Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM), Union No. 18032, officially celebrates its 85th Anniversary in 2013, but the real beginning of the Union is not so clear.
The labor organization from which today’s Union evolved developed over several turbulent decades. Although workers traditionally organize to redress the wrongs of employers and to maintain employment in times of economic uncertainty, many press agents and managers shared the belief that their professional status was incompatible with union membership. The lengthy and often contentious formation of ATPAM was as much a result of this ambivalence as of the reluctance of employers to grant recognition to the Union.For that reason, administrative personnel, unlike other theatrical workers, were late to organize. The stagehands and musicians organized in the It was not until 1919, when AFL-affiliate Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the Four A’s) was formed, that Actors’ Equity, now the actors’ division of the Four A’s, developed some clout. The Union decided to test its strength when management would not agree to limit the number of paid performances in a week to eight or pay actors extra for matinees on legal holidays.On August 7, 1919, with the support of the stagehands and musicians, Equity called a strike. The strike lasted for 30 days, spreading to eight cities, closing 37 plays and preventing the opening of 16 others. When the strike was finally settled, the producers recognized Equity as the legal bargaining agent for all actors, and membership increased from 2,700 to 14,000. The settlement with Equity heralded a time of unparalleled financial prosperity and creative activity in the theatre. In 1920, there were 152 productions in New York; just seven years later, during the 1927-28 season, there were 264. Another important aspect during this era was the proliferation of newspapers. There were 15 daily newspapers in Manhattan and Brooklyn, each with a daily critic. George S. Kaufman was drama editor of The New York Times until he was succeeded by Brooks Atkinson, and Robert Benchley served as drama editor of Life magazine until 1929, when he joined The New Yorker.
It was a good time for the New York-based Broadway press agents and managers as well. Many earned salaries year-round working for producer-managers who mounted several productions each season, closing only in summer because s weren’t yet air-conditioned.Although theatrical production on Broadway prospered during the 1920’s, production on the road steadily declined. In 1920, there were about 1,500 legitimate s nationwide in which road and stock company productions played. By 1930, there were fewer than 500. The road died as the movie industry thrived, and, indeed, many s converted to motion picture houses. Responding to a rapidly deteriorating employment situation and spurred by the success of the actors’ strike, a group of press agents formed the Theatrical Press Representatives of America (TPROA). TPROA was a fraternal organization comprised almost exclusively of road agents, which never sought an AFL charter nor attempted to gain recognition form the League of New York Theatres.The group met annually, addressing itself to issues concerning the road, and published a magazine called The Quill on an irregular basis.
Throughout the 1920’s, TPROA functioned primarily as a social organization, sporadically attempting to cope with the issues of the rapidly dying road. Finally, in 1928, a dissident group headed by Theodore Mitchell broke away from the TPROA and obtained a charter from the AFL as the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers (ATAM).
Aside from the initial flurry of activity around ATAM’s founding, very little was heard from either it or TPROA for the next few years. TPROA limited its membership to those who worked in the legitimate theater and continued to function as a fraternal organization, while ATAM regarded itself as a labor organization.
The labor movement began in earnest with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in the 1932 Democratic landslide. When Roosevelt assumed office, the Depression was at its deepest, having a profound impact upon the theater. There had been 233 productions during the 1929-30 season, but the next season only 187. Thousands of actors were out of work and many of the producer-managers were bankrupt. Theater outside of New York was virtually non-existent, its destruction from the rise of motion pictures hastened by the Depression.
The out-of-town situation was so bleak that the TPROA revitalized itself for a brief time in 1931 after Judge Mitchell L. Erlanger, President of the A.L. Erlanger Amusement Enterprises, Inc., (owners, with the Shubert Organization, of the majority of road theaters) addressed its annual meeting. Erlanger disputed the claim that “talkies” were the cause of bad business on the road. Instead he claimed that stock market speculation had left the theater-going public little money for live theatrical entertainment. The road, he stated, would not be dead for good shows presented at reasonable prices.
With the cooperation of Equity and the League of New York Theaters, TPROA initiated a nationwide campaign to revitalize the road. In an attempt to work with local business groups on subscription and guaranteed ticket sales, TPROA offered to assure the quality of road attractions by creating a board to judge shows sent out from New York.
The New York Times published an editorial urging TPROA to follow through this time, pointing out that in the past, although articles underscoring the organization’s commitment to working on the road appeared in TPROA’s magazine, The Quill, nothing concrete had ever happened.
Unfortunately, there was nothing that even a well-meaning theatrical community could do on its own. President Roosevelt and his New Deal began to rebuild the nation’s economy. In 1933, Roosevelt introduced his first piece of legislation affecting labor, the National Recovery Act (NRA). Section 7a of this Act confirmed the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. However, no mechanism was set up to enforce that right.
