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April 1, 2004

THE SECRET HISTORY: Actors’ Equity Celebrates Its 90th Anniversary in the Place where (shhhhhh!) it all began.

By Peter Royston

Edwin Booth Behind every revolution is a secret history. Before every July 4th or Bastille Day, there are dozens of unknown gatherings, whispered conversations, hastily-drawn plans: sparks that eventually light the flame for all the world to see. For the world, the story of Actors’ Equity started on May 26, 1913, when 112 actors formed the Union at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City. But Equity’s secret history began in secret meetings, many of which were held at the Players, the actors club on Gramercy Park that Edwin Booth had founded in 1888. After the ineffectual Actors’ Society of America voted to disband in December of 1912, a select committee of actors, mostly Players members, met “without permission” as the plaque at the club still reads, to lay the groundwork for Actors’ Equity Association. It’s no exaggeration to say that these actors risked their livelihoods and reputations by holding these meetings. It was right and fitting, therefore, that Actors’ Equity celebrated its 90th anniversary in the place where sparks were struck with such courage and determination. On March 29th, Equity hosted a star-studded gala at the Players to honor those who had come before and, like those secret planners 90 years ago, think ahead to the future.

Under the watchful portraits and photos of Players past, many of today’s top players reveled in the sense of community that Equity has always represented. In one corner Richard Thomas laughed with Brian Stokes Mitchell under a portrait of Edwin Booth himself (“That face which no man ever saw/And from his memory banished quite…” as Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in his poem “Sargent’s Portrait of Edwin Booth at ‘The Players’”). In the Dining Room, Kathleen Chalfant chatted with Frances Sternhagen near a painting of Helen Hayes, who, in 1989, became the first woman to become a member of the Players. And standing in the main hall, former Equity Presidents Theodore Bikel and Ron Silver conferred with current Executive Director Alan Eisenberg and President Patrick Quinn.

In his brief, gracious speech, Quinn remembered those “brave individuals” who had secretly met at the Players, “who selflessly laid the groundwork for what today has become a strong national union of 46,000 proud actors and stage managers.” He evoked Equity’s achievements, stating, “we were among the first to stand up against segregation; we were among the few to denounce the immoral blacklist of the 1950’s; we fought to save our cherished and historic theaters from demolition; and in 1985 a small group of concerned Councillors established Equity Fights AIDS, later merging with Broadway Cares.” Finally, he looked ahead, toasting “the future members of Equity, who will carry the torch that those original players lit in this building 90 years ago.”

When he founded The Players, Edwin Booth had in mind a place where the theatrical community could interact with the representatives from other arts and spheres of influence. “We do not mingle enough with minds that influence the world,” he said, “We should measure ourselves through personal contact with outsiders…” At this celebration, Equity’s strong connections with “outsiders” was clear as guests read proclamations from different government agencies honoring Equity’s achievements. A Proclamation from the New York State Legislature stated how Equity had “enhanced the dignity of professional actors” throughout its 90 years. Comments from Representative Jerrold Nadler, which had been read into the Congressional Record, acknowledged Equity’s efforts to work with other theatrical unions to keep Broadway up and running after the attacks on 9/11. There was a proclamation of warm congratulations from the New York City Council, and a declaration from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, acknowledging that “Whether they doll themselves up in preparation for the lights and glitz of Broadway or opt for a small first time production on the Lower East Side, visitors to our city are drawn to the theater…”

As Booth envisioned, politicians mingled with artists throughout the night. Guests included New York City Council member and Cultural Affairs Committee Chair Jose Serrano, Councilman Lew Fidler, Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting, and Leida Snow, from US Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s office. Important Labor leaders, like AGMA President Linda Mays, AFTRA NY Local President Roberta Reardon, AFM Local 802 President David Lennon, Australian Equity President Susan Lyons, SAG NY President Eileen Henry, SSDC President Pam Berlin, IATSE President Thomas Short, and Vice President Tony DePaulo, were also in attendance.

