American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 50

White Rats

The workers’ movement to organize in the Nineteenth Century as a balance to the political and economic power of big business first found expression among entertainers through the White Rats.  Inspired by the Water Rats, an organization of music hall entertainers, an American, George Fuller Golden, rallied his fellows in the USA in 1900 to form the first “benevolent and protective society” for American performers and actors.

The managers formed the Association of Vaudeville managers (A.V.M.) to centralize in their own hands the booking of performers into theatres.  They would control the wages, the routes, the agents and, ultimately, the performers.  The A.V.M. was quickly dubbed the Syndicate for the mirror image it was of the Theatre Trust (or Syndicate) that controlled the legitimate theatres across the USA.

Both sides underestimated each other.  The managers did not fully appreciate the breadth and depth of resentment their high-handedness stirred among performers.  The strike called by the White Rats in 1901 failed in the immediate sense, and the White Rats survived as a largely social organization.  Meanwhile actors in the legitimate theatre were mobilizing as Actors Equity against the Theatrical Trust.  In turn, the Trust embraced the A.V.M. to form a greater alliance of producers and theatre owners.  The Great War put everything on hold for the duration, 1914-18.

After the War it was a different world.  Not only had technology and communications assumed a major role in everyday life, but the attitude of the ordinary person had changed from quiescent to assertive.  Actors Equity sought and received the assistance of the American Federation of Labor in 1919.  After unsuccessful negotiation with the managers, a strike was called and the performers found the public was on their side.  The managers capitulated to Actors Equity’s demands, and fair practices entered the actors’ and performers’ workplaces—theatres—forever.