Actors Equity went on strike for the first time on August 7, 1919 — one hundred years ago today. The strike closed 37 plays, and prevented another 16 from opening. Stars like Ethel Barrymore, W.C. Fields and Marie Dressler joined hundreds of their fellow unionists, such as then unknown 17-year-old Tallulah Bankhead, in marches, rallies and benefit performances, while the Great White Way went dark. The actors objected to such common practices by producers of the day as demanding up to 18 weeks of rehearsal for no pay. According to “Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater (Applause Books),” a history of Actors Equity Association, performers had to purchase their own costumes and, if a show closed out of town, had to make their own way back home.Producers looked for ways to stiff the actors, such as clauses in their contracts that they would forfeit their entire salary for the vague charge of “conduct unbecoming ladies and gentlemen.”
With the support of the public, the strike ended on September 6, 1919 in the actors’ favor, with the producers signing a contract giving into almost all of Equity’s demands. The union had come into its own; the membership over the course of the month grew from under 3,000 to 14,000.
“The producers looked upon actors as silly children,” recalled Tallulah Bankhead, “vain, illogical, capricious, even slightly demented. How could artists hope to function in something so plebeian as a union?”
Some producers may still think so, but 100 years later, Actors Equity is still going strong, representing more than 51,000 actors and stage managers.