Anonymous (who seems to be all over the Internet) posted a comment to an off-hand remark I made in “After The Fall” about romancing the Federal Theatre Project. In the comment, Anonymous claims “theater unions were vehemently against its beginning”. I asked for references and he/she referred me to two books. I have not read the books so I can’t judge on how accurate the original works are on the subject. Nor on Anonymous’ interpretation of their interpretation. Being underemployed and with a slight case of OCD, I did my own research. In NYC there are various theatre libraries like the NYPL for the Performing Arts , the Wagner Archives and industry resources at one's disposal.
Thanks, Anonymous, for making me proud to be a union member.
In the 1928/29 season there were about 264 shows that opened. In the 1931/32 season that number had dropped to 230. By the 1935/36 season that number had dropped to 170. In 1931, upstart Shubert Brothers were bankrupt. The League of New York Theatres and Producers, now the Broadway League, was formed in 1930. It was estimated that 25,000 show folk were out of work.
There was no unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, pensions or health care. Hoover, the conservatives and Big Business rejected ideas of programs of emergency relief and instead raised tariffs, which worsened the problem.
With rising unemployment in it’s own ranks, IATSE Local One decided to create it’s own relief program. With the agreement of the theatre managers, it was decided stagehands would work a five-show week and that unemployed stagehands would make up the rest of the shows. I haven’t determined how the program was administered, though perhaps like our League Strike, we learned to administer it on the fly. When there wasn’t enough work, there were relief stipends, and in emergency cases, there were loans. Sometimes raffles were held to help individuals, often the retired stagehand without a pension, who were having illnesses or other hard times.
In September of 1935, IATSE representatives, Local One business agents and others in the industry met in Washington and New York with Hattie Flanagan, newly appointed head of the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration. In her first Regional Directors Report on Oct. 8th, 1935, Miss Flanagan describes meeting with the various interested parties. After meeting with “National Stage hands Union” she said, "The decision was that we cannot run a union shop, but that preferences is given to union workers because of their professional qualifications". The meetings with the League were successful only after some negotiations. “These meetings, in New York City, resulted in this group moving from complete antagonism to the project to the utmost cooperation, with an offer to sponsor several New York units as try-out theatres. “
With that out of the way, Flanagan, Edward Rollin, J. Horn and Mr. Barber of the Theatrical Projects Administration Staff, the IATSE Reps and Local One Business Agent Vince Jacobi began to set up the mechanics of the administration of the FTP in NYC. Business Agent Jacobi was appointed to oversee the application process for the stage technicians.
In February of 1936 an agreement was reached whereby Heads of Departments were paid $130 a month and grips, clearers and operators were paid $103 a month for 12 days of work for eight hours a day. 90 to 100 stagehands were expected to be employed by the program. By way of comparison, at the Hippodrome in 1935, a head made $125 a week and flymen, front light operators and others made $6 a show.
Many Local One members took great pride in being part of the program. While they were making less than they could with their Relief Tickets at other non-WPA theatres, protecting the Union and supporting the work that was being put on was more important than a days work at a higher rate. It was the policy of the Union that any man who did not protect the Union in the WPA jobs would be removed from the program and replaced.
In April of 1936, Congressman Wagner had read into the Congressional Report a telegram of support for the WPA, sent by Local One.
The success of the program was such that RKO, Loews and other theatre managers who saw the FTP as competition, complained to Local One that the FTP stagehands were being paid less they were paying for stagehands.
According to IATSE President George Browne’s Convention Report in June of 1938, the original program expanded from the original 90 in 1935 to 400 stagehands and 60 Department Heads. The rate had also been improved to $145 a month. The report ends with, “Our dealings with the officials of the Federal Theatre Project have been exceptionally satisfactory. I have always found a keen desire on their part to cooperate with us, which I have endeavored to reciprocate at every turn.”
The Living Newspaper shows played at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre, 49th St., Adelphi, Ritz, and the Biltmore Theatres.
The Negro Theatre Unit performed at the Lafayette and Adelphi Theatres.
The Children’s Unit performed at the Adelphi.
The Experimental Theatre Unit performed at the Venice and Experimental Theatre (Daly's 63rd Street) Theatres.
There were also units for Managers Try-out, One-Act, Poetic, Popular Price, Studio, Theatre for Youth, Variety, and Yiddish Theatre.
By the end of the 1939/1940 season , when the FTP ended, there were about 100 shows that opened. In the 1946/47 season about 130 shows opened. We never saw another season as busy as 1928 with 264 shows.
But our finest hour may have been ahead of us.