By the 1890s the vaudeville world was composed of empires and smaller fiefdoms in which performers were pawn in the moguls’ fight to monopolize and the independent’s struggle to survive. The United Booking Office, the booking arm of the huge Keith-Albee (later Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain) determined if, where, when and for how much a vaudeville act would work. Only the small top tier of vaudeville headliners made enough money and had established large and loyal fan bases to give them the clout to negotiate terms with bookers.
Grumbling and groveling was the usual reaction of the vast majority of performers. Although some actors, musicians and vaudevillians looked to the trade union movement for salvation, the wish to mount a countervailing force against the monopolistic power and feudal policies of the vaudeville barons was not an idea endorsed by every vaudevillian. Those who regarded themselves as artistes not laborers, balked. It would take exactly twenty years for performers to successfully unionize.
In 1899, vaudevillian George Fuller Golden (1868-1912) had ventured to England to play music halls. As a comedy monologist, Fuller should have been mindful of the wise witticism (by Wilde or Shaw—take your pick) that Britain and America “were two nations separated by a common language.” Nor did the two nations, at that time, share a sense of humor; consequently, Fuller failed to amuse. Broke and owing money, Fuller was rescued by the Water Rats, a benevolent society of English music-hall performers that paid his bills and passage to New York for Fuller and wife. As enthused as he was grateful, Fuller proposed a similar organization to his friends.
In 1900 that small band of successful American vaudevillians formed the White Rats. Like the Water Rats, the society was limited to male performers. The Americans went further: the White Rats became an all-white, all- male group of big city vaudeville headliners that voted to restrict membership to one hundred of their fellows.
Failure and dissension was their cornerstone. The White Rats’ shortsighted leadership had one tactic: refuse to work unless terms were favorable. That may have worked for a few of the initial one hundred, but it foolishly ignored that thousands of performers lived week-to-week, hand-to-mouth. When the White Rats called a strike in 1901, it was largely ignored outside of New York City. Over the next few years, members gradually faded away.
Meanwhile African American acts and shows were beginning to reach white, mainstream American audiences. One of the earliest heroes of the civil rights movement was the African American song-and-dance comedian, George W. Walker, the fearless partner of the reluctant Bert Williams. Walker organized the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association. It was opposed by bookers who desired a pool of lowly paid and subservient colored performers and by the White Rats who wanted to limit the number of Negro acts on a vaudeville bill and ensure they were not billed above any white acts.
In 1913, former White Rats member, actor and comedian Francis Wilson led a group of stage actors to form Actors’ Equity Association. Wilson and his brethren were the strategists that the White Rats lacked. Equity forged a relationship with the powerful American Federation of Labor, so that if Equity called a strike against theatres, it would likely be accompanied with a walkout by the stagehands and musicians union. Meanwhile the White Rats stumbled along for another decade.
The labor movement’s tug-of-war with management persisted through the Great War, but in 1919 Equity called a strike that was supported by stagehands’ union and even the diminished White Rats. The battle was over. Soon even the lowly-paid chorus girls had a union, and management had to bargain with organized performers. The formation of the White Rats had been the first faltering step in the struggle.