Records of the Hebrew Actors’ Union
Scope and Content Note
This collection consists of the administrative records of the Hebrew Actors’ Union and relates to the professional lives of celebrated actors, producers, directors, and playwrights, as well as materials concerning several Yiddish theaters in New York and in other cities. The materials include hundreds of music scores, dozens of play scripts and thousands of pieces of correspondence with numerous individuals, theaters, unions, and other organizations. There are also dues ledgers and other financial materials, such as receipts, invoices, contracts, and salary and payment agreements, membership address cards, election ballots, theater programs and posters, administrative records and reports, a handwritten Yiddish ledger of minutes of regular monthly business meetings and special annual meetings from 1938-1947, meeting notices, press releases, awards, paintings, banners, photographs, souvenir journals, and newspaper clippings. Many of the materials are in fair condition, although much of the collection is brittle and torn and some of the collection, particularly the music scores, is extremely fragile and should only be handled carefully.
The collection contains correspondence from many of the great stars of the Yiddish stage, including Celia Adler, Julius Adler, Stella Adler, Ben Bonus, Max Bozyk, Joseph Buloff, Pesakh Burstein, Fyvush Finkel, Leo Fuchs, Aaron Lebedeff, Shifra Lerer, David Medoff, Bessie Mogulesko, Fraidele Oysher, Molly Picon, Ludwig Satz, Maurice Schwartz, Herman Yablokoff, and Sheftel Zak, among many others. There is also a great deal of correspondence, as well as financial records, from various theater and labor organizations, unions, and publications, including Actors’ Equity, AFL (American Federation of Labor), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), Associated Actors and Artistes of America, Jewish Daily Forward, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Society of Jewish Composers, Publishers and Songwriters, the Workmen’s Circle, and the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance, among others.
Additionally, there is a bust of Boris Thomashefsky and a bust of Harry Rothpearl, the president of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance, as well as props and costumes in YIVO’s off-site storage and 7 linear feet of materials that have not been processed. These materials have not been factored into the linear extent of the collection.
- Creation: 1874-1986
- Creation: Majority of material found within 1920-1970
Language of Materials
The collection is in Yiddish and English, with some Hebrew, German and French.
Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained from the YIVO Archives. For more information, contact:
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
The Hebrew Actors’ Union (HAU), which was the first theatrical union in the United States, was originally founded in New York City in 1888. Shortly afterwards, the Hebrew Actors’ Union, along with the Yiddish Writers’ Union, the Theater Chorus Union and two branches of the Socialist Labor Party, founded the United Hebrew Trades (UHT) on October 9, 1888. The HAU then led an October 21, 1888 strike by actors from Poole’s Theatre and the Oriental Theatre as a protest against unstable working conditions, after which the striking actors, chorus singers and other strikers opened a cooperative theater under the supervision of the United Hebrew Trades. However, the Hebrew Actors’ Union was ultimately thrown out of the UHT because the actors did not receive regular wages, but rather a percentage of the income, so the HAU members were considered capitalists and not true workers by the other UHT members. The Union continued on, mainly reforming to organize strikes against the theaters’ managers and owners and then effectively disbanding after each strike was over.
During a December 1899 strike 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. Barondess helped to reform the Hebrew Actors’ Union, aiming to improve the working conditions for actors in the Yiddish theater and to provide an infrastructure for the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue. The Hebrew Actors’ Union Local 1 received its charter on December 31, 1899, and soon started collecting dues and holding weekly meetings. In addition, the actors also began to receive wages, rather than a percentage of the profits. Local 2, the union for Yiddish theater actors outside of New York City, was founded in March 1902. The two Local branches, along with a separate union for Yiddish vaudevillians and variety actors, also founded in March 1902, merged in 1922, under the direction of Reuben Guskin, then the manager of the HAU.