Roosevelt appointed Senator Robert F. Wagner to head the National Labor Board, created to settle the inevitable differences between employers and employees which surfaced during the National Recovery Act. The Board, although authorized to conduct elections and hear disputed, had no power of enforcement and could only establish codes under which employers and employees agreed to operate.
Despite its limitations, the NRA had a profound impact. People were so eager for leadership and relief that the NRA received overwhelming support despite its relative powerlessness. It became a symbol of the nation’s rising social consciousness and provided a focus for people’s hopes, linking the organization of labor to the nation’s recovery.
On July 21, 1933, the entire theatrical community united under the NRA, agreeing upon a general code under which the legitimate theater was to operate. This marked the first time in history that all factions in the theater agreed to a general operating plan including prescribed salaries and working conditions. Company managers and treasurers were to receive $40 weekly (treasurers for a 44-hour week), while press agents received $50 weekly if service was in one locality and $75 weekly for work on the road. As is true now, there were no work hour requirements for press agents or managers. Management agreed to give one week’s notice before dismissal.
Code signatories included Theodore Mitchell for ATAM, Frank C. Payne for the TPROA, and, representing what The New York Times referred to as “an independent group of individual press agents and company managers,” Ralph Gervers.
On August 22, 1933, TPROA entered into an agreement with The League of New York Theatres based on the conditions set forth in the NRA codes. The producers finally seemed to be joining labor’s bandwagon, but it was probably a more devious decision on their part. TPROA’s competing Union, ATAM, had a membership far more aggressive than that of the gentlemanly TPROA. By accepting NRA’s codes, which were in fact legislated conditions, The League had nothing to lose by recognizing the weak TPROA and protecting itself from the possibility that the increasingly militant ATAM would claim recognition.
On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional. However, one month later Congress passed the Wagner Act. Often referred to as the Magna Carta of labor, the Wagner Act outlawed company dominated unions, declared traditional anti-union practices by employers illegal, legalized union-organizing efforts and established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer all provisions of the Act. The Wagner Act was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in March, 1937. It was as if the nation had undergone a peaceful revolution shifting substantial power from business owners to employees.
The government even sponsored a relief program for the unemployed of the theater under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Federal Theatre was founded on August 27, 1935, under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, then the director of the Vassar Experimental Theatre. At its founding, Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s personal assistant, said: “What we want is free, adult, uncensored theater.” Organized on a regional basis with production units throughout the nation, the Federal Theatre gave employment to more than 12,000 people. In New York, during a three-year period from 1936 to 1939, over 12 million people attended Federal Theatre productions.
Prompted by the New Deal, the AFL enjoyed a renaissance. Although it had begun to recruit and organize among the mass production industries, the AFL was still controlled by the skilled craft unions. The uneasy peace between mass production industries and the craft unions finally broke down when those favoring mass production broke away to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and it was not until 1955 that the two groups re-allied.
In reality, the decision was more than that of industrial versus skilled trades. It was a question of class and the recurring issue of white collar professional versus blue-collar workers. The Theater reflected both this spurt of unionization and the class divisions within it. ATAM actively began to recruit all box office treasurers and within a short time increased its membership by 300 by picketing such events as the Bowling Congress at the New York Armory and the annual automobile show at the Grand Central Palace. It then focused on organizing Broadway box office personnel.
The legitimate theater treasurers were receptive. There wasn’t enough work in the theater, and most box office jobs were at sporting events and trade shows — the very places ATAM was gathering strength. After about 30 Broadway box office treasurers joined, ATAM changed its name to Theatrical Managers, Agents and Treasurers (TMAT).
The Broadway press agents, affected by what was going on around them, decided that the time had come to organize, spearheaded by what one press agent referred to as “the aristocrats of the business”: Richard Maney, John Peter Toohey, Ray Henderson and Helene Deutsch.
Probably the most successful press agent on Broadway in his day, Richard Maney was frequently published by the New York dailies and in Life magazine. John Peter Toohey was a playwright and an original member of the Algonquin Round Table, which, it is said, gave The New Yorker its name. Ray Henderson was both personal advisor and press agent to actress Katherine Cornell and her husband, Guthrie McClintock. “He came out of the Midwest from somewhere,” according to one press agent, “but everybody thought he was an English lord or something like that. He was the smartest press agent I ever knew.”
Helene Deutsch founded the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1935, while she was representing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. Like others in the theater, she shared a general dissatisfaction with the Pulitzer Prizes, which seemed more attuned to literary tastes than theatrical achievement. When the Pulitzer was awarded to a dramatization of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid, in a season in which Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, and Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! were first presented, Helene Deutsch organized New York’s leading critics, forming the Critics Circle, which today still awards a prestigious annual critics’ prize.
