My first union was the American Guild of Musical Artists joined in 1947 to dance—two weeks at the Zeigfeld Theater—with Martha Graham. When Actor’s Equity called a strike, I was in Once Upon A Mattress On the 3rd of every month a union retirement check arrives, the last thing I’d expected for dancing on Broadway.
For Paint Your Wagon, I had to join Chorus Equity, for TV, the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, for The Latin Quarter (a night club), the American Guild of Variety Artists, and for Peer Gynt, although a lowly dancer, I had to join Actor’s Equity, big brother to Chorus Equity. Each required an initiation fee and dues between jobs, or back dues when re-hired. The exception was Screen Actors Guild which gave the producer a “waver,” allowing him to pay almost nothing. A performer is allowed only one but SAG gave him a second for me. And when he tried to do me out of re-run residuals, it refused to lift a finger. I envied musicians, one union for all whatever and where ever they played.
Rehearsing in a studio of the Zeigfield, a stage hand said if we put one foot on a prop, Martha Graham would have to pay four stagehands for four hours of work. We chalked its outline on the floor.
Auditioning for Onna White, I couldn’t plug my record player into a wall socket, so hauled an automobile battery and converter to the audition.
After an off-Broadway flop titled Morning Sun, disheartened composer, Paul Klein, was giving up show biz, so the cast wanted to make him a reel-to-reel souvenir of his songs. Our Equity deputy, a singer, said no. We did it anyway and when he nosed around the dressing room, dancer, Michael Maurer, sounded the alarm, singing, “Schmucks are taking over the world!”
When I formed a young-audience in-school troupe, The Ballet Team, I wanted to go union. The rep approved $125 a week, saying they had a small opera contract for that amount. “You can play four shows on weekends.”
“We play week days in public schools.”
“We don’t have a contract for that.”
“So write one!” He shook his head. We went non-union.
Finally, Equity News is the most boring monthly trade paper in the universe, even though it reports on the most interesting people who live in it.
` Hard working dancers are in natural opposition to producers, but theatrical producers are not soulless suits and union staff need to know the difference between Walt Disney and tiny start-ups like, yes, The Ballet Team.
With the exception of fire fighters, unions have a poor public image not enhanced when the Chicago teacher’s union calls a strike as school is starting. Labor college types call it perfect timing. It’s also the worst possible PR.
Wisconsin’s union-busting Scott Walker should have been kicked out, but too many Wisconsinites resent what they view as high-handed union power plays. The union movement, in decline for decades, desperately needs PR consultants. If the Wisconsin defeat wasn’t a wake-up call, I wonder what it will take?
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