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Theatre History Studies
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
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Chapter One Class Act(resses)
How Depression-Era Stage Actresses Utilized Conflicting gender Ideals to Benefit Their Community —KELLY CAROLYN GORDON
During the mid-eighteenth century, when professional theatre companies first began to appear in the United States, dominant culture held that women must devote their time and energy strictly to the private sphere: home, church, and charity. Historians refer to this era as having an ideology of "ideal" or "true" womanhood. Historian Barbara J. Harris defines "true womanhood" as "a compound of four ideas: a sharp dichotomy between the home and economic world outside that paralleled a sharp contrast between female and male natures, the designation of the home as the female's only proper sphere, the moral superiority of women, and the idealization of her role as a mother." Ultimately, this collection of ideas held that women were the natural, moral guardians of their husbands and children.
However, implicit in the true woman ideal was the notion that a woman's moral superiority was fragile and easily destroyed. Exposure to the corruption of the public world of business, government, education, and entertainment might very well transform true women into depraved and wanton hussies, destroying not only their moral nature but also that of their husbands and children and, by extension, society as a whole. The ideology of true womanhood was a dominant belief upon which Western society depended.
Toward the end of the 1800s, this concept of true womanhood was severely challenged by the suffrage and abolitionist movements and the changing realities of women's lives. Gradually, myriad opportunities emerged for women in the public sphere, a domain that had previously been closed to most women. Women began to carve out a stronger place for themselves outside the home, joining the workforce, the political realm, and institutions of higher education. Historian Deborah S. Kolb points out that "the abolitionist cause trained women orators and writers and demonstrated the power which organized women might yield. Within twenty years, from 1865 to 1885, America saw the opening of Vassar (1865), Smith (1875), Wellesley (1875), and Radcliffe (1882), and women were also accepted into more than fourteen state universities. The dearth of men due to the Civil War and to westward migration, in conjunction with the opening of industry and higher education to women, instilled a new feeling of self-reliance and independence in women." The ideal of the "new woman" provided U.S. culture with a new "sense of the female self; independent, athletic, sexual and modern." The new woman was "unafraid to challenge male decisions and male dominance. While she might retain the status of wife and mother, [she] frequently demanded new respect and responsibility as career woman." The period of the new woman culminated in the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. After the amendment was passed, feminist Carrie Chapman Catt aptly stated, "We are no longer petitioners, we are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens."
With the 1929 collapse of the New York Stock Exchange came a backward step in the progress that women had been making during the 1920s. Having won their fight to vote, attended college, and joined the workforce in increasing numbers, women were now told, "Don't take a job from a man." One example of this pervasive attitude was the firing of married female teachers and government employees, who were given the rationale that each family really needed only one breadwinner and that the breadwinner should be a man. The main question on the minds of many suffragettes was posed by Genevieve Parkhurst in the title of her article published by Harper's Magazine in 1935: "Is Feminism Dead?" Clearly, the Depression era marked a return to the true woman ideal; the era of new women had been short-lived.
Throughout the decade of the Great Depression, as American culture returned to the ideal of true womanhood, a number of ingenious projects were implemented to help unemployed theatre workers. For the most part, these charities were created and run by women. Playwright Rachel Crothers created the Stage Relief Fund, which raised money for theatre professionals in need. Much has been written about Hallie Flanagan's leadership of the Federal Theatre Project, a branch of President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration specifically designed to put theatre professionals back to work. Lasting from 1935 to 1939, the work of the Federal Theatre Project not only provided jobs for countless theatre employees but also brought high-quality theatre to the American public at little or no cost.
Historically, less attention has been paid to actress-driven charities designed to help the theatre community in New York during the 1930s; in particular, little has been noted about Selena Royle's creation and leadership of the Actors Dinner Club, which was closing just as the Federal Theatre Project was beginning. As women workers during the Depression era, actresses were in a unique position. They received pay and worked hours equal to their male counterparts, an ideal of new womanhood. However, onstage, in the media, and often in their private lives, actresses appeared to uphold the values of the true woman ideal, prioritizing domesticity and morality. Actresses who created and ran charitable organizations like the Actors Dinner Club made the best of this dichotomy. On the one hand, charity is a central value of the true woman ideal. Conversely, these women used their professional know-how and connections to gain valuable leadership experience, blazing a trail for future generations of women. Actresses who started charities for the theatrical profession during the 1930s benefited from both the true woman and new woman ideals; as a result, they made invaluable contributions to their field.
