Exactly one hundred years ago today–May 26, 1913–a group of 112 theatre professionals met in the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel on Columbus Circle in New York City. Looking to combat the mistreatment of performers within the industry, they voted to form a union. The result was Actors’ Equity. They immediately approved the writing of a formal constitution and elected their first union president, comic actor Francis Wilson. This action was the direct result of decades of abusive conditions and unregulated practices by producers, especially after the formation of the Theatrical Syndicate in 1896. As the Actors’ Equity website points out, “By the beginning of the 20th century, exploitation had become a permanent condition of an actor’s employment. Producers set their own working conditions and pay scale. There was no compensation for rehearsals or holidays and rehearsal time was unlimited.” This was about to change.
The success and strength of the new union would not be seriously tested until the famous Actors’ Strike of 1919, following the union’s merger with the American Federation of Labor that same year. This was not the first attempt by actors to unionize. Just six month before the 1913 meeting, the Actors Society of America (an early attempt at an actors’ union), under the direction of Louis Aldrich, disbanded after seventeen years of ineffectual operations. Immediately, a handful of influential actors, headed by Anglo-American playwright and actor, Frank Gillmore, began meeting at the famed Players Club and laying the groundwork for a genuine actors’ union. Their work culminated in the formal meeting on this day in 1913 at the Pabst Hotel that resulted in Actors’ Equity being the first true actors’ union with any significant clout. But it would take time before that clout was felt. From 1913 to 1917, the union struggled to gain any support from hostile producers and weary actors. And not every actor was supportive. George M. Cohan, for instance, was ardently opposed to the union for the simple reason that he didn’t need representation. But by the conclusion of the 1919 strike, Equity had become a major player in commercial theatre. The effects of unionization, while immensely useful for the actors, would soon put the producers in a difficult position. Although the popularity of the American commercial stage continued to rise during the early 1920s (the 1926-27 season was the best ever on Broadway), the development of film–especially “talkies” in 1927–suddenly made the live stage technologically obsolete. Moreover, the increased overhead that union wages and regulations placed on theatre producers made live theatre’s profitability a serious problem. Film, on the other hand, was certainly every bit as expensive to produce, but very cheap to reproduce. While a $100,000 stage play could be seen, at most, by a few thousand a night in a major Broadway theatre, a $100,000 movie could be seen by millions on that same night.
With the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the subsequent depression, live stage became a less and less desirable investment for many producers. Money, personnel, innovation and brainpower shifted to Hollywood, leaving Broadway and the commercial stage in an ever-shrinking economic dilemma that it still faces today. On the other hand, as unionization made for better working conditions and higher pay for actors, it also increased the quality of performance, allowing actors to explore with greater depth the subtleties of Realism–perhaps in an effort to more effectively complete with the realism of film. At the same time, the arrival of great realistic writers like Eugene O’Neill gave the perfect platform to highlight the new age of the unionized actor.