This year Actors’ Equity celebrates its impressive centenary. One hundred years is a long time in this country. Prior to Equity, actors worked at the mercy of theatrical producers. They had no say about wages or work hours. They could be fired without notice and left on the road if a show failed and closed down early.
Although efforts at unionism in this country predate the 1880s, early organizations disbanded due to a lack of solidarity. The birth of unions in America is clearly traced to the post civil-war period with the onset of large corporations. As we celebrate 100 years of Actors’ Equity, it is necessary to acknowledge its forbears such as the AFL, founded in 1886, and its direct ancestor: the Hebrew Actors’ Union.
What does this have to do with Stella Adler? A lot. Born into the socialist climate where she worked as a child in the Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Stella remained loyal to working class rights throughout her life. And of course she was an original member of the first socially conscious theatrical company, The Group Theater, whose plays such as “Waiting for Lefty” reflected the Depression era mood, calling for social reform.
Even though Stella had enjoyed theatrical success across three continents as a star of the Yiddish stage, and her parents helped pioneer the Yiddish theater, by the time the Yiddish theater moved to Second Avenue (known as the Yiddish Broadway), she had to earn her right to perform just like any other actor. To play on Second Avenue, Stella had to join the Hebrew Actors’ Union, founded in 1899 and predating Equity by fourteen years.
Housed on East Seventh Street, the Union formed the central hub of Jewish life on Second Avenue. It fought for fair working wages and working conditions for years. At its height, its president Reuben Guskin was among the most important leaders of the worker’s movement in the country. He ran the Hebrew Actors’ Union with an iron fist. The Union decided actors’ pay, where they performed, how their names appeared on the marquee, and most importantly, whether they would be accepted into the Union. In a split-second decision, Guskin could destroy an actor’s career.
Acceptance was based on “making rehearsal” before a group of peers with whom the actor was competing. “Imagine – you’re auditioning before your peers,” a Yiddish actor who had grown up during the heyday of Second Avenue remarked, “and you know that they hate your guts. They sat there like gangsters.” Guskin presided at the helm, scrutinizing every gesture of the actor’s audition.
Stella Adler didn’t “make rehearsal” her first time auditioning. She had no choice but to try again.
The afternoon of Stella’s second audition was nerve racking. Most of the members deciding her fate were younger and less experienced than she. They didn’t come from the Adler dynasty, and she was certain Guskin had it in for her or he wouldn’t have rejected her the first time. She chose a fifteen-minute scene that showcased her theatricality. After completing the scene, she had built up so much tension she fell in a faint. Someone jumped on the stage to pick her up. Another brought water. As she was recovering, Stella heard Guskin announce that she had been accepted into the Union.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the Union’s limestone building at 31 East Seventh Street was a ruin. Pictures of the pioneers of the Yiddish stage such as Stella’s father, Jacob Adler, hung askew along with the cobwebs, while playbills, posters, and play scripts collected dust. The materials of the once rich theatrical community were finally salvaged and donated to YIVO. The Hebrew Actors’ Union was 106 years old when it finally went defunct.