90 years of Actors’ Equity

A brief history of the theatre thesp union

1913: 112 New York actors found Actors’ Equity. George M. Cohan says, “I will drive an elevator for a living before I will do business with any actors union.”

1919: Equity strikes for formal recognition from the Producing Managers’ Assn. Vaudeville impresario E.F. Albee vows to strangle the upstart, but stars rally to the cause. Lillian Russell donates $100,000 to launch Chorus Equity, which elects Marie Dressler its first president. “Ziegfeld Follies” is forced to close. W.C. Fields emcees a week of benefits at which Ethel and Lionel Barrymore perform. The 30-day action shuts down 37 productions in eight cities. When Equity is finally recognized, on Sept. 6, the union has grown to 14,000 members.

1924: Union action shuts down seven theaters until the producing managers accept Equity Shop, whereby nonunion actors in professional shows automatically become members of Equity.

1927: Police raid three plays, including Mae West’s “Sex,” and haul actors off to jail. Equity declares, “The actor is not responsible for the content of the play.”

1948: Fisticuffs break out during contract negotiations between Equity and League of New York Theaters over minimum weekly salary.

1955: Equity is on the other side of the picket line during the blacklist. Union saves John Randolph’s job when anti-communists organize a protest outside “Wooden Dish,” but one of Equity’s own officers, Philip Loeb, commits suicide after NBC dumps him.

1960: Actors walk out on “The Tenth Man” and threaten to close one theater each night. League retaliates by shutting down Broadway. After 13 days, Mayor Robert B. Wagner offers to clip the Amusement Tax if producers kick in percentage of B.O. to finance union pensions.

1968: Three days into a Broadway strike, Mayor John V. Lindsay brokers a deal that wins Equity its then-largest increase in salary minimums.

1970: Off Broadway strikes and sticks it out for a month, closing 17 shows and forcing Equity into binding arbitration.

1974: Off Broadway producers call a one-day strike to protest the cap on the number of seats that qualify a house for Equity productions. Union finally bumps up seating limit from 299 to 499.

1975: Musicians union hits the bricks in September, closing down nine Broadway shows for 25 days.

1979: Equity protests demolition of Morosco, Bijou and Helen Hayes theaters.

1982: Members of Equity among 500 protesters blocking passage to bulldozers ready to demolish the Morosco. The so-called Morosco 200 are dragged away by police.

1987: Fur flies for a month in casting dispute over star-worthiness of Sarah Brightman, who eventually opens in “The Phantom of the Opera” after in-kind concession is won for an American actor in a future West End show.

1990: Asian actors stage faceoff when “Miss Saigon” producers request permission for British thesp Jonathan Pryce to play Eurasian hustler. Council then reverses itself and gives the go to Pryce.

2001: Union calls for national boycott of non-Equity tour of “The Sound of Music.”

2003: 18 Broadway shows are struck when league and musicians union fail to resolve major issues over virtual orchestras. Equity supports the strike.

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