These press agents decided to form a union for several reasons. Most were friends, some former colleagues, or members of New York’s working press. Drama writers, editors, critics and press agents socialized together, sharing meals and drinks at hangouts such as Bleeks, located down the block from the Herald Tribune, and the Algonquin, whose manager Frank Case provided free liquor and an available table to critics, journalists and theatrical types. In addition, press agents usually delivered their material to newsrooms in person, further cementing those relationships. “You made the rounds everyday yourself,” reminisced one press agent. “It wasn’t like today when you send material over by messenger or fax or e-mail it.”
These theatrical press agents had followed the tumultuous formation of the Newspaper Guild, and some had even participated in organizing the strike against the Brooklyn Eagle. “It was time,” says one manager. “Unionism was in the air.” They also felt a responsibility toward members of their profession who were not as successful. Pre-opening show salaries were not mandated, and there was no mechanism in place for the recovery of expenses. Some of their colleagues not only had little work but also labored in humiliating circumstances. “In those days,” recalled another press agent, “producers paid cash. You might be told to go pick up your salary at 2 P.M. on a Saturday afternoon, and then be told to wait. You could end up sitting around for hours just waiting for the producer to decide to pay you.”
Clearly there were inequities and the founding members sought to redress them, but they were not without ambivalence. “There was a certain reluctance on all our parts to form a union,” says one press agent. “We were professionals — often producers, writers, newspaper people and general managers ourselves. But we had a social consciousness. We figured that the right thing to do was to give some of the less successful members the right to make a fair living.”
The movement to unionize wasn’t based entirely on altruism since TMAT was aggressively organizing the entertainment industry in New York. In addition to the treasurers, its strength was further enhanced by its affiliation with the Association of Yiddish Theatrical Agents and Treasurers.
The entire Yiddish Theater had been unionized early on. Organized in 1899, the Hebrew Actors Union was the first, and by the early 1920’s there were Yiddish theatrical unions for musicians, ticket-takers, costumers and stagehands. Yiddish theatrical unions operated under rigid work rules. These were so restrictive at times that even Oliver M. Sayler, press agent to the leading actor in the Yiddish Theater, Maurice Schwartz, and an ardent union man himself (he later became business manager of ATPAM), questioned the Union’s influence on artistic endeavors. In his book, Our American Theatre, published in 1923, Sayler wrote that “understudies are supplied by rotation through the Union office, with… a bearded patriarch being sent to play Romeo, or a dumpy dowager, Juliet.
The Yiddish Theatrical Agents and Treasurers were militant and savvy and imparted much of this zeal and expertise to TMAT. The coterie of Broadway press agents undoubtedly realized that TMAT would soon begin actively organizing the rest of New York’s legitimate theater as well.
The Broadway press agents made contact with the remains of old TPROA, exploring the idea of a possible merger. But that organization was, for all practical purposes, moribund, its few active members having transferred their allegiance to TMAT.
Finally, on February 21, 1937, an organization was officially formed to represent those “who exploit attractions in the legitimate field.” The new organization was called the New York Theatrical Press Agents. Its purposes were, according to The New York Times of February 22, 1937, “to raise the standards of the profession, eradicate abuses and establish a minimum wage.”
Temporary officers were elected: Ray Henderson, President; Helene Deutsch, Vice-President; Phyllis Perlman, Secretary and Charles Washburn, Treasurer. The committee consisted of Bernard Simon, John Peter Toohey, Richard Maney, Nat N. Dorfman and Ben H. Atwell. It was announced that the general membership meeting would be held at the Algonquin in March, and that the new organization would decide whether to remain autonomous or seek affiliation with the AFL.
On March 7, 1937, the New York Theatrical Press Agents met for the first time, and the newly formed organization ratified a constitution. There was considerable discussion over membership requirements, and it was finally agreed that anyone who had worked in the legitimate theater for 40 weeks during the past five years would be admitted to senior membership. Newcomers could join as associate members. The term “press agent” was also defined as “an executive who handles one or more legitimate attractions for producing managers and is responsible for the publicizing and exploitation of such attractions.” The next day, under “Topics of the Times” on the editorial page of The New York Times, appeared the following:
“The newly organized New York Theatrical Press Agents are to be congratulated on their happy choice of a name. They did not elect to call themselves the Associated Theater Counselors or the Drama Education Guild or the Broadway Public Service League. In frank and disarming fashion they announce themselves as ‘press agents.’ Press agentry is a profession whose subtle methods of approach are viewed by newspaper editors with a cold eye. But nothing could be more straightforward than the description of themselves put forth by the members of the new organization. A press agent is defined as ‘a person who handles legitimate attractions for theatrical producers and who is responsible for the publicizing and exploitation of such attractions.’ No attempt is made here to describe the press agent as a person engaged in using the American drama to educate the American people to new social horizons. People nowadays who are not afraid to describe themselves as engaged in publicizing and exploiting deserve a Carnegie hero medal.”The New York Times
The piece was unsigned, but it is believed that its author was Brooks Atkinson.
