By TOM DUPREE
The American labor movement is older than America itself; the earliest recorded strike occurred in 1768, when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. But one union in particular had its genesis inside the walls of our clubhouse.
By the early twentieth century, live theatrical performance was dominated by the Theatrical Syndicate and the Shubert brothers, who together controlled both theaters and bookings. A handful of actors felt the need to band together to fight back against what they considered to be abuses, and to fashion contracts that would be mutually acceptable to “management” and “labor.”
On January 13, 1913, they held their first secret meeting in a room on the second floor of The Players clubhouse, next to the Library. They continued to meet there for the next few months to make their plans. This group was known as “The Players,” though we're not sure if all of them were club members. But it was definitely William Courtleigh, a Player from 1896 to 1930, who suggested the word "equity" for the prospective union’s name. It would be called the Actors’ Equity Association.
"Equity,” as it also came to be known, was officially founded on May 26 by 112 actors at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in Columbus Circle. Francis Wilson (1854-1935), a founding member of The Players, was elected the union’s first president. A bust of Wilson is featured in the Dining Room, just to the right of the Sargent portrait of Joseph Jefferson over the fireplace.
Equity’s legacy spread throughout the entertainment field, as film actors spun off their own organization, and directors and choreographers later followed suit. Today Equity represents tens of thousands of actors and stage managers, and has played a major role in establishing and maintaining fair working conditions and benefits for them.
And it all started at our club.
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com. He celebrated his first anniversary as a Player last week.