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Biography

ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY

"Sing me a song with social significance"began the musical comedy revue "Pins and Needles." Produced by the Educational Department of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), the show with an amateur cast of garment workers won critics and audiences to become the longest running musical of the 1930s.

The Educational Department began to expand beyond its original function of educating workers in labor culture, and soon started to offer recreational outlets for members including art, music and dance. In 1934, the department was reorganized under new director Mark Starr to create three divisions, Cultural, Recreational and Education, managed by Julius Hochman, Louis Schaffer, and Starr respectively. The Cultural Division offered classes in drama, acting, dance and music, and also organized a chorus and orchestra composed of union members. For years members had been trying to develop and present labor themed plays, and while many locals were successful in staging small productions, the drama department became formally established in the fall of 1934. With Schaffer joining the staff of the ILGWU in October 1934, a dramatic group, the ILGWU Players, was formed from members of several locals. Professionals were recruited to instruct the classes, and Schaffer envisioned broadening the scope of the department to create a venture that brought the labor movement to Broadway. At the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Convention in 1935, Schaffer, with the encouragement of ILGWU President David Dubinsky, introduced the idea of establishing founding a theater company for New York City's labor movement. With enthusiastic support, Labor Stage, Inc. a non-profit with revenue supporting the Educational Department, was established in 1935 with financial backing from the ILGWU. The union leased the Princess Theatre and began renovating the space to become Labor Stage, housing an intimate auditorium, studio and rehearsal space and dressing rooms, with a dedication in January 1936.

Schaffer soon set to work to make his vision, "Pins and Needles," a realitya revue style production that slyly satirized politics and the elite while skewering current events staged for working men and women. Harold Rome was brought in to write the music and lyrics, numerous writers contributed sketches, and Charles Friedman was hired to direct (though he would later be replaced by Robert Gordon). Union members and others active in the Educational Department were encouraged to audition, and a cast of fifty five garment workers were selected and began extensive rehearsals. The performers were not professionals, and in addition to learning their lines and songs, were also instructed in the fundamentals of acting and basic stage movement. In June of 1936, Schaffer staged an early version of "Pins and Needles" using a professional cast to demonstrate the numbers, and though well received, Schaffer chose the unorthodox decision to proceed with the cast of untrained garment workers. The official opening was delayed for almost a year and a half to make sure the performers, who were still working in the factories during the day, had sufficient time to practice and rehearse.

On July 4, 1937, the cast traveled to Unity House, the union's vacation resort in the Poconos, for additional rehearsals that lasted ten days and concluded with a close to completion trial performance of the show. After numerous adjustments and fine tuning, "Pins and Needles" held its first invitation only performance at Labor Stage on November 6, 1937. After additional postponements, finally, on Saturday, November 27, 1937, "Pins and Needles" opened to the public. The critics were favorable and with good reviews and word of mouth, the show became an instant hit. The box office was busy and tickets in high demand, and by January 1938, performances were sold out. Since the performers were still working full time in the garment factories, initially the show only played on the weekends. The garment workers were given leaves of absence from their factory jobs to become full-time actors with pay to accommodate the increased show schedule which now included nightly performances. When the primary target audience, union members, found it difficult to obtain tickets to see the show, a second performing company was organized to provide daily late afternoon matinees for the workers. Close to fifty skits were created during the course of "Pins and Needles," of which nineteen to twenty-two were performed at each performance, including such favorites as "Sunday in the Park," "One Big Union for Two," and "Lesson in Etiquette." Revisions were continually made throughout the three editions, with sketches and songs added and deleted as the show evolved to adjust and adapt and remain current and timely.

While the show ignored references to racial issues on the stage, behind the scenes racial inequality abounded. Olive Pearman was the first African American cast in the show and initially only had a supporting role and worked as the seamstress on the road. Additional African American cast members were added later after pressure on Schaffer, including Dorothy Tucker and Dorothy Harrison, but no Hispanics appeared in the productions. Other cast members were pressured to suppress their Jewish ethnicities and forgo religious observances during performance schedules, some changing names and a few altering their appearances. On the road during the touring productions, the African American cast members were often forced to follow local segregation laws in the cities where they were performing and encountered prejudice in finding accommodations, eating with the cast in a restaurant, or in the extreme case, being unable to perform.

To bring the show to audiences outside of New York City, a ten month national tour of "Pins and Needles" began in April 1938 visiting cities Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as smaller towns in between as the cast made their way across the United States. For many cast members, this was their first time traveling away from New York and their families, and especially traversing the country on train. Stays in the larger cities were often extended, and in many instances the cast was greeted by members from local unions. Multiple companies were formed to accommodate the expanding schedule between touring, evenings and matinees. The original company went on the national road tour, second and third companies formed to perform the evening shows and matinees for union members. As the cast multiplied, so did the number of "ringers," or semi-professionals. Schaffer started adding "ringers," talented ILGWU members, and individuals with aspirations to become professional actors to replace the initially amateur cast, which created tensions among the various companies.

In March 1938 in the East Room of the White House, a smaller cast performed for President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor, whom had already seen the show several times. Afterward, the cast and crew performed another condensed version of "Pins and Needles" for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the U.S. Department of Labor. The first road show ended on January 30, 1939 after 319 performances in 34 cities across the country. The original company that was still remaining headed back to New York to find the new casts filling all the roles and numerous new numbers added to show. Unfortunately, most of the original and road show cast were forced to return back to their jobs in the garment factories as many became phased out by semi-professional replacements. The second and revamped edition of "Pins and Needles" debuted on April 21, 1939 and on June 26, 1939, the show moved to the larger Windsor Theatre. The new edition proved successful, and finally, a third edition of the show, "New Pins and Needles," opened on November 20, 1939. After 1,108 performances, "Pins and Needles" closed in New York City on June 22, 1940. The second national tour began a month later and toured the country before playing its last show in Los Angeles on May 31, 1941. After the end of "Pins and Needles," Labor Stage did not put on another play and closed. The actors returned to the shops and factories, with only a few trying to turn their experience into a career in show business. "Pins and Needles" challenged the idea of labor sponsored entertainment to become a popular hit with memorable lyrics, hummable tunes, and a social message that appealed to a broad audience.