The Actors Dinner Club was one of the most collaborative and imaginative endeavors created to assist out-of-work theatre professionals during the Depression era. Located in New York City, this dinner club was established in 1931 by actress Selena Royle, who conceived of the idea while performing in John Galsworthy's The Roof with Actors Dinner Club cofounders Bessie Beatty and William Sauter. Royle envisioned a place where unemployed and employed actors alike could enjoy meals seven nights a week, from 5 to 8 p.m., while being entertained.
Furthermore, Royle thoughtfully set up a system that would prevent anyone from knowing who had paid for their dinner and who had not, a system that the New York Times described as "a triumph of generous tact." Tickets to the dinner club were available not only at the door but also at the offices of such organizations as the Actors' Equity Association and the Actors Fund of America. Those who could not afford to buy a ticket could discreetly ask for one at the Actors' Equity office, for example. When the ticket was presented at the dinner club, no one knew whether the ticket-holder had paid for it or not.
In the beginning stages of the project, not even Royle's father, a well-known playwright, believed in the Actors Dinner Club. In an October 9, 1932, New York Times article, Edwin Melton Royle wrote, "Frankly, I was one of those who did not believe in it, and I advised my daughter to abandon the project." Apparently, however, Selena Royle had ample gifts of persuasion, earning the commitment of aid from several theatre organizations and actresses such as Helen Hayes, Katherine Cornell, and Ethel Barrymore. Barrymore served on the dinner club's board of directors. Several other famous actresses, including Mary Pickford and Mae West, contributed by giving free performances.
The dinner club was staffed primarily by volunteer Actors' Equity Association members, led by Royle, and underwritten by the Actors Fund of America. Other organizations that contributed time and money included the Catholic Theatre Guild, the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the Jewish Theatrical Guild, Chorus Equity, the Lambs Club, the Friars Club, the Players Club, and the National Vaudeville Artists. Various restaurants and hotels donated food and supplies.
For the opening season, Rev. C. Everett Wagner of the Union Methodist Episcopal Church, a church that had a long history of supporting the theatre, donated the use of his church's hall, which had a capacity of seventy-four. The dinner club was so successful that it needed to move to larger quarters, eventually relocating five times and ending up at the Hotel Woodstock.
According to the Billboard, "during the first week, following its opening December 7, [1931,] The Actors Dinner Club served more than 1,400 persons." On opening night, many patrons waited for up to forty-five minutes. The large number who attended and their willingness to wait in line demonstrated the great need for such aid. Tickets could be purchased at the door for fifty cents (one dollar for the general public) or were available for free at the various theatrical guilds, Actors' Equity, or the Actors Fund offices. About half of every dollar made went toward free meals. The average dinner included soup or fruit cocktail, an entrée (chosen from two meats and one fish), three vegetables, dessert, and tea, milk, or coffee. Although most of the meals served were free, there were also many working actors who attended and made generous donations.
A May 1934 article in Stage Magazine described the exciting environment of the Actors Dinner Club: "The waiters are actors and actresses out of work, who are glad to carry trays for seven dinners a week and no tips. You are as likely as not to have Mary Pickford or Irene Franklin, or Mae West, Frances Alga, Ruth St. Denis, Cornelia Otis Skinner, or almost anybody else doing their stuff while you dine.... It is as about as gracious a way of giving and taking charity as has ever been devised." The dinner club was not just a venue to receive much-needed charity and to enjoy dinner and a show. Casting announcements were read, agents came looking for new talent, and tourists came to star-watch. According to Edwin Melton Royle, in one case a theatre manager spotted a man peeling potatoes in the kitchen and cast him in a new show. Overall, Royle pointed out, "First, last, and always it is a place to eat, but it is more than that. It is a place of contacts and human relationships. Men cannot live by bread alone. To men or women who are out of a job, who need shelter or clothes or food, who have exhausted their own resources and those of their friends, the place is a godsend." The club also provided some jobs for those who needed them. A destitute actor could "get a basement room, rent free, by doing janitor service. He [could] pick up a little money here and there shoveling snow." These services were available to actresses as well as actors; however, unemployed actresses were more likely to be found working in the kitchen than shoveling snow.