TMAT did not take kindly to the formation of the New York Theatrical Press Agents. TMAT claimed jurisdiction over all press agents and said that it was the rightful bargaining agent for all front-of-house theatrical employees.
In order to meet the threat of competition from this new union head on, TMAT decided to investigate an affiliation with the stagehands’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Meetings were held, and James J. Brennan, Vice-President of IATSE, addressed the annual convention of TMAT pledging to support a closer affiliation between the two organizations.
Meanwhile, the New York Theatrical Press Agents hadn’t decided whether to pursue an AFL charter, but it was agreed that the newly formed union’s first order of business would be to seek recognition form the League of New York Theatres as the bargaining agent for press agents. The Union and The League began negotiations on a two-year contract, the signing of which would amount to recognition of the legitimacy of the press agents union. However, according to Variety, at the last minute, The League refused to sign the agreement when it received a telegram from George Browne, head of IATSE, urging them not to recognize the New York Theatrical Press Agents.
That September, TMAT announced formal plans to merge with IATSE as an independent division, to strengthen the position of front-office employees. “The objective,” TMAT head Mitchell said, “is to remedy the system of one man holding three or four jobs. One man for one job is our slogan.”
Mitchell was probably referring more to the situation with house managers than press agents. One of TMAT’s prime targets was the Shubert Organization, then, as now, owner of the most Broadway theaters. TMAT wanted to put an end to the Shubert practice of employing one house manager for several theaters instead of one per theater.
For the press agents, however, this was an incendiary topic, as the most successful press agents handled many shows at once. Since the new Union had, in part, been founded in order to spread the work among more than just a few press agents, union leaders knew the issue had to resolved carefully to allow successful agents like Richard Maney to continue to flourish within the Union while sharing some of the wealth with others. The New York Theatrical Press Agents decided upon the principle of multiplicity and established the senior and associate press agent system, which exists to this day.
On September 13, 1937, the dispute between the two Unions became public when The New York Times published an account of the struggle between TMAT and the New York Theatrical Press Agents. TMAT again claimed jurisdiction over the press agents, saying that its membership actually included working press agents, a claim the New York Theatrical Press Agents disputed.
In the midst of all this turmoil, tragedy struck. On October 1, 1937, the president of the New York Theatrical Press Agents, Ray Henderson, and three other were killed when a British Imperial Airways plane crashed into Greece’s Phaaleron Bay. En route to Alexandria, Henderson had been on his way around the world planning and organizing a world tour for Katherine Cornell. His friend, Lillian Gish, formally requested the Department of State to send the body back to the United States where it arrived aboard the SS Vulcania on October 21. So prominent was Henderson in his own right that The New York Times, in addition to a regular obituary, published a front page Sunday Arts and Leisure memorial tribute to him.
TMAT continued to organize and increase its membership. In November, 1937, the Union decided to focus on theater owner Sam H. Grisman and the Theatre Guild, stating that these two organizations most thwarted their aims. Union pickets appeared in front of the Hudson, Windsor, Forrest and Belasco theaters, which were operated by Grisman, and the Broadhurst and the Shubert, where Theatre Guild productions were housed.
In addition to the pickets, Grisman had to contend with the staunchly pro-union Group Theatre, which had a play at the Belasco. Members of The Group issued a statement supporting the union pickets and sent a delegation to Grisman urging him to sign a recognition agreement with TMAT. Grisman got so angry he threatened to tear up his contract with the Group Theatre.
Ultimately, Grisman had no choice but to tell his staff that they could join the Union without fear of losing their jobs, but he continued to state his belief that managers and treasurers were executives and confidential employees and therefore not subject to unionization. TMAT, in turn, maintained the pressure, pledging to keep pickets in front of the theaters until an agreement recognizing the Union was signed.
In January, TMAT threw a picket line around the Guild Theatre, where Father Malachy’s Miracle was preparing to move to the St. James. The Teamsters honored the pickets and wouldn’t move the sets or costumes. The show went on anyway, without scenery and with costumes taken from Theatre Guild storage trunks. The next day, Warren P. Munsell, Business Manager for the Theatre Guild and Theodore Mitchell, President of TMAT, signed an agreement which allowed the Guild treasurers to join TMAT. TMAT then took on the New York Theatrical Press Agents and the Shubert Organization.
Two shows were changing theaters, and one was coming to New York after a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston. The first, a farce called Brother Rat, was moving from the National to the Ambassador. It was produced by George Abbott, and its press agent was Charles Washburn, a member of the New York Theatrical Press Agents.The second was the Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, which was moving from the Comedy to the National. The Mercury Theatre had been founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman, both original members of the Federal Theatre. By 1938, the Federal Theatre was a source of great controversy, the focus of attack by those who viewed the New Deal as a burgeoning Communist conspiracy and the Federal Theatre productions embodiments of this. In the spring of 1937, Welles started production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a musical drama depicting the workers and bosses of a mythical Steeltown, U.S.A. The advance ticket sale was over $14,000, but two hours before the first performance, the Washington administration of the Federal Theatre closed the show. Welles and Houseman left and established the Mercury Theatre.