Before the HAU’s formation, the working conditions for Yiddish theater actors were quite precarious. 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. In his memoirs, Boris Thomashefsky admitted that before the founding of the Union, ordinary rank and file actors, as opposed to the great stars of the Yiddish stage, were in the same category as non-unionized factory workers and during strikes or protests “scabs” were brought in from elsewhere to replace these actors.
The HAU combated this exploitation by setting 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. The Hebrew Actors’ Union also instituted current concepts in labor theory, such as striking to achieve policy changes and instituting a set pay scale in which members received a guaranteed minimum salary for appearances regardless of the production’s loss or profit. Periodically, a theater was forced to close when it could not afford to pay the high salaries of the actors and the other theater workers, such as musicians, advertisers and ushers, which the Union also helped to organize.
The Union had a great deal of power over its members, as well as over the Yiddish theater establishment. It determined which theaters actors could perform in and how prominently they would be billed on theater marquees. The more successful actors performed in New York on Second Avenue, where there were 14 Yiddish theaters at one time, while less successful actors were kept on a touring circuit, mainly the New York and New Jersey suburbs but sometimes as far away as the mid-west and Canada. The Union required that theater managers employ a certain number of Union actors and pay Union wages, regardless of the actors’ abilities or the theater managers’ preferences and often threatened to have actors strike in order to enforce its decisions.
The HAU was often accused of having a “closed-shop policy”, being closed to any new members, a charge they disputed, although they did admit that the audition process was incredibly rigorous, with applicants being required to pay $75 to apply and to audition before existing Union members. Notable actors including Maurice Schwartz, Stella Adler and Pesakh Burstein failed their original auditions. Dues and initiation fees were very high but, once new members were admitted, they were guaranteed a higher minimum salary and a higher payment for extra performances beyond the required nine shows a week.
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. Over this same time period, Guskin was also the president of the United Hebrew Trades, the president of the Workmen’s Circle, a member of the administrative board of the Jewish Daily Forward, and director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). He oversaw the relocation of the Union’s headquarters from 108 Second Avenue to its own building at 31 East 7th Street in 1923, where it remained until 2005, which contained the Hebrew Actors’ Club, a gymnasium, a library, and a concert and lecture hall.
Reuben Guskin was also instrumental in the publication of several books about Yiddish theater, including Zalmen Zylbercweig’s six-volume Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Lexicon of the Yiddish Theater), published between 1931-1969 under the auspices of the HAU. He helped to solve the much-publicized 1929 dispute between the HAU and its sister organization in Poland, the Warsaw Yiddish Actors’ Union (Yidisher Artistn Fareyn), which related to alleged mistreatment and the levying of heavy taxes on American actors traveling in Poland. The Yiddish press in both Poland and the United States covered the dispute and each union threatened to boycott the other before Reuben Guskin was able to resolve the situation during a visit to Poland.
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. This could be felt already by the 1929-1930 season, when all of the Yiddish theaters in New York closed in midseason, two minor theaters folded and two Second Avenue theaters were put up for sale.
By 1930, several of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater had left for overseas or for the non-Yiddish stage or Hollywood. By midseason, the managers of the remaining nine New York theaters threatened to close if there was not a 40 percent cut in Union personnel salaries. The Union threatened to strike and, starting on December 8, 1930, the theaters closed for two weeks. The Union was forced to cut the salary scale by 10-25 percent and to waive its power to set a quota for actors for every theater for the duration of the season, but it was not enough.
The 1931-1932 season was even worse and tension between the Union and the theater managers increased. A committee of five labor leaders was established to look for ways to improve the situation of the theaters, consisting of Baruch Vladeck, manager of the Forward; David Shapiro, publisher of Der Tog; Adolph Held, president of the Amalgamated Bank; Jacob R. Schiff, attorney; and Morris Firestone, secretary of the United Hebrew Trades. Reuben Guskin was not included. Despite the success of Maurice Schwartz’s productions of Yoshe Kalb in 1932 and Brothers Ashkenazi in 1937, among a few other productions, Yiddish theater was irreversibly waning. Theaters continued to close, fewer productions were staged and it was harder for Yiddish-language actors to find work.
