American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 8

White Rats II

History VII

by Armond Fields

After its initial losing battle against the Syndicate in 1901, the White Rats actors’ organization was reduced to an ineffectual and ceremonial social group that spent its time sponsoring baseball games and holiday barbecues. Not until 1910, under the direction of Harry Montford, did the White Rats regain a modicum of influence among performers. An eloquent spokesperson with seductive, evangelistic charisma, Montford recruited hundreds of new members, helped erect a clubhouse, and formed a sister organization among women vaudeville artists. While White Rats’ membership grew many thousands during the next few years, little was accomplished against the Syndicate.

In 1913, a group of actors banded together to form a union called the Actors Equity Association. Led by wellrespected actor Francis Wilson, the A.E.A. advocated half pay for all rehearsals over four weeks and full pay for extra performances during actual runs. Their complaints against the ever-present Syndicate were clearly stated by Milton Sills at an early A.E.A. meeting when he declared, in angry terms, that “the actor is the one and only class that is bullied, belittled, despised, cheated and enslaved.” To enhance its position and gain legitimacy, the A.E.A. joined the American Federation of Labor, a union already representing stagehands and musicians.