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Labor Troubles - Presentation Performers and Projectionists, Musicians, Movie Actors, The Depression

sound equity theater union

Hollywood during the twenties successfully resisted the trend that was growing in large eastern cities toward unionization and the closed shop. There were a few labor groups. The carpenters and electricians had formed a bargaining unit; photographers and projectionists were represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE, the “IA”); the musicians were represented primarily by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM); the screenwriters had formed their guild. Equity (the Actors Equity Association) had tried for years to organize movie personnel to secure the rights enjoyed by their Broadway counterparts. Despite taking credit for pressuring Paramount and the other studios to rescind an across-the-board 10 percent salary reduction enacted in 1927, Equity was unable to win the trust of movie stars. They were suspicious of the theater organization and apparently felt they had more to risk than to gain by union activity.

The Studio Basic Agreement between nine producers and five unions was signed in November 1926. It was another example of Hollywood associationism; the studios appointed a committee to represent their common interests. Louis B. Mayer attempted to counter the unions’ power by championing the organization which would become, in 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It provided a mechanism for arbitrating disputes among the studios, producers, directors, actors, and writers but would ultimately remain accountable to the leaders of the industry. The inspiration for this company union, which is how it was widely viewed, was probably the “industrial union” sponsored by General Electric. Owen D. Young formed his company union in December 1926, provoked by “different and often competing craft unions.”

While the Five-Cornered Agreement postponed the effects of recorded sound on Hollywood labor, it became apparent that if the sound film were to become widespread, it would have far-reaching effects on those who performed on the stage and those who played in the pit. The first consequences of sound for the labor force were not in the studios but in the theater dressing rooms, orchestras, and projection booths.

Presentation Performers and Projectionists

Stage artistes’ notorious lack of job security was evident when theaters began replacing presentations and prologues with sound films. Their jobs simply disappeared.  Vitaphone, however, was good for projectionists in the short run. Operators could ask for helpers and higher pay because of the additional burden of handling discs, the responsibility of keeping them in synch and riding the volume level during the show, and the electrical and engineering expertise that sound systems entailed. Their union, the IA, also found itself with much greater power, because without a projectionist, the show couldn’t go on. A dispute in Minneapolis was settled by giving the State Theater projectionists $150 each per week and adding a second operator to each shift (although the union had demanded three-person crews).

Inevitably, there was competition for these plum jobs, leading to jurisdictional disagreements among unions. In New York, for example, the premiere of LILAC TIME at the Central Theater was disrupted by an argument between the electricians, the projectionists, and the IATSE stage employees. The theater projected the print accompanied by an orchestra.


One motive for using recorded sound as a virtual orchestra was to replace the real one. Many musicians’ contracts with exhibitors expired annually on 31 August, and Film Daily warned in 1927 that “rumblings of impending differences between theater owners and organized labor continue to be heard throughout the nation.” 5 The autumn was filled with negotiations. In St. Louis the musicians in Skouras’s Grand Central demanded pay during the run of Vitaphone shows. The prior year had set a precedent: they had received their full salaries for seven weeks of idle time. 6 This was the beginning of a lengthy struggle which would become violent in 1928.

The musicians were picketing the Idlewild Theater in East St. Louis, and other workers were refusing to cross the picket line. In February someone bombed the theater, and the police blamed the labor activists. The strike was called off in March when the Skouras brothers agreed to stop laying off orchestras wholesale. In the Grand Central, Skouras retained seven musicians who played for two or three minutes between films but received a week’s pay, “although that house is now devoted exclusively to the showing of Vitaphone features.” 7 The musicians who had been laid off during the run of OLD SAN FRANCISCO were reassigned to orchestras in other city theaters. Those remaining players received weekly pay for performing about ninety seconds during each show. 8 The cost of these extravagances to the theaters was minimal compared to the savings achieved by the mass layoffs.

Soon the pickets reappeared. The St. Louis branch of the American Federation of Musicians was unusually visible (and audible). Utilizing some of the talkies’ technology, they hired public-address sound trucks and visited local radio broadcasts to protest the Skourases’ practices. In July several picketers were arrested during a scuffle with the police over “littering.” The union, to gain public support, staged an outdoor concert “to demonstrate the difference between ‘natural music’ and mechanical music.” 9 All the while, film studios seemed intent on pushing the theater orchestra toward obsolescence. Fox and Warners, for example, included reel/discs of “entrance,” “overture,” and “exit” music to be played before and after the feature, with the curtain closed.

