Regardless of whether they plied their trade on Broadway, in the opera houses of small-town America, or under canvas on the tent-rep circuits of the rural South and Midwest, they saw themselves as the elite of the American stage. Since the mid-1890s their privileged position within the American theatrical community had been under threat, both as a consequence of a thoroughgoing transformation in the system of production in the theater industry and of a series of even more far-reaching cultural shifts that were redrawing the boundaries of theatrical legitimacy. By 1913 they were more than ready to embrace the gospel of organization as it was preached to them by Frank Gillmore and other like-minded actor-activists. What form their organizational efforts would take, however, was still very much up for grabs.

Like other branches of the commercial entertainment industry in the United States, the legitimate theater underwent a radical restructuring in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Prior to the early 1870s the basic organizational unit in the American theater was the resident stock company, a small troupe of professional performers attached to a specific theater and permanently located in a community that was large enough to make it commercially viable. The typical resident stock company operated under the direction of a proprietor who combined the functions of theater management and play production, performing a broad repertoire of plays for an almost exclusively local audience. The seeds of the demise of what was an essentially preindustrial mode of production had been sown as early as the 1820s by the rise of the star system, a set of practices imported from the British theater that allowed leading performers to exploit their success by moving from company to company. Over the next three or four decades, American theatergoers had grown progressively less willing to patronize shows that did not offer the promise of a star, leaving theater managers with little alternative other than to cut the size of their companies in order to meet the salary demands of big-name performers. With the subsequent decline in the quality of resident stock companies, many stars had begun to put together their own supporting casts, eventually engaging entire companies—or combinations—to perform a single play for the duration of a national tour. What finally sounded the death knell for the resident stock company, however, was the Panic of 1873 and the economic downturn that it precipitated. As Peter A. Davis has argued, the majority of resident stock companies operated on very tight margins and were ill equipped to survive under anything other than the most propitious circumstances. The theater managers who were able to ride out the storm were, for the most part, those who were willing to reduce their outgoings by laying off permanent company members and embracing the "combination system" in its entirety. Between 1872 and 1880 the number of first-class stock companies in the United States declined from fifty to just eight, while the number of combination companies rose from five to over one hundred.

The displacement of the resident stock company by the combination company had far-reaching consequences in that it detached theatrical production—that is, the process of putting together shows for the stage—from theater management. Having abandoned their role as producers, theater managers had to reinvent themselves as theatrical shopkeepers, traveling each summer to New York City, the emergent capital of the entertainment industry, to book attractions for the upcoming season. The advantages of the nascent combination system were manifold: it freed provincial theater managers from the expense of maintaining a permanent stock company; it provided New York–based producers with access to a national market; and it offered audiences across the United States a far more varied and polished product than ever had been available to them in the era of resident stock. Though a lengthy New York run would remain the apogee of success in American show business (as it had been since the early nineteenth century) and stock companies would not disappear altogether, it would be the road that drove the expansion of the theatrical economy for the next thirty years. In every season between 1880 and 1910, there were upward of 250 first-class combination companies leaving New York City on national tours, and their numbers were supplemented by hundreds of smaller companies that operated out of smaller theatrical centers such as Chicago and Kansas City.

In its early years, however, the combination system was characterized by intense competition and frequent contract breaking. In an effort to combat the problems that this raised, theater managers began to group their theaters into circuits, a strategy that strengthened their bargaining position immeasurably because it made it possible for them to offer touring companies the opportunity to book several weeks of business in a single transaction. Sensing a money-making opportunity, e

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Weavers of Dreams, Unite! 1

1 The Great Text in Our Economy Today: The American Theater in an Age of Organization 11

2 The Sock and Buskin or the Artisan's Biretta: Reconciling Art and Labor in the Actors' Equity Association, 1913-1919 33

3 All the World's a Stage! The Actors' Strike of 1919 58

4 Protecting the High-Minded Actor and the High-Minded Manager in Equal Part: Occupational Unionism in the American Theater Industry, 1919-1929 87

5 For the Dignity and Honor of the Theatrical Profession: Respectability and Unrespectability in the Actors' Equity Association, 1919-1929 119

6 Ain't No Peace in the Family Now: The Actors' Equity Association and the Movies, 1919-1929 141

Epilogue 173

Notes 179

Index 213

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