Their first production was a controversial, modern dress version of Julius Caesar. The press agent for the Mercury Theatre was Henry Senber, who was also a member of the New York Theatrical Press Agents.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, staged and produced by Jed Harris, was preparing to move to Broadway. The show had done so badly in Boston that Harris cut short the engagement, planning to take his chances in New York where it was booked into the Henry Miller Theatre. Its press agent was Robert Reud.
On January 22, 1938, TMAT, again supported by the Teamsters, threatened to block the moves unless Washburn and Senber joined TMAT. Both press agents refused and resigned from their shows. Both Carl Fischer, general manager for George Abbott, and John Houseman, co-director of the Mercury Theatre, agreed to deal with TMAT so that their shows could open on schedule. Just a few days later Robert Reud also quit his show, while Sidney Hirsch, general manager for Jed Harris, filed an application for TMAT membership for himself.
The New York Theatrical Press Agents were experiencing tremendous pressure from TMAT. One press agent said, “Behind the scenes, there was a lot of hanky-panky going on. They (TMAT) came to me and said, ‘Come and join us. You won’t get into any trouble.” I had worked for newspapers and been around during the organizing of the Newspaper Guild and I understood that one member crossing over would give them a claim before the NRLB. People were under terrible emotional strain. Some were even in tears — afraid that their livelihood would be taken away from them. There were some very threatening characters in that Union, and here we were, this bunch of intellectuals, being sandbagged by gangster-like techniques.”
When the New York Theatrical Press Agents heard that the Teamsters had agreed to support TMAT, they called an emergency meeting for 11:00 P.M., at the Algonquin. According to one press agent who was there, “We were discussing the situation and Washburn had just spoken up and said “George Abbott will close the show before he fires me!’ at which point there was a phone call from Carl Fischer, who said, ‘Charlie, you’re fired.’ ” Washburn resigned from the show immediately.
The next day, TMAT established pickets at five Shubert houses, ordering its members out of the box offices of the Imperial, Winter Garden, Broadhurst, Morosco and Golden Theatres. The Union threatened to act on the Booth, Music Box and Alvin the following day. According to the New York Times, “Girl clerks on the Shubert staff were sent in to sell tickets.”
TMAT retained the support of the Teamsters throughout the strike. However, although their sympathies were with TMAT, IATSE stagehands crossed the picket lines because their contract with the League precluded sympathetic strike action except on behalf of their old ally, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Equity removed itself from the fray. Its president, Burgess Meredith, issued a statement saying that “the whole matter at present is between TMAT and the managers of the houses in question.”
Lee Shubert issued a statement saying that the Shuberts had always employed union labor. “All our treasurers are members of the Union,” he said. “But the Union wanted the managers and the press agents to join. The press agents refused, desiring a union of their own. As to the managers, they are direct representatives of employers and therefore cannot be union men.” Lawyers for press agents, the producers and TMAT attempted to work out a peace plan. Milton Weinberger, representing the producers and with the support of the New York Theatrical Press Agents, attacked the idea of a blanket union for the press agents, managers and treasurers, saying: “There is no solidarity of interest between them.”
He suggested that there be separate units for treasurers, press agents, and managers. However, TMAT, realizing that its strength lay in numbers, which would be undermined by such a settlement, immediately rejected the proposal and pledged to continue the strike.
The dispute then went to the State Mediation Board. The next day, January 25, 1938, representatives of the League of New York Theatres, TMAT and the New York Theatrical Press Agents signed an agreement, and the strike ended. Box office personnel immediately returned to work. Pickets were withdrawn, and Senber, Washburn and Reud returned to their shows.
The agreement provided for the New York Theatrical Press Agents to join TMAT as a semi-autonomous chapter that would, for the most part, determine its own working conditions. The press agents would elect their own officers and committees, but would bargain with producers through a TMAT committee, pay dues and assessments to TMAT and be subject to strike calls by TMAT.
On the controversial topic of “one man in each job,” both sides backed off, issuing the following statement: “To the fullest possible extent and at the earliest possible date, the chapter and chapter alone will enact such rules and regulations as will further the principle of sharing the work.”
The League of New York Theatres agreed to recognize TMAT as the sole collective bargaining agent for press agents and treasurers. While house managers were included in this agreement, it was agreed that there would be discussion on an individual basis about company and general managers, since producers contended that they were confidential executives.
On February 1, 1938, representatives of TMAT and the New York Theatrical Press Agents met to finalize the merger. It was agreed that the New York Theatrical Press Agents would remain separate within TMAT. All other press agents, including screen, radio, road and circus, would be grouped in another chapter until such time as each specialty unit had 25 members and would then become a separate chapter itself.
