Equity at 100: The Industry Mobilizes in Response to a Health Crisis
By Robert Simonson
Actors' Equity Association is engaged in a yearlong celebration of its 100th anniversary. Playbill's latest look at Equity's history explores the darkness and light of the AIDS era and birth of Equity Fights AIDS.
"When I came to New York City in the summer in 1969," recalls stage manager Jane Neufeld, "I vividly remember this marvelous world of live stage people doing an anti-war march down Fifth Avenue. I was quite taken with the humanity of all these people, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. After that, there was always a part of me that had a belief that the entertainment world would not stand idly by."
Fifteen years after her arrival, Neufeld became one of those people who refused to stand on the sidelines. On a cold day in December 1984, she ran into an actor named Arne Gundersen, and their conversation soon turned to AIDS. Neufeld knew more than one person who had died from the still-mysterious disease, and Gundersen was aware of more than ten. Both were Actors' Equity union members — Gundersen was a council member, Neufeld one of the first stage manager councillors. They naturally wondered if Equity shouldn't be doing something about the plague that was claiming so many of their colleagues in the arts.
Before the month was out, the two had enlisted actors Patrick Quinn and Judy Rice and a second stage manager, Jane Robertson, to help them come up with an action plan. What they eventually assembled was The Best of the Best, a gargantuan benefit event held Nov. 3, 1985. The show stunned the city with its success and made national headlines. It raised $1.3 million in a single night.
Almost everything had been donated, so the cost of producing the event had been next to nothing. "It changed the way benefits were being done in the city," says Gundersen.
Equity president Colleen Dewhurst later wrote that she believed The Best of the Best was "the event [that] finally punched a hole in an invisible wall of silence" about AIDS.
By the time the curtain came down on The Best of the Best, Gundersen, Neufeld, Rice, Robertson and Quinn felt encouraged to continue their fundraising efforts. In 1987 Equity Fights AIDS was born.
Colleen Dewhurst was instrumental in helping the young organization establish a home base within the walls of the union's main office.
EFA's efforts grew by leaps and bounds, adopting or birthing annual events like the Broadway Flea Market and the Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet competitions. EFA's partner in AIDS fundraising, Broadway Cares, emerged in February 1988. Since the two organizations merged in May 1992, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has raised nearly $200 million. In 2012 it awarded $10,856,755 in grants and support. And an army of volunteers still stands at the ready across the American theatre community nationwide, working to raise funds for this important cause.
(This feature appears in the November 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
Read about the 2012 curtain-call appeals period leading the the Dec. 3-4 Gypsy of the Year performances, raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
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