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90th Anniversary Gala at The Players

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Equity Timeline

Founded May 26, 1913, Actors' Equity Celebrates 90th Anniversary With Special Timeline Edition of Equity News


"Equity is the tradition, the spirit and the voice of actors in American theatre."
Ralph Bellamy, AEA President, 1952-1964


HAPPY BIRTHDAY AEA! Vintage photos such as this one from the 1920s will be included in the timeline. That's Equity member Helen Hayes holding the letter "U." click here to see a larger version of the picture

On May 26, 2003, Actors' Equity Association will kick off its 90th anniversary with a special edition of EQUITY NEWS, a 12-page timeline highlighting significant dates and accomplishments from the Association's illustrious history, along with other historical and cultural events. The glossy color issue will include photos from various archives as well as a collage of past covers of EQUITY NEWS, the Union's monthly newsletter which has been published since 1915. Documents and other materials were acquired from the New York University's Wagner Archives, the Shubert Archives, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Library of Congress, among other sources.

"Starting with the Actors' Society of America and the 'White Rats,' there were several attempts to form an actors' union at the turn of the century," comments writer Peter Royston, who is researching the timeline. "None however, ultimately succeeded in overcoming the difficulties inherent in organizing labor against powerful theatre managers - that is, until Charles Coburn, Francis Gillmore, William Harcourt and Milton Sills envisioned Actors' Equity."

On May 26, 1913, 112 performers gathered at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel to adopt Equity's Constitution and elect its first President, comedian Francis Wilson. The Preamble, which stands outside of Equity's Council room today, is the still the finest statement of Equity's mission:

"We hereby constitute ourselves as a voluntary association to advance, promote, foster and benefit all those connected with the art of theatre and particularly the profession of acting and the conditions of persons engaged therein; to protect and secure the rights of actors; to inform them as to their legal rights and remedies; to advise and assist them in obtaining employment and proper compensation; to procure appropriate legislation upon matters affecting their profession;"

STRIKE! These actors show their support for the big strike of 1919 click here to see a larger version of the picture

"Looking back at our colorful and extraordinary history, I am proud to see how far we've come since our courageous founders banded together, ninety years ago, to improve wages and working conditions in the American theatre," remarks Equity President Patrick Quinn in his introduction to the timeline. "Our achievements are monumental but all we've ever asked for are three simple things: a chance to prove our talent, to receive reasonable compensation for our work, and to be treated with dignity and fairness."

Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg notes that the Union struck in 1919 to win recognition after joining the American Federation of Labor (AFL). "From that point forward, Equity made enormous strides in bringing about change not only in the theatre, but for labor and society as a whole. For example, we stood up against segregation in the '40s and blacklisting in the '50s. In the '60s, we successfully advocated for funding for the arts and helped create the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). We propelled tax reform beneficial to performing artists, and stopped the destruction of our historic Broadway theatres."

Ethel Merman and AEA president Frank Gillmore
click here to see a larger version of the picture

Quinn and Eisenberg emphasize that the timeline will serve as a platform for future activities heading towards Equity's Centennial in 2013. In May, PLAYBILL will publish an historical overview with comments by former Equity President Ellen Burstyn.

The EQUITY NEWS timeline will also be adapted and expanded on Equity's website over the summer, according to Equity Communications Director, David Lotz. Information which isn't included in the May issue will be added to our timeline on the website in the future.

"We are proud and honored to continue the legacy of our founders. Just as we surmounted obstacles in the past, we will succeed in the future with the support of our talented and dedicated members."