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The Long Island History Project

It’s a long island with a long history. Want to hear it? Interviews with historians, scholars, authors and anyone with a story to tell and a passion for this unique region of New York.

Jun 24, 2019

The life of an actor is never easy, so it's not surprising that many early Broadway stars made a point of vacationing in solitude on Long Island whenever they could. You might be surprised, however, at the prevailing working conditions and labor strugles they were often performing under in early 20th-cenutry theater. While the fast-growing industry was lucrative for producers like the Shuberts and Belascos, it offered many hardships for those who worked in front of and behind the curtain.

Caroline Propersi-Grossman, a PhD candidate in history at SUNY Stony Brook, walks us through these labor struggles and their culmination in the Actors' Equity strike of 1919. With scenes including Ethel Barrymore and W.C. Fields on the picket line to George M. Cohen in the role of strike-breaker, it's a story that encapsulates much of labory history and the greater turmoil of 1919.

For Caroline, this is backdrop to her dissertation, The Creative Hands: Stagehands, Their Union, and the Backstage/Frontstage Divide, which is a gendered labor history that focuses on the relationship between work, culture, gender, and race in New York City’s entertainment industry between 1945 and 1995. Caroline served as the Stony Brook University chief steward for the Graduate Student Employees Union/Communications Workers of America Local 1104 and is currently organizing with Service Employees International Union 1199.