In February 9, 1938, the press agents officially ratified the agreement whereby they were taken into TMAT. Practically all of the New York Theatrical Press Agents signed applications for membership in TMAT and paid the initiation fee of $50. Money remaining in the old treasury was used to pay initiation fees for members who were unable to pay.
The League and TMAT met to discuss working conditions and established minimum weekly salaries: $150 for Broadway press agents, $175 for road agents, and $75-$100 for associates according to the number of shows in the office. Company managers on tour were to get $150 for musicals and $125 for straight shows. On Broadway, the weekly wage was $100 for either.
TMAT continued to organize. It called a box office strike at Madison Square Garden, which agreed to recognize the Union before the day was over. TMAT then moved to organize motion picture houses.
This was a direct challenge to IATSE, with whom TMAT had considered merging just a year before. IATSE had received authorization from the AFL to organize ticket-sellers, ticket-takers and ushers in motion picture houses and claimed that it also had jurisdiction over all “front-of-house” employees. TMAT disputed them, maintaining that it had the right to organize the front of house, including managers, treasurers and press agents in all places of entertainment.
For a brief moment, the threat of the power of IATSE brought all the TMAT factions together. Press agents and managers joined TMAT treasurers in picket lines at motion picture houses.
It was reported that TMAT was actually considering joining the Four A’s, which would increase its strength. This was attractive to many of the press agents and managers because the Four A’s was a white collar organization comprised of Actors’ Equity, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Radio Artists, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and others.
In April 1938, TMAT estimated that its membership would exceed 5,000 by fall and possible 10,000 the following season. However, despite occasional shows of unity, TMAT was not a cohesive Union. It continued to be factionalized, with three very different constituencies: press agents, managers and treasurers.
Tensions were high at TMAT’s annual meeting that summer. For one thing, it was so hot that the first session, held at the Claridge Hotel, had to be suspended. Then, TMAT leaders, sensing a real threat from IATSE, which was actively organizing throughout the country, particularly on the West Coast, decided that TMAT would gain strength from unification and called for the treasurers, press agents and managers to merge into one body. The press agents made it clear that they had joined TMAT only under coercion and had no intention of giving up any autonomy. They also distrusted the Union’s Board of Directors, raising questions about the use of Union funds and officers’ salaries. The press agents, who had actually become a stronger working group by getting the support of the powerful and active Yiddish chapter, decided to form a steering committee to investigate ways in which they could protect their rights. This group of dissidents was joined by many managers as well.
The new year began with an election on January 15, 1939, in which Saul Abraham, general manager for producer Eddie Dowling, was elected President and Dan Melnick Vice-President. J.J. Murphy was Secretary–Treasurer, and Hal Olver and Murray Seaman were Business Agents. TMAT was no more cohesive than it had been the prior summer, and the press agents were even more concerned because they believed that there was a move afoot to challenge their right to multiplicity.
According to one manager: “A group of managers and press agents formed a liberal group to try to get rid of some of the old-timers who had no concept of what a modern trade union should really be. We couldn’t prove it, but we felt they were allied to gangsters, and we believed that the Union would have become crooked if they had stayed in office. We felt that we were operating without a democratic constitution and decided to change the slate.”
The dissidents decided to take over the Union. They began to organize themselves following the January meeting, in anticipation of the June 1939 meeting. Led by the press agents, they created an opposition ticket and adopted a platform. To recruit the managers and treasurers, the dissidents claimed that the current TMAT leadership had failed to provide jobs for treasurers and managers at the World’s Fair and that the upcoming seasonal jobs at ball parks and racetracks were not being secured by TMAT officers.
They courted the treasurers, the largest voting block in TMAT, with particular energy. IATSE had begun to woo legitimate box office treasurers, and in an attempt to counter this and to capitalize on the continuing treatment of treasurers as third-class citizens by the often arrogant managers and press agents, the dissidents implied that present TMAT officers were not sufficiently concerned about their box office brethren. In a circular distributed throughout TMAT, the dissidents stated: “We severely condemn the needless action of other unions in attempting to dictate the conduct of the box office. We believe that the treasurers, the poorest paid of the crafts and the most abused group within the Union, are fully competent to solve their problems provided they have the cooperation of the rest of the membership.”
At the June elections, the independent faction won two out of three contested posts. Abraham and Murphy, who had both been unopposed, were returned to office. But Hal Olver lost the election as Business Manager, replaced by Joseph Grossman of the Yiddish Group, and Dan Melnick was replaced by press agent William Fields as Vice-President.
Not content with their electoral victory, some of the New York press agents decided to get back at the road agents who had opposed them. They falsely told producers that union rules didn’t permit road agents to work on shows in New York. TMAT rules clearly stated that members of any chapter could hold jobs in any field within the Union’s jurisdiction, however, the result was increased animosity between the two chapters.