During the summer of 1928 there were musician strikes in Des Moines and Omaha. Players asked ninety dollars to perform on sound film programs (up from the usual sixty dollars). John Danz, the manager of the United Artists Theater in Seattle, closed the house rather than honor a demand by the musicians for a fifteen-piece orchestra. The theater had offered to carry eight. Tensions mounted, and three of Danz’s theaters were dynamited. 10 In Chicago there was a three-day general strike in September, with seven hundred musicians picketing. 11

Talkies were the main topic on the agenda of the 1928 national convention of the AFM, held in Louisville. The members resolved to draw up a plan of action and a model national contract inspired by featherbedding concessions obtained from the record and broadcast industries. In Chicago the union had sixteen microphones removed from orchestras that had been making theatrical broadcasts. It stipulated that a second orchestra of equivalent size would have to sit silent in the receiving theater during each radio broadcast. 12 This strategy became the one adopted against the “encroachment” of sound films. Members were assessed additional dues to form a legal-action war chest. 13

They would have liked the agreement drafted by the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, local 802. Its punitive demands, modeled on broadcasting precedents, increased the fees which musicians would get during the screening of a sound film to two hundred dollars per musician for the regular five-and-a-half-day workweek. However, that agreement contained no stipulation that the players would actually have to perform during sound movie engagements. The International Musicians Union drafted bylaws giving theater musicians control over the installation and operation of all theater sound equipment. 14

Joseph N. Weber, president of the AFM, invited Actors Equity to join the cause. Equity’s executive secretary, Frank Gillmore, agreed that if the talkies succeeded, “why may not even Broadway be greatly deprived of legitimate drama?” William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, testifying before a Senate committee, said that sound had thrown large numbers of musicians out of work. “Men who are artists, who have given their lives to their art, have begun to find they are losing out.” One exception to the general opposition to sound was the Los Angeles union, which stood to benefit from the formation of radio and motion picture studio orchestras. Edward W. Smith of the local said, “Talking pictures, like other mechanical devices, eventually will prove a boon to musicians.” 15

Musicians must have realized that they were in a poor bargaining position. By August 1928, when the AFM had renegotiated half of its three hundred contracts, most musicians and theater owners had agreed to continue at the current scale, but with smaller orchestras. Weber said that the impact was not as bad as had been anticipated; only about 350 jobs in his union were lost nationally. The St. Louis musicians abandoned their proposed higher salary schedule and instead tolerated a pay cut of thirteen dollars per week. The new contract settled for five players per theater and was valid only for one year. The great majority of small-town musicians, however, did not belong to a union. Many players found employment elsewhere, but by the end of 1928 as many as twenty-six hundred theater musicians were looking for work. 16

During 1929 the plight of theater musicians worsened. Several hundred attempted to march in New York to protest the cutbacks, but the police refused to issue a parade permit. The sponsor, the Musical Mutual Protective Union, claimed thirty-five thousand unemployed. The AFM put the number more conservatively at three thousand, with two hundred out of work in New York City. There were a few outbursts of protest: San Francisco stagehands walked out in a sympathy strike for musicians. The AFM, at its convention in Denver, adopted another resolution against canned music. The militant St.   Louis musicians settled their long dispute in December for a few face-saving concessions. Unrelenting, major theaters (for example, the United Artists in Chicago) dropped the orchestra to become “straight sound” houses. 17

Movie Actors

Actors Equity had mixed feelings about the talkies. On the one hand, there would be employment opportunities for many out-of-work players, laid off because of Broadway’s severe late-1920s decline. On the other hand, current film actors without stage experience would suffer. Executive Secretary Frank Gillmore’s 1928 annual report predicted hard times for movie actors without good voices:

I wonder if some of the truly beautiful creatures which float across the screen today will be quite as successful when they have to speak the lines of a long part. To do this their voices must be carefully modulated without a trace of accent except when the characterization calls for it. Some of us of the legitimate have been told we don’t possess screen faces. I wonder how many in the future will suffer from the accusation of being minus screen voices? (quoted in Film Daily , 26 July 1928, p. 1)

