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Hebrew Actors' Union

Title: Hebrew Actors' Union
Inclusive Dates: 1874-1986
ID: RG 1843
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72.3 linear feet
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The Hebrew Actors’ Union (HAU), which was the first theatrical union in the United States, was originally founded in New York City in 1888. During a December 1899 strike held by the actors at the People’s Theatre against the managers, Jacob Adler, Boris Thomashefsky and Joseph Edelstein, the United Hebrew Trades sent Jewish labor leader Joseph Barondess to organize the actors and reorganize the Union. After a few weeks, Thomashefsky recognized the Union and the strike ended. The Hebrew Actors’ Union Local 1 received its charter from the American Federation of Labor on December 31, 1899, and soon started collecting dues and holding weekly meetings. It was also a member of the United Hebrew Trades, and assisted striking unions belonging to the UHT.

Prior to the founding of the HAU, Yiddish theater actors could be fired without notice, and received commissions based upon the success of the performance and their individual popularity instead of receiving regular salaries. They were not compensated for their rehearsal time, worked seven days a week and were often treated quite poorly by theater managers. The HAU established rules for working conditions, fair wages and payment schedules. It kept non-Union actors out of productions in which Union members appeared, established a fund to support old and sick members, assisted striking unions that operated under the aegis of the United Hebrew Trades, and was closely affiliated from its beginning with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and with the general and Jewish labor movement.

Many of the policies enacted by the HAU, including salary increases for actors, compensation for the actors when they traveled, increased paid sick leave, and a doubling of an actor’s salary if he or she played more than one role in a production, were implemented by Reuben Guskin, the HAU business manager from 1919 until his death in 1951 and the president of the Union from 1941-1951.

During the 1920s, when both the Union and Yiddish theater were at their heights, and into the 1930s, when Yiddish theater attendance had already started to wane, the Union claimed about 350-400 members and there were around 21 Yiddish theaters throughout the country. The Great Depression, the continued acculturation of the Jewish population, the lack of new audiences that accompanied the end of immigration, the movement of Jewish audiences towards Broadway and motion pictures, and higher production costs for Yiddish plays than for English plays, due in part to Union contract requirements, combined to erode the audience for the Yiddish theater. Theaters began to close, theatrical seasons were cut short, and several of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater left for overseas, the non-Yiddish stage, or Hollywood.

By the middle of the 1930 theatrical season, the managers of the remaining nine New York theaters threatened to close if there was not a dramatic percent cut in HAU personnel salaries, which were far higher than those of non-Union members. The Union threatened to strike, and on December 8, 1930, the theaters closed for two weeks. The Union was forced to cut its salary scale and to waive its power to set a quota for every theater for the duration of the season. But tensions between the Union and the theater managers continued to mount, while at the same time, Yiddish theater audiences were on the decline. More theaters closed, fewer productions were staged, and Yiddish-language actors struggled to find work.

Guskin remained as HAU president until his death in 1951, after which the Union was lead by elected volunteer presidents who were also active in the Yiddish theater. These included Herman Yablokoff, composer of the hit song “Papirosn” (Cigarettes), the Broadway and Yiddish stage actor Bernardo Sauer and singer and performer Seymour Rechtzeit (Rexsite), who was the last president of the Union from 1991 until his death at age 91 in 2002. After Rechtzeit’s death, the Union’s leadership passed to one-time Yiddish performer Ruth Ellen, who served as acting head until 2005. The Union held its last official meeting in the 1990s, but continued on until October 2005, when it was officially labeled non-operational by its umbrella union, the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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Acquired: 05/2006.
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Acquisition Note: Ruth Ellen, President of the Hebrew Actors' Union
Related Materials: Sholem Perlmutter, RG 289; Esther Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum Archive, RG 8; Ida Kaminska and Meir Melman, RG 994; Abraham Goldfaden, RG 219; Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Yiddish Actors’ Union in Poland), RG 26; ARTEF Theater, RG 531; Folksbiene Theater, RG 512; Jacob Gordin, RG 530; Molly Picon, RG 738; Jacob P. Adler, RG 1177; Celia Adler, RG 399; Maurice Schwartz, RG 498; David Herman, RG 209; Joseph Buloff and Luba Kadison, RG 1146; David Licht, RG 797; Jacob Mestel, RG 280; Ben Bonus and Mina Bern, RG 1168; Ossip Dymow, RG 469; Peretz Hirschbein, RG 833; Herman Yablokoff, RG 1188; David Pinski, RG 204; Zalmen Zylbercweig, RG 662; and the Yiddish Theater, RG 118, and Yiddish Theater Photographs, RG 119.
Collection Material Type: Official Records
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