The turmoil within TMAT was nothing compared to the inter-union warfare taking place during the summer of 1939, which ultimately threatened TMAT’s very existence.
It began on July 1, 1939, when the Four A’s revoked the charter of one of its member unions, the American Federation of Actors (AFA), headed by actress Sophie Tucker. Charging the AFA’s leadership with mismanagement and the misuse of funds, the Four A’s expelled the AFA and issued a charter to the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), headed by Eddie Cantor.
IATSE, aggressively attempting to organize the entire entertainment industry, took this opportunity to declare that it had decided to organize performers as well and promptly issued a charter to the AFA.
The Four A’s issued a response to this act of provocation, saying: “The unreasonable and disgraceful act of certain performers in delivering their brethren to the stagehands will receive our immediate attention. As for any actor who participates in this betrayal of his fellow actors, we will take immediate action against him and his kind.”
This was not an idle threat, because on August 24, Sophie Tucker was scheduled to re-open in her show, Leave It to Me, a musical comedy that fell under the jurisdiction of Actors’ Equity, the Four A’s union for actors in the legitimate theater. If Tucker’s AFA was still an IATSE union, it was virtually certain that Equity would refuse to work with Tucker and a strike would be called. The strike became inevitable when Equity suspended Tucker for her “treasonable act” in condoning the IATSE adoption of the AFA.
The AFL executive committee convened in Atlantic City that August, in part to resolve the inter-union clash.
In the meantime, there was a groundswell of support for the Four A’s in their fight against IATSE. Katharine Hepburn issued a statement saying: “Any attempt on the part of the AFL to disregard the just claims of the Four A’s will be regarded as a breach of faith not to be tolerated by the loyal members of our Union.” She was joined by Katherine Cornell and John Barrymore, who both publicly criticized IATSE.
A Hollywood contingent including Joan Crawford, Olivia deHavilland, Eddie Arnold and Ralph Morgan of the Screen Actors Guild traveled to Atlantic City to support the Four A’s. This was no easy feat. Cross-country air travel was arduous and the delegation left Burbank at 1:30 A.M., making stops in Kansas City, Chicago and Pittsburgh before arriving in Newark at 5:29 P.M., 16 hours later.
Tallulah Bankhead and Frederic March, both of whom were appearing on Broadway, also journeyed to Atlantic City. They carried their make-up kits with them because there was little leeway between their return to New York and the start of the evening performances.
Within TMAT, the old issue of affiliation with IATSE was re-opened. There was an emergency meeting at which it became clear that the majority of TMAT members remained opposed to a merger. Disregarding its membership views, the executive board named a committee to travel to Atlantic City to meet with George E. Browne, President of IATSE, who was there for the AFL council meeting. The meeting created further turmoil within TMAT, and the press agents considered withdrawing from TMAT to form their own union.
The AFL attempted to work out a compromise. It refused to grant IATSE jurisdiction over the performers’ unions, but it also ruled that the Four A’s would have to reinstate the AFA.
Neither union would accept the compromise. The Four A’s threatened to close down Broadway, the Hollywood film studios, the major stage attractions at the World’s Fair, several live radio programs, burlesque houses — in short, all performing venues within their jurisdiction. IATSE countered with the threat of a walk-out of their own and demanded that all performers join their newly chartered performers’ union. Both sides focused on the projected opening of Tucker’s show, Leave It to Me. Equity refused to work with Tucker and the IATSE stagehands countered that they would walk out on all shows if that happened.
While the entire entertainment industry and the public watched this widely publicized drama unfold, TMAT experienced its own upheaval. On August 31, 1939, George E. Browne, President of IATSE, issued a charter to a group of 14 TMAT treasurers at a meeting in the Gold Room of the Hotel Capitol. By September 2, 1939, the newly chartered IATSE division of treasurers and ticket sellers had over 200 members, including all Shubert box office personnel.
TMAT had “never fought for the interests of the treasurers,” said one IATSE official. According to one treasurer, “The managers and press agents had never had any interest in the treasurers’ problems. They were more attuned to management. For the treasurers in TMAT, it had been like talking to your regular bosses.”
TMAT immediately suspended its entire treasurers’ chapter, including James Murphy, Secretary-Treasurer of the Union, and Morrie Seamon, its Business Agent. The Union stated that all treasurers who proved “loyal” to TMAT would be restored to full membership rights, and a committee was named to investigate each individual case.
United in common cause against IATSE, Equity and TMAT forged an alliance, agreeing to support one another. Believing it now had some strength, TMAT went after the Shuberts when it was reported that the leader of the bolting treasurers, Walter O’Connor, and J.J. Shubert had conferred before the treasurers seceded from the Union. TMAT charged that Shubert had encouraged his treasurers to join IATSE.
