Devotion, support and humor helped transform the trauma, fear and danger of war, into something that could be understood and dealt with, and Broadway brought its share of each to the cause.
In 1913, The Actor's Equity Association was organized and attempted to arbitrate differences with the Managing Producer's Association over questions of minimum wage, time limits on unpaid rehearsals, and limiting the number of performances in a week.
Stagehands and musicians were already united under the American Federation of Labor. After an initial compromise in 1917, limiting unpaid rehearsals to four weeks, Equity got nowhere fast, and in 1919, The Manager's Association refused to further engage in conversation with Equity representatives. The producers were convinced that the actors couldn't afford to cause any real trouble and that a strike was out of the question.
The Producers Association met to register astonishment when they heard that Equity was making in-roads at rehearsals of the play, Chu Chin Chow. Chu Chin Chow was an extravagant show which had been in rehearsals for several weeks. None of the actors or actresses had any idea how much longer the rehearsal period would last, or what their wages would be once the show did open. In an effort to avoid a confrontation, the producers of the show, F. Ray Comstock and Morris Gest, raced into wage agreements with the cast of Chu Chin Chow. Equity needed another avenue by which they could arbitrate as a class action.
Frank Bacon was a little known actor who had been performing in various road productions for some thirty years. He had succumbed to playing bit parts in Hollywood movies when he was hired for a road tour of the play, The Fortune Hunter. When he met with the producers, he mentioned that he had a script of his own, which he would like to see produced. The producers, one of whom was play-doctor, Winchell Smith, rewrote and agreed to produce the play with Bacon in the lead. Lightnin', began it's run in the spring of 1919. Lightnin', was a success and Bacon no longer had to worry about the rent.
When he heard about the settlement at Chu Chin Chow, and realized that many of his fellow actors were deprived of the benefits of a class action, Bacon stated that he would, "close Lightnin', tonight". The night was August 7, 1919. He met with John Golden, the other half of the producing team of Golden-Smith and stated that it was a matter of principle. While he had always considered Golden and Smith "friends", they were also, "the other side". Rumors of the closing of Lightnin', spread quickly and fourteen other shows joined the protest against the producers that night. Charles Coburn, who was starring in the War play, The Better 'Ole, and who opposed the idea of a strike was stranded mid-scene when his supporting cast left the stage.
Comedian Ed Wynn, who was starring in a Shubert production called Gaieties of 1919 left the theater and gathered a group of theatergoers around him on the street to listen to an impassioned plea for better treatment for his fellow performers. The crowd soon picked him up and began a march down Broadway.
Since Equity was only striking shows of members of the Producers Association, there were shows that didn't go dark. Ziegfeld's Follies, continued to perform with star Eddie Cantor crooning nightly. Frank Bacon and cast were riding around town in a hired coach with banners proclaiming, "Lightnin', has struck." Downtown, chorus girls were eliciting support from the financial district. When asked how they could afford a strike, they answered that if they could afford to rehearse for six weeks without pay, they could afford to strike as well.
George M. Cohan donated $100,000.00 to create an alternative union for actors and railed against the strikers. Cohan was particularly disturbed. Being both an actor and a producer, he was caught in the middle. He felt that actors betrayed not only him, but also a valiant tradition. Among the actors that opposed Equity by joining Cohan's new union were E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, Otis Skinner and Mrs. Fiske. Equity made Cohan the butt of many jokes and even created a parody of "Over There" to use during the strike. Actors thought that Cohan was selling them out.
Producers never thought that "their" stars would participate in a strike action. The producers were wrong. John Drew and the Barrymores were highly visible promoting enthusiasm and keeping up the morale of the strikers. Marie Dressler led chorus girls' picket lines. Lillian Russell, Josephine Hull, Florence Reed and George Arlis were ardent supporters of the strike. When stagehands and musicians refused to cross picket lines, the strike was complete.
The producers were also shocked by the fact that actors got support from the public. Signs were posted in shop windows offering credit to actors. Colorful parades marched from Columbus Circle to 42nd Street, through the heart of the theater district. In all fairness it must be told that at least one producer, Al Woods, bought raincoats for chorus girls picketing his theater in the rain. "I'll need you when this is over", was his comment.
Equity won that fight and the strike was settled exactly one month after it had begun. It's interesting to point out that the strikers did not demand higher wages. If the strike had a particular slogan, it was, "Not more pay, just fair play." With the exception of payment for extra matinees, the demands were limited to a four-week limit on unpaid rehearsals and half pay for the weeks that followed. Chorus members were to receive a $30.00 a week minimum wage and an additional five-dollar stipend for playing out of town.
Reached the end of the decade? Hardly, for there's lots more happening with Broadway's favorite stars. This is also the decade that saw the apogee of Vaudeville, and the construction of the theater that would be synonymous with that institution, the Palace.
There were a number of theaters added to the Broadway landscape between 1910 and 1920. We've mentioned Nazimova's 39th Street Theater which was built in 1910 (and dropped her name the following year), and Cohan's Theater on Broadway at 43rd, which opened in 1911. In 1911 there are two other theaters that should be mentioned. The Playhouse Theater on 48th Street was the theater in which Mel Brooks filmed the "Springtime for Hitler" sequences of The Producers. The Playhouse no longer exists.
The Folies-Bergere on 46th Street was opened as a dinner theater. The two upper balconies were standard theater seating, but the orchestra seating was tiers of tables, and the front of the first mezzanine was also devoted to dining theatergoers. It was an idea ahead of its time in the U.S. and the theater closed after a few short months. It reopened as the Fulton (sans kitchen) and enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a Broadway house, though most of us are more familiar with its later name, The Helen Hayes.
Variety had long played its part in Theater. Weber and Fields had been entertaining the Broadway crowd since the 1870's in theaters like Pastor's at Broadway and Prince Street, and in their own theater on 29th Street since 1895. They had succeeded in attracting DeWolfe Hopper and Miss Lillian Russell to participate in their shows. Miss Russell was attracted by the $1,200.00 per week salary they offered which should give some idea of the popularity of the venue.
Martin Beck was an owner-manager of a number of theaters from Chicago west known as the "Orpheum circuit". Wanting to cash in on the New York market, he purchased a lot on Broadway and 47th Street and began building a grand new theater. Through manipulation of creditors and some rather creative book keeping by his competition in the New York market, when the theater was completed Beck discovered he owned only 25% of the property. The balance of the property was owned by Keith and Albee. In 1913, the Palace Theater opened as the new home of variety entertainment in New York.