Today in Theatre History: WHITE RATS ON STRIKE!–February 22, 1901

The original White Rats--preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by posing for a photo.

The original White Rats–preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by first posing for a photo.  Just look at all them beady little eyes…

On this day in theatre history (February 22) in 1901, a group of American vaudeville performers, fed up with the Keith-Albee conglomerate, staged a strike against the Vaudeville Managers Association (VMA)–which Keith-Albee controlled.  Their key complaint was the 5% fee (or kickback) performers were required to pay to VMA in order to secure booking at the most popular venues.  Known as “The White Rats,” the union was formed the year before as a way to protest the oppressive practices in an increasingly lucrative industry.  Curiously, the White Rats were surprisingly effective in this initial strike, considering they were not yet a fully recognized union (that wouldn’t happen until 1910 when the AFL granted them a charter), and given the general distaste big business had toward labor organization.  Within a few days, most of the VMA branches had acquiesced and agreed to drop the fee.  Within a month, Keith and Albee (yup, that’s Edward’s adoptive grandfather) both claimed to have always disliked the 5% kickback scheme anyway and the White Rats won.  Their success was probably due to their rather moderate demands and the fact that VMA was not keen to lose a cent of revenue to their strongest competitor–cinema.  But their luck wouldn’t last.  In 1916, the White Rats staged another strike and this time VMA was not in such a generous mood.  In retaliation, Albee announced a nationwide blacklist that barred any members of the union from being booked in any of the nearly 15,000 theatres under the control of the VMA.  After a year, the strike failed and the union disbanded.  It would take the famous 1919 strike by Actors’ Equity to finally turn the tide of unionized theatrical entertainment in the United States.  Nonetheless, the White Rats are remembered as one of the early attempts to improve the lives and working conditions of professional performers, though their efforts are now often forgotten by students of American theatre.

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