It was a night of memories. David Margulies recalled how he got his Equity card: “Every actor wanted to be a member of Equity, and that continues, even in this terrible time of non-Equity tours. I had done a few things Off-Broadway and had also been a spear-carrier for Joe Papp, but those were all non-Equity things. I was an advanced apprentice at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Connecticut, and they did their first tour, The Winter’s Tale, with Bert Lahr, and I was asked to be an assistant stage manager and play three different parts. And that was my Equity card. It was fantastic. And then I had to leave the tour, a new Equity member, to go into the army when John F. Kennedy called up the reserve.” George Dvorsky remembered, “I wasn’t sure what Equity was when I first joined; I was a little Richard Thomas upset that they took most of my first paycheck to get in! But today I’m glad they did!” Richard Thomas remembered starting young: “I got my Equity card in 1958 when I was seven, doing Sunrise at Campobello on Broadway…I’ve always been proud to be an Equity member, and I’m proud that it was my first union. “

It was a night of appreciation. Julie Halston said, “One of the things about being an actor, of course, is the uncertainty of work. But when you are a union member you are guaranteed a certain amount of money, work protections, health care benefits, which allow you to live with a lot more dignity than just constantly scrambling all the time.” Lois Smith asked, “What would we do without Equity? Think about the people who went way out on a limb to form it. We don’t think about it often enough. You know, I haven’t had to be particularly brave; I’ve inherited all of this.” For Kathleen Chalfant, “Equity has meant honor, a community, and in these days of vanishing labor unions, something very important to hang on to.”

For Andre DeShields, Equity has been not only “an effective democratic community, but a community that can make fair demands in the marketplace,” and Dee Hoty said, “I look forward to putting a little more back into the union than I did in my youth because I took it for granted somewhat. But I’m really looking forward to giving back a little more, as others have given for me.” Jordan Gelber, the Equity Deputy from AVENUE Q, and a relatively new member who joined Equity in 2000, sees himself as “part of a long tradition of professional working actors which validates me as an actor and makes me feel supported and secure. I’m very happy to be here and be part of it all!”

F. Murray Abraham “I wish everyone who was a part of Equity and was considering becoming an actor could be made aware of what this life was like for actors before Equity,” said F. Murray Abraham, “Because without a union, you’re nothing but a dog! You cannot ever allow yourself to forget that. Infighting and complaints about the union should always be kept within the family because we weaken ourselves when we attack our union publicly. If you don’t defend your union, you’ll lose your union…Unions represent a middle class that is disappearing. And with it goes our democracy.

It was a night for looking to tomorrow’s challenges. Theatre columnist Michael Riedel was looking to the spring negotiations, “Speaking as a reporter at a paper where there hasn’t been a union in a long time, it’s nice for old times’ sake to see that there’s still a union that seems vital and vibrant and is trying to face what may be its greatest challenge in its history…” P.J. Benjamin thinks the union is up to any trials ahead: “We’ve been through 9/11 and we’ve been through the musicians strike…I’m so proud of the union because it seems to me to be stronger than ever. Pat Quinn is only as strong as we are, and the membership is behind him.”

Ron Silver and Theodore BikelStill hanging in Edwin Booth’s bedroom at The Players is the Booth coat of arms with the motto “Quod ero spero,” which the Players has translated as “I look forward to what I shall become.” For two former Equity Presidents, what Equity will become depends on learning from the lessons of the past. Ron Silver said, “We’ve been fighting the same battles for a while, but they’re qualitatively different now because of technology, because of shifting audiences. Audiences are going to many different places – you can pick your own entertainment in your own time, in your own venue. So we’re confronting a different world…We’re going to have to roll with the changes and make adjustments.” Theodore Bikel said that Equity must, ironically, often “protect actors from themselves because they are so passionate about working that they would rather work for less money or no money, and less protection or no protection, than not work at all. Because they love what they do, their passion makes them vulnerable…” He summed up Equity’s mission as one of labor and love: “It’s labor – that’s why we are a union, because we labor, and it’s love because we have passion and we love the theatre, sometimes beyond measure. And if we’re lucky the theatre loves us back!”

”This is truly a celebration of all that Actors’ Equity stands for – talent, creativity, settings standards both in the theatre and in American society,” said Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg. “We have prospered and contributed to the theatrical community for 90 years and we will continue for many more decades.”

Challenges remain as Equity begins its next 90 years, but the mood at this very special gathering was one of celebration and determined optimism. As he finished his speech, Patrick Quinn called Equity “the heart and soul of the American theater...May we prosper and fight the good fight for decades to come.”

Peter Royston writes about theatre, education and popular culture. In 2003, he wrote the special timeline edition of Equity News, celebrating Equity’s 90th anniversary.

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