Equity favored the method already being tried at Fox: using two directors, one from the movies, and one from the stage who would be more sensitive to thespians’ talents and traditions. When the inevitable artistic differences arose, they would be resolved by professional arbitrators. To compensate for the additional rehearsals required for the talkies, Equity campaigned for payment for the time required to read scripts and rehearse, in addition to acting before the cameras. 18

An examination of a typical contract clearly reveals the source of actors’ complaints. Pasted onto Carroll Nye’s “Standard Form Artist’s Contract” for THE SQUALL (1929) was a rider sanctioning the Academy as a company union: “Accepted by the Producers and Actors branches and approved by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.” Among the provisions granted to the producer were the rights to record and reproduce the artist’s voice in any form, and to schedule any number of retakes without further compensation. 19 Actors could also be called to film trailers and do sound tests without pay.

Were producers using the talkies as an excuse to cut actors’ salaries and weed out troublesome players? Frank Gillmore thought so and used the transition to sound to renew his group…s perennial campaign to establish a closed shop in Hollywood, as it had on Broadway. Since most of the newcomers brought in for the talkies (twenty-eight hundred, according to Equity) were already members, and the abuses were so rife, it seemed like an ideal time for a strong union drive. 20

Without having to pay overtime, the only obstacle to round-the-clock film production was the stamina of stars and staff. Otherwise, the studios were unrestrained. “Recently conditions in the studios, as far as the actors are concerned, have been going from bad to worse,” Gillmore claimed. “Many of the producers have been working their people unconscionable hours and keeping it up day after day.” Many stars—for example, George Lewis—described this period in their career as physically grueling. For TONIGHT AT TWELVE (1929) he recalled working all night “just to get it out on the market   as a talkie.” Bessie Love later recounted the working conditions on the set of THE BROADWAY MELODY:

At the time we had no unions, and we were worked all hours. They were really terrible; to get the film out before anybody else could beat them to it, we worked day and night. The film had a four-week shooting schedule, and we would have to be on the set ready and made-up to shoot at 9 A.M. and we wouldn’t finish until about 9 or 10 at night. (John Kobal, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance [London: Hamlyn, 1971], p. 39)

Among Equity’s demands were a closed shop (that is, Equity members could not work with non-Equity actors), a forty-eight-hour week, and extra pay for retakes and trailers. Actors’ consent would be required to use voice doubles." Furthermore, “members should insist upon being paid from the time the actor is assigned the part until the completion of the actual taking of the picture.” 22 In mid-June 1929, Equity called for a slowdown and threatened a general strike. 23 Although Gillmore claimed the job action had recruited an additional one thousand sign-ups, Cecil B. DeMille, who was then president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, said there was no shortage of Equity and non-Equity actors for the talkies. Ten weeks into the slowdown he declared that Hollywood production had reached its highest peak and that all danger of an Equity strike was over.

The main weakness of the Equity drive was that few of the important stars supported it. Some, such as Ethel Barrymore, John Gilbert, and Conrad Nagel (chairman of the Los Angeles Equity chapter), criticized Gillmore and spoke out against the strike. Nagel moved over to the Academy to chair the actors’ committee there. Gilbert, alluding to his voice lessons, stated, “My principal worry at the moment is to conquer the new difficult and exacting technique which has entered my business. I should hate to have my desire to improve my work disturbed by any concentrated move on the part of the Actors’ Equity of which I am a member. Should such a move take place, I feel my sense of loyalty to the men who have assisted me so greatly would direct my course of action.” 25

The Equity failure to organize Hollywood actors resulted in loss of status and members. Many demands—for example, twelve-hour breaks between calls—were eventually accepted, but under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In January 1930, a group of non-Equity actors began informal meetings with producers to revise the players’ 1927 Standard Working Agreement. Jack Alicoate wrote, “The battle of Hollywood has been fought and won. Who it was won by nobody knows but all admit that Equity was slightly damaged in the melee. At any rate, everybody, including producers, actors, writers, directors and even Equity, seems happy.” Equity offered to reinstate the 200–300 members who had been suspended during the 1929 campaign, but only eleven applied to take advantage of the amnesty offer.

