In 1863 the first stage employees' organization was named the Theatrical Workman's Council and then became the Theatrical Mechanical Association in 1865 when it incorporated under New York State law. This was encouraged by Abraham Lincoln being elected president of the United States with the votes of the working class.
Though not quite a modern union, the Theatrical Mechanical Association did provide welfare benefits and grew to 41 members. On April 26, 1886, many of those members met at 187 Bowery in the heart of the theater district to draw up a new charter and a constitution that states:
We, the theatrical employees of the theatres of New York, deem it eminently right that we should organize for the development and improvement of our conditions, asking but a fair and just compensation commensurate with the service rendered so that equity may be maintained and the welfare of our organization promoted, accepting any wise, honorable, and conservative mediation as a proper adjustment of all difficulties that may arise.
The Theatrical Protective Union Number One was born.
The Theatrical Protective Union joined other labor groups of the day in the 700,000-strong Knights of Labor. On May Day 1886, 25,000 people of the Knights of Labor held a torchlight procession down Broadway to Union Square to demand an eight-hour day and the end of child and convict labor. That victory would take many years.
Union wages at the time topped out at 50-cents-a-day during a 60-to-100-hour work week. The threats to the union were men willing to handle the scenery for the privilege of witnessing the play. But as stock companies were replaced by traveling (touring) companies, a higher standard of theatrical mechanics and skilled stage employees became essential and drove the unskilled and the free workers from the field.
The union's first strike was in 1888. A work stoppage at the Bowery Theatre, a walkout at Wallack's Theatre and a strike at the Academy of Music on 14th Street put muscle behind the union's demand of a dollar a show and 50 cents for each load in and load out. Strikebreakers were hired. When a flat dropped on acclaimed actor Louis James during Hamlet's soliloquy, the actor retired to his dressing room and informed management that he would not return to the stage until the professional stagehands were reinstated. They were. The bond between stagehands and actors, still solid today, was made fast.
The success of Theatrical Protective Union in New York did not go unnoticed in other cities. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Denver, Syracuse, Buffalo and Boston also organized stagehand unions. On July 17, 1893, representatives of those ten cities assembled at Elks Hall in New York to join with their Broadway brothers in founding the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and selecting John G. Williams of New York as the first National Alliance president. The Theatrical Protective Union of New York was designated Theatrical Protective Union Number One in honor of its place in history. The Local became better known as Local One of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the "mother local" of the Alliance and today holds a place of honor whenever the Alliance meets. The National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees became the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees in 1902 (IATSE) to better reflect the addition of Canadian locals.
New York's Herald Square, 1906
By 1916, Local One was putting its union stamp (the "bug") on all scenery and equipment built in its jurisdiction. By then, most scenery was being built in New York for shows in the city or to be sent out on tour and the bug became the symbol to stagehand locals throughout the country that the scenery coming in the stage door was union made by a sister local.
The Roxy and Radio City Music Hall had many things in common. In addition to films and a stage show, the history of both venues boasts the Rockettes. Originally from St. Louis and known as the Missouri Rockets in 1925, the long-legged and high-kicking precision dance troupe was brought to New York City by Samuel Roxy Rothafel, renamed Roxyettes, and became part of the spectacular stage show at the Roxy. When Rothafel opened Radio City Music Hall, the dance troupe followed and danced on opening night. They were later renamed The Rockettes.
The 1920s was the dawn of broadcasting that boomed in the 1930s. Radio, though slow to spread, would mean entertainment delivered to the living room took the lead when it formed NBC. William Paley soon formed the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) to compete. As radio grew as a free entertainment supported by advertising, the need for studio space increased. Radio broadcasters took over theaters and kept the Local One stagehands employed in them. When RCA built NBC studios in Rockefeller Center, CBS built on Madison Avenue.
On July 1, 1941, the Federal Communications Commission authorized the start of commercial television transmission in the United States. Its growth delayed by World War II, television repeated and expanded that process of turning legitimate theaters into broadcast studios in the late 1940s. Because live television was so much more demanding than radio, the building of sets, the hanging and focusing of lighting, the manufacture of props and the moving of scenery meant more employment for Local One stagehands.
The Metropolitan Opera had been at home on the square block on the west side of Broadway between 39th and 40th Street since 1883. Local One stagehands have been at home at the Metropolitan Opera almost as long. Both moved to Lincoln Center in 1966. It is little-known that the 3,900-seat Metropolitan Opera House is the largest single live entertainment production complex in the world and builds most of its own sets and costumes on premises. Stagehands work round the clock during the season. The Met employs more Local One stagehands than any other organization.
Employment uptown at Lincoln Center is very important for Local One. Not only were jobs kept by the saving of Carnegie Hall and City Center, but new jobs were created in the 1960s when the 2,713-seat New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), the 1,080-seat Vivian Beaumont (originally home to Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center and now home to Lincoln Center Theater), the 2,738-seat Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall and home to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) and the 1,095-seat Alice Tully Hall opened.
