American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 51

White Rats

Vaudeville was always a microcosm for the larger society.  Technology, transportation, public taste and morality, immigration, race and gender issues, big business versus unionized labor—all the major themes of an expanding industrialized nation played out in vaudeville as they did on the larger stage.

The monopoly fever that gripped railroads and oil also infected show business.  The Theatrical Syndicate had organized the legitimate theatre to suit their own purposes, and the barons of vaudeville sought to do the same.  In response, brave bands of performers and actors tried to marshal themselves into the White Rats (star spelt backwards), an organized response to managers.  The actors’ greatest threat was to refuse to perform, but time and again they were defeated by Abe Erlanger, E. F. Albee and the other managers.

The managers had theatres to fill, but they also had money in the bank.  It was a lot easier to starve out an actor who may have had a week or two of salary socked away but was more likely to be living from hand to mouth.  The White Rats eventually led into Actors Equity and the American Federation of Labor, but first performers and actors had to confront the issue of whether they were artists or workers or both; then they had to be very brave.