Reuben Guskin, however, continued to fight for the Union’s members, working as hard as he could to provide for them, particularly sick and impoverished actors. He also quietly aided many of the European actors who had survived the Holocaust, oftentimes personally donating money. 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.
Based upon: Edna Nahshon, Krysia Fisher. Stars, Strikes, and the Yiddish Stage: The Story of the Hebrew Actors’ Union, exhibition catalog. New York, NY: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2009.
Zalmen Zylbercweig (ed.). Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Lexicon of the Yiddish Theater). New York, NY: Farlag Elisheva, 1931-1969.
72.3 Linear Feet (100 5” boxes, 7 2.5” boxes, 114 3” flat boxes, and 1 8.25” card file box)
This collection contains the administrative records of the Hebrew Actors’ Union (HAU), the professional union of Yiddish theater performers, which was based in New York City. Materials include correspondence, membership materials, financial records and members’ dues information, meeting minutes, and a great deal of sheet music and play scripts of performances from the Yiddish theater. A majority of these performances were in New York City, but there are also materials from Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and Montreal, as well as various locations in Israel and South America.
The correspondence has been arranged in three groups, each of which has been arranged alphabetically. The financial records are in loose groupings by document type and content and are also somewhat chronologically ordered and the newspaper clippings are in chronological order. Plays and music are not arranged. The photographs have been arranged alphabetically by the name of the individual, when known. Personal names of correspondents, journal titles, organization names, and play and song titles have been transliterated. Yiddish names have been transliterated according to YIVO standards except when the individual is known in English by another spelling. Additionally, if the name appeared in Latin letters anywhere within the folder, that spelling was used rather than a standard transliteration. Often, individual names appear in several different spellings and versions within a single folder or a series of correspondence is addressed to multiple people or organizations. When this is the case, multiple names are listed, divided by a slash mark. Thus, a folder is labeled Rosenfeld/Rosenfield, Rashel/Rachel when both the individual’s first and last name are variously spelled. Another folder is labeled Steinberg, Samuel/Odeon Theatre, indicating correspondence addressed to both the individual and the theater, while another folder labeled Grossman, Joseph/Kasten, Lewis has correspondence addressed to both individuals.
The box and folder numbers start over again at 1 for each series and subseries. The folder numbers for the correspondence and the financial records and other administrative materials continue from one box to the next, while the folder numbers for the plays, music scores and audiovisual and memorabilia materials start over again at 1 at the beginning of each new box. Box numbers consist of series number, and subseries number for Series I, and box number within that series and subseries. Thus, the first box in Series I, subseries 1 is I-1:1 and the first box in Series II is II:1. The collection has been divided into four series with the first series further divided into subseries.
The collection was donated by Ruth Ellen, President of the Hebrew Actors’ Union in May 2006.
Books that were originally part of the Hebrew Actors’ Union records have been given to the YIVO Library collection.
The collection was originally processed by Fern Kant, Chana Mlotek and Ettie Goldwasser thanks to a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 2007-2009. Additional processing and encoding was completed in 2013.
- Guskin, Reuben, 1887-1951 (Person)
- Rechtzeit, Seymour, 1908-2002 (Person)
- Schwartz, Maurice, 1890-1960 (Person)
- Yablokoff, Herman, 1903-1981 (Person)
- Idisher aḳṭyoren yunyon (U.S.) (Organization)
- United Hebrew Trades (Organization)
- Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring (Organization)
- YIVO Archives (Organization)
Genre / Form
- Administrative reports
- clippings (information artifacts)
- Financial records
- manuscripts (documents)
- Minutes (administrative records)
- Sheet music
- Theater programs
- Guide to the Records of the Hebrew Actors' Union 1874-1986 (bulk 1920-1970) RG 1843
- Processed by Fern Kant, Chana Mlotek and Ettie Goldwasser thanks to a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Jewish Performing Arts Digital Archive Initiative and the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.