The growth of Lincoln Center still means the growth of union stage labor. In 2010, New York Fashion Week moved to Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park, and without a demonstration or a picket line, accepted Local One to supply its labor. When the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle was torn down to build a shiny new skyscraper named Time Warner Center, a permanent home for Jazz at Lincoln Center was created. The Frederick P. Rose Hall complex includes the 508-seat Allen Room, the 92-seats and 48- barstool Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the 1,094-seat Rose Theater concert hall and Local One stagehands throughout.
The Apollo was reopened in 1983 when it was bought by Inner City Broadcasting and became home to a televised Amateur Night at the Apollo, a television program without a union stage crew. Local One's right to bargain on behalf of the crew was legally asserted in support of the stage crew. The media blitz did not let up until Apollo management recognized the union three weeks later.
Following up on the Apollo victory, Local One began an era of organizing and merging. The leadership of the union believes that any stage worker is its brethren and, if possible, should be under the union's protection. The new millennium saw Local One organizing successes with City University of New York venues including Sylvia & Danny Kaye Playhouse and Lehman College Center for the Performing Arts. Local One organized Pace University's Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, the Joyce Theater, Summer Stage and the Nokia Theater (now the BestBuy).
Local One merged with Local 366 IATSE, the stagehands in Westchester and Putnam, in 2000. The year before, Local One merged with Local 922 IATSE, Theatrical Sound Designer's Association.
Prior to 2007, Local One had never struck the Great White Way though it has honored other labor organizations’ picket lines. After months of fruitless negotiations, management imposed and posted non negotiated work rules and Local One reluctantly exercised its legal rights with a nineteen day strike. The union came together as one to take care of its own. Brothers and sisters employed in other parts of Local One's vast jurisdiction gave up shifts at their own jobs to employ striking workers and with other craft local members took their place on the thirty one established picket lines. The union obtained wage and benefit increases while honorably exchanging terms and conditions to finally achieve a new five year collective bargaining agreement.
In 1985, Local One bought its own building at 320 West 46th Street. The building houses the union offices, hiring hall and benefit funds with floors left over for income-producing tenants, including a ground floor restaurant.
There were hundreds of scenery shops in New York. As scene shops consolidated after World War II, a man named Peter Feller (once master carpenter to Irving Berlin's This is the Army) opened one of the largest scene shops ever operated in New York. A generation of Local One stagehands developed their skills in Mr. Feller's studios as scenery construction evolved to become more and more complicated.
The skills of the stagehand have grown as scenery and effects have grown. Flying wood-frame painted muslin covered flats have given way to heavy steel structures that have to be removed from view in seconds, often on century-old stages that lack the elevators, trusses and hydraulics of more modern theaters such as the Metropolitan Opera. Dreamgirls was the last Broadway show with complex scene changes where every motor to move scenery was hand controlled. Since then, most complex scene changes are computerized. Stagehands are often thought of now as "stage technicians."
Since A Chorus Line was the first show to use a computerized lighting board on Broadway, a Broadway show may now have thousands of individually programmed lighting instruments run by computers more powerful than those on the first space shuttle. Manufacturers designing much of this new equipment regularly consult with Local One members to make sure their equipment can meet the demands of Broadway.
Keeping up with technology is an imperative at Local One. The union offers its members classes or training in welding, rigging, sound engineering, forklifts and upholstery. Many Local One technicians attend certification or licensing programs for welding, rigging, laser operation, pyrotechnics and firearms. The drive to keep up with technology is in protecting Local One's jurisdiction so that no one can claim that anyone can do the job better than a Local One stagehand.
One thing that technology has not changed in 279 years is the love of the craft, doing a tough job well and the pride in being the best: a Local One stagehand.
More than 1000 people attended the Gala. The opening of the festivities was a video history of Local One that will be used in the future for the orientation of our incoming members. The fabulous Radio City Rockettes immediately followed the video. Their precision and beauty were even more extraordinary because we were all so much closer to them than in Radio City Music Hall.
President Claffey then welcomed everybody to the Gala. Representatives from many areas of Local One’s jurisdiction performed. Eric Owens of the Metropolitan Opera gave a rousing rendition of “Old Man River.” Bebe Neuwirth sang, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performed a duet, David Letterman had prepared a video “Top Ten List,” and the “Million Dollar Quartet” closed the evening.
But, it wasn’t just about entertainment. Local One was honored by proclamations from Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. The I.A.T.S.E. International President Matthew D. Loeb spoke movingly of our leadership. The New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes spoke to the need for unions like ours in this time of crisis.
Finally and most importantly, Local One honored others. First, honorary membership cards were presented to Bebe Neuwirth for her unstinting support of so many of the organizations that aid our members such as the Actors Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA); BC/EFA was honored for it years of work against AIDS and its support of the Actors Fund; and Phil Hymes, lighting designer, for all of the assistance he has given our members over a long career.
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