Equity at 100: How Actors' Equity Played Its Part in Wartime
By Robert Simonson
Actors' Equity Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Here's a look at the union's efforts during American military conflicts in the past century.
On March 18, 1918, General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing sent a letter to the young Actors' Equity Association. It read: "A great service can be rendered by the American theatre in providing necessary diversion for our troops in France."
America was still at war at the time, and Equity did its part. Actors began sailing with the troops to Europe in 1918. Stateside, benefit shows went out on tour and actors sold war bonds through impassioned curtain speeches.
Still, those efforts were dwarfed by what Equity accomplished during World War II. Through Camp Shows, Inc. — funded to the tune of a half-million dollars by the USO — Equity created three performing units: one for legit plays, one for vaudeville and one for revues.
Captain Maurice Evans — a Broadway Shakespearean actor in the 1930s — came up with 55 separate shows that drew on the Bard, including the now famous G.I. Hamlet, a shortened, sped-up version of the play. Actors performed at military bases, in hospitals and the like.
Stateside, Lunchtime Follies — written by the likes of Kurt Weill, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman — were enacted at wartime factories to keep up the morale of workers. And then there was the famous Stage Door Canteen, situated in the unoccupied Little Club under Manhattan's Forty-Fourth Street Theatre. To servicemen and women, the Canteen must have seemed a miracle — they were entertained by the cream of Broadway, got to dance with famous actresses, were served food by celebrities and were never handed a bill. It was so successful that Canteens sprouted in other American cities and abroad. (Read more about the American Theatre Wing's Stage Door Canteens in a recent Ask Playbill.com column.)
Equity continued its efforts during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And when, on Sept. 11, 2001, the front moved to the southern tip of Manhattan, Equity teamed up with other unions and producers to make certain that the city's stages — long a signal indicator of New York's economic and psychic health — did not stay dark for long.
An iconic theatre image of that time was the casts of all Broadway shows gathered in Times Square, singing the John Kander and Fred Ebb anthem "New York, New York." It was filmed for a commercial — not just for the theatre, but for New York itself.
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