Inside LA Stage History: The 99-seat/AEA Wars, Part One

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One evening in February 1981, I ventured to the Solari Theatre at 205 N. Canon Drive in Beverly Hills to see Arthur Miller’s The Price. The classic four-hander, directed by Guy Stockwell, featured one of my favorite actresses, Carrie Snodgrass, with John Saxon, Harold Gary, and the Theatre’s founder, Rudy Solari. When I arrived, I learned the performance was canceled. Solari was standing near the box office, so I asked him why there was no show that night. “Bullshit,” he mumbled, “a whole lot of Actors Equity bullshit.” That was my first and last conversation with a man who worked very hard to establish a live theater venue in LA.

The Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) is an American labor union, dedicated to representing any person with a professional career as a live theatrical performer. There was a time when this union exclusively represented actors, whether they were working live on stage or in film, anywhere in the United States. In 1896, the first Actors Union Charter, which was recognized by the American Federation of Labor, set out to create a minimum wage for actors. That failed in January 1913. Out of the discussions that followed its demise, Actors Equity Association was formed.

In the spring of 1913, 112 professional theater actors met at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City to establish AEA’s constitution. In truth, a small group of theatre heavyweights had met earlier at The Players private social club (founded in the 19th century by Edwin Booth at his Gramercy Park mansion) and hammered out the exact details of Equity’s constitution. One member of the group, actor/playwright Frank Gillmore, became Executive Secretary of Actors’ Equity from 1918 to 1929 and served as its President until 1937.

After joining the American Federation of Labor in 1919, Actors’ Equity utilized its newfound strength, establishing itself as actors’ sole representative, and initiating the first strike in the history of the American theatre. The new union effectively spread its influence to eight cities, closed 37 plays, and prevented the opening of 16 others, costing theaters millions of dollars. Before the 1919 strike, Actors’ Equity had 2,777 members. After the strike, it had grown to 14,000.

The Actors’ Equity Association Los Angeles office officially opened in 1921. Six years later, AEA called for another strike, now seeking to end the dominance of the Producing Managers’ Association.

By December 1929, Actors’ Equity found itself at the losing end of the negotiations and at the end of the month, theater owners and producers finally prevailed by filing lawsuits against AEA for damages resulting from the holdouts. Finding it impossible to enforce its control, AEA lost its grip over dedicated film actors. In 1933, a group of movie actors formed the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and it was agreed that Actors’ Equity would focus its efforts specifically on live productions.

The spheres of powers were now set, with Actors’ Equity in New York, and the Screen Actors Guild firmly established in Hollywood. An actor wishing to work on stage and in film would have to be a member of both unions. And there was a decided gap between the aspirations of West Coast Equity members and their East Coast counterparts, even though there were organizational efforts attempting to bridge the gap between East and West Coast members.

In 1943, actor Sam Jaffe, representing Actors’ Equity, and George Freedley, curator of New York Public Library’s Theatre Collection, co-founded the nonprofit Equity Library Theatre (ELT). The young actors showcased in the Collection worked through Equity’s newly established National Experimental Theatre contract, which was adopted in 1940. A limit of three performances within three consecutive weeks was established. Beginning in 1949, ELT initiated stage productions at Lenox Hill Playhouse and at other auditoriums, helping to launch the careers of such actors as James Earl Jones, Richard Kiley, Jason Robards, and many others.

In 1952, Pasadena Playhouse associate director Philip Cary Jones became chairman of the Equity Theatre Project, made up of Los Angeles actors who were attempting to create an LA chapter of New York’s Equity Library Theatre. Despite the fact that New York’s ELT was having financial problems and was constantly in danger of closing down, Equity Library Theatre West was founded in 1960. Actress and longtime union activist Lynn Archer served on ELT West’s board. ELT West attempted to follow the same precepts as its New York chapter but didn’t garner much support from the public. Performances were often held on stages in public parks and recreation halls. Participants included actor/poet Leland Hickman and his partner, Charles Macauley.

An early critical success was Paul Osborne’s Mornings At Seven, staged by Ralph Senensky in 1961. Rae Creevey, who would go on to co-found East West Players in 1965, launched his directing career at ELT West in 1963. That same year, Latino star Henry Darrow made one of his first local stage appearances in ELT West’s production of The Alchemist. But a lack of support, both public and financial, resulted in ELT West closing down in 1964. Local actors participating in ELT West cited the forced limitations of New York’s newly dubbed Equity Showcase Code, with its restriction allowing actors only three performances over three consecutive weeks, as the main reason for its failure. In New York, however, the Showcase Code began to expand.

The 1967 May-June Equity News reported the production of 140 showcases. Two years later, a longer version of the Code occupied two full pages of the publication. A “semi-public performance,” it said, shall not “exceed 100 audience members without Equity’s approval.” The maximum number of performances rose from three to six. And the question of how actors should be compensated for showcases moving on to bigger productions—or to film or TV—was spelled out in exacting detail.

By the end of the 60s, many of the contemporary Equity Showcase Code guidelines were formulated: up to 12 performances within four weeks, admission charges (then a $3 maximum), advertising permissible, transportation reimbursement for rehearsals and performances, and budgetary limits (then $2,000) on productions. Then came the “Tier” contracts, offering nonprofits the ability to spend more (and pay more) as their budgets increased. And some extraordinary statistics continued to emerge. In the 1978-79 season, Equity News reported 2,875 AEA members participating in over 575 showcase productions.

But these were East Coast figures. On the West Coast, the Equity Showcase Code did little to solve the problems of AEA actors. In Los Angeles, as the film and burgeoning television industries moved into the 1960s, free from the big studio system of contracting players to long-term relationships, actors were finding themselves totally at the mercy of their free agency. Small live theater companies—Company of Angels, Theatre 40, Theatre West, Stage Society, the Company Theatre, the Solari Theatre, and others—were founded by actors who banded together to work on their craft and find performance opportunities that would allow them to display their talents. Many found the Code’s 12-performance limitation to be untenable, especially when a theater was attempting to maintain an actual theatrical space. And paying AEA union salary minimums was not an option.

During this time, Edward Weston began serving as Actors’ Equity’s Western regional director. Born in 1925, Weston worked actively as a chorus dancer on Broadway, on tour, and in Hollywood. By the early 60s, he became aware of the steadily declining opportunities for dancers as Tinseltown backed away from the movie musical. During Weston’s involvement with Actors’ Equity, which began in 1968 and ended with his retirement in 1990, he made it his job to try to resolve the dilemma of the unstoppable force—the burgeoning LA live theater scene—and the immovable object known as the Actors’ Equity Association.

Next week: Part 2 of the 99-Seat/AEA Wars.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.