The Actors Dinner Club provided free meals for countless theatre professionals for three and a half years. Ultimately, the club fell victim to the economic crisis. Due to rising food costs and consistently serving more free dinners than paid for, the club was forced to close its doors in 1935. During its brief existence the club had struggled financially, despite many benefits thrown on its behalf by stars such as Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and the Marx brothers. The dinner club, indeed, had much support from the theatrical profession, but the need of free meals for theatre employees was too great a problem to be solved by such a small organization. One New York Times reporter responded to the closing of the dinner club, saying: "Unsuccessful, to be sure, is a harsh word, for no organization which has steadfastly functioned through three years of national misery and fulfilled its mission in that time can be said to have missed success, no matter what its final fate may be.... [T]he popularity of the Dinner Club ... is attested by the figures on the ledger. Since that opening night so long ago it had served in the neighborhood of 332,000 meals, more than two thirds of which were free." The club was unique in many ways, not the least of which was that it was run and supported primarily by actresses, many of whom went on to continue charitable work in their field. In the 1940s, Selena Royle organized the Stagedoor Canteen, which provided free meals and entertainment for servicemen during World War II.
Since heightened morality and compassion were part and parcel of the true woman ideal, this ideal served Selena Royle and others like her very well. While compassion is not exclusive to women, perhaps being incubated in the values of the private sphere is part of what has given them a special role in the theatre. Combining the leadership training and skills of the new woman with values of the true woman enabled women in theatre to blaze trails not only for other women in the field but for men as well. These women who rose to leadership in charitable theatre organizations during the Depression also helped to remove the vestiges of the association of actresses with prostitutes and the general notion of theatre as a morally suspect place.
Throughout history, following in the footsteps of female leaders of charitable organizations like Selena Royle, actors and actresses have traditionally given performances to benefit those in need, whether to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or to fight inhumane conditions in Darfur. Considering that theatre is a difficult profession even in the best of times, the charitable spirit of theatre workers is quite remarkable. It is important to note that, rather than depending solely upon aid from others, members of the theatrical profession have used their imagination and skills to support their own community as well. The Actors Dinner Club lasted a short time, but the spirit that created it lives on today. Projects like Broad way Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the healthcare support provided by Fractured Atlas, and the Actors Fund of America retirement homes uphold the legacy of the charities created by actresses during the Great Depression. Today, as the United States once again faces a time of economic crisis, theatre workers will do well to follow the example of pioneers like Selena Royle.
Storytelling, Chiggers, and the Bible Belt
The Georgia Experiment as the Public Face of the Federal Theatre Project —ELIZABETH OSBORNE
Their feet are still in the mud. They live in indescribable want, want of food, want of houses, want of any kind of life.... Their one entertainment is an occasional revival meeting, so when I get excited, tear around and gesticulate, they think it's the Holy Ghost descending upon me. It isn't. It's a combination of rage that such conditions should exist in our country, and chiggers, which I share with my audience. HERBERT STRATTON PRICE, director of the Georgia Experiment
One of the most frequently repeated stories of the Federal Theatre Project's rural activities centers on a community puppet theatre in Georgia. Hallie Flanagan writes in Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre:
In many places in Georgia the children were taught to make puppet theatres and puppets, and one day Herbert Price made a discovery. A little girl tried to smuggle the puppet she had been making home under her ragged dress, and when it was discovered she refused to give it up.
"Hit's mine. Hit's the onliest thing I ever had what was mine." The theatre changed its activity temporarily, and for the first time every child in the vicinity had a doll—a corncob doll dressed in gay clothes made of old sugar sacking dyed with the berries of the region.
That Federal Theatre Project (FTP) personnel were able to integrate themselves into this rural southern community to such a degree is testament both to the power of theatre as a universal device and to the agency of the communities that embraced the project. This simple example shows the needs of a single child altering—if only temporarily—the activities of the local FTP; she stole a doll, refused to give it back, explained her reasoning, and soon all the local children had their own dolls courtesy of the FTP. The veracity of this story notwithstanding, it is a charming tale of the FTP's effect on the small communities in Georgia and of the mythology that surrounded the project's efforts.
Excerpted from Theatre History Studies Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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