Just two days later, on September 3, 1939, Equity, the Four A’s and IATSE reached an accord. Equity agreed to reinstate Sophie Tucker, and IATSE and the Four A’s agreed to disband the AFA, consolidating its membership into the Four A’s union, AGVA.
TMAT members were furious, claiming that they had been double-crossed by their supposed allies, the actors. TMAT threatened to call a strike in Shubert theaters in which the newly chartered IATSE treasurers now worked. TMAT hoped to force Equity into the awkward position of having to choose between crossing TMAT picket lines or refusing to work with their new friends, the IATSE stagehands.
IATSE responded that the TMAT threat was merely a hollow gesture before the Union was “finished.”
True enough, TMAT had yet to prove its power and its very existence was in jeopardy. As soon as IATSE notified The League of New York Theatres that it was now the official bargaining agent for box office personnel, the League suspended its ongoing negotiations with TMAT. Although Equity had, just a few days before, “pledged its wholehearted support” to TMAT, under the new IATSE-Equity agreement actors would have to cross TMAT picket lines. To make matters even worse for TMAT, their old allies, the Teamsters, came out in support of IATSE.
It appeared as if TMAT had hit bottom. The League refused to re-open negotiations and J.J. Shubert refused to negotiate with a TMAT press agent, Samuel M. Weller, who was seeking a position as an advance man. J.J. Shubert stated that if Weller wanted a job, it would be on the Shuberts’ terms, as the Shuberts had no contract with TMAT for press agents.
Finally the impasse was broken. The League of New York Theatres and TMAT agreed in principle to a contract for press agents and managers. On September 23, 1939, after another threatened strike, the new contract was signed. Although the name was not officially changed until 1946, this was essentially the beginning of ATPAM as we know it today. A month later, the new IATSE treasurers union held its first formal meeting with The League, and TMAT didn’t protest. When TMAT met on April 13, 1940, to take nominations for its annual election that June, The New York Times reported that the Union’s financial affairs were in better order than ever before and that there was “complete harmony in its ranks.” Following a 13-hour balloting procedure on June 10, the proposed officers, who ran unopposed, were elected: Saul Abraham, President; William G. Norton, Vice-President; and Louis Werba, Secretary-Treasurer.
Among the first orders of business for the newly empowered union was clarification of its jurisdiction. The Union continued to operate under the federal charter it had received from the AFL in 1928 as the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers (ATAM). This meant that technically the Union could only operate in New York, the venue in which the new charter had been granted. A number of producers raised this issue in order to prevent union members from servicing out-of-town attractions. The Union petitioned the AFL Council to extend its jurisdiction to cover the entire United States and Canada, and the request was granted. The Union, now re-named the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM), was able to operate as a national union of press agents and managers in the legitimate theater.
In 1942, Milton Weintraub became Secretary-Treasurer, a post he held until his death in 1968. Weintraub had been a manager in the Yiddish Theater and had organized and led Yiddish theatrical unions. When the Yiddish group joined ATAM, Weintraub became a leader in the Union’s struggle to organize the rest of the legitimate theater. Under Weintraub’s leadership, ATPAM achieved a visibility and stature far greater than the size of its membership. He developed the first union pension and welfare funds and established ATPAM as an active and respected organization in the theatrical community.
I Am Union Labor
Of all the great bulwarks of Human Freedom, I am the latest-born. Before me came Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, Trail by Jury, Freedom of Speech, of the Press, of Assembly, of Religion. These are the staunch defenders of Political Freedom. Without them, I would never even have been conceived in the Womb of time. But Political Freedom is an empty shell, a figure of speech, dust in the mouth, without Economic Freedom. Man lives not by bread alone – but neither does he live without bread. I, Union Labor, came to pass on this earth to make sure that men and women who work for a living shall have bread to eat and the right to say how much of it their work is worth. To prove that right and to win that bread, I have had to picket, to strike, to punish my political enemies, top reward my friends, even to enter the political arena in full force when all else fails. In doing so, I have made mistakes. I will make them again. Charge that to my youth! Charge also to my youth, my Strength, my Vigor, my Zeal, my Dauntless Spirit. I do not even know as yet my own Strength. When I do become aware of the Strength, let my enemies and the enemies of all Human Freedom beware! But let no lover of Freedom have fear! For with Strength and Knowledge of Strength come Wisdom and Responsibility. Young as I am, I have my heroes, my legends, my shrines. The blood of my sons and soldiers still stains the Pullman yards in Chicago, the bleak streets of Homestead, the pit mouths of Colorado. I have lost strikes. I have lost legal battles. But I have never lost faith nor hope nor courage. And I never will! That is why, across this broad land of ours and wherever political freedom still permits me to live and breathe, men and women trust me – or hate me! There is no middle ground! I am Union Labor! I am here to stay, no matter how you hamper me by law and lies and hate. You’d better wish me well! Because the day I die, you may as well bury the dream of America!by Oliver M. Sayler