Conditions were bad for salaried actors, but for the occasional workers who outnumbered them it was much worse—if they were employed at all. Central Casting, the producers’ cooperative, reported that sound had cut deeply into the ranks of extras in 1928. As a group, it earned $333,000 less than in 1927. Producers of talkies tended to hire small casts, and their films had fewer crowd scenes. 27 Thirteen thousand fewer extras were used in 1929, and 1930 shaped up as even worse. By 1930, Central Casting had 17,541 aspirants registered, 10,000 of whom were women. But there was work only for 800 per day, at a daily wage of $9.13. 28

The Depression

Actors joined the millions of unemployed during the Depression. Alicoate felt that the talkies exacerbated the economic hardship:

Actors, good ones, are as plentiful as sand in the Sahara. … Before sound, the situation was bad enough. Now it is appalling. … In several popular eating places the waitresses, collectively are better looking than an average Broadway chorus. Keep away from Hollywood. And that goes for directors, writers, actors and technicians. It is no place for hopers. … And these are all experienced people who know their business. ( Film Daily , 20 October 1930, pp. 1–2)

What Alicoate was describing was, of course, a microcosm of what was going on all around America in October 1930: too few jobs for too many people. Many of these “hopers” were contemplating moving to Hollywood to better their fortunes.

The movie business contributed to unemployment. Teenage ushers and concessionstand workers were let go. RKO adopted a unique strategy of rehiring two hundred of its laid-off employees to use as house-checkers—counting the audience to verify the attendance for films being rented on a percentage-of-the-gate basis. Union projectionists, although few ever touched discs anymore, coasted on their earlier contracts. When these agreements began expiring in August 1930, many operators lost their featherbedded projection booths. In New York they accepted a 25 percent pay cut over two years. 29 Altogether, the exhibition industry saved $18.7 million in labor costs by furloughing stagehands and projectionists or cutting their pay. Owners cited as justification “the decrease and practical abandonment of sound-on-disc.” Upgraded equipment meant that projection was becoming a more routinized, less skilled (and therefore worse-paying) occupation. By April 1931, the studios had adopted standard release prints with uniform sound levels, so they discontinued circulating the cue sheets which had advised projectionists about fader settings. Breakdowns and projection failure were less frequent. The aura of electrical expertise surrounding the man in the booth threading the projectors was rapidly dimming.

Musicians were done in by the Depression. Weber of the AFM said that the whole film music industry in 1930 consisted of about 250 Hollywood studio players. He estimated that since the advent of the talkies, musicians’ income had decreased $20 million. In naive desperation, the union started a Music Defense League to sway public opinion and convince independent theater managers to retain or reinstate the orchestra. 31 The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 1931 that “the introduction of sound in the motion-picture theaters … has proved to be the most revolutionary development in the recent history of the industry.” Projectionists were felt to have been greatly aided, but about 50 percent of musicians had been displaced. “The only compensating factor in the amusement industry, so far as the employment of musicians is concerned,” the report continued, “is the increased employment of musicians for radio broadcasting purposes.”

Carl Dreher, writing for the Cinematographic Annual in March 1930, took the unusual step of warning would-be sound technicians that there were fewer than one thousand sound jobs in Hollywood—and they were all filled. He concluded:

It may be conceded that many of the men who are now knocking at the gates are just as good as those who are inside, but the ins are in, and the mortality among them is not sufficiently high to justify extravagant hopes on the part of the waiters in ante-rooms. … In short, sound must echo the warnings issued from time to time in the older branches of the industry against blind ventures in the direction of Hollywood, where neither the climate nor the scenery nor the presence of the national heroes and heroines can compensate for the lack of a personal income. ( Cinematographic Annual , 1930, pp. 345–46)

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Film Daily , the source of much of the above information, may not be an objective source in its labor reporting. Its readership consisted of the exhibitors who were the targets of many of these job actions. Though the unions geared up for a battle over who would ultimately control public access to movie sound—electricians or stagehands, theater musicians or owners, actors or moguls—in the end the economic rug was pulled out from everyone. In 1933 the National Recovery Act would step in and organize Hollywood according to externally imposed political guidelines.

Labors of the Months [next] [back] Laënnec, René Théophile Hyacinthe

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about 6 years ago


My name is Grace Nicholas and I'm a student at Wimbledon College of Arts and on the hunt for research for my dissertation.

I have started looking into american and russian projectionists from the 1st world war and especially ones that had been military trained in the skill to travel around to peasants and show pro-goverment film. I was wondering if you had any information around this topic that could be of any help to me. What I'm especially interested in clothes/uniforms they may have warn.

Thank you