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Curtain Call: Brooks Atkinson for The Actors Fund

February 18, 2011

Union Square Theatre in 1880

The Union Square Theatre, site of the March 12, 1882 meeting that laid the foundation of The Actors Fund

From time to time, The Actors Fund Blog will take a moment to share a discovery or two from our extensive archive, which dates to the The Fund’s first days in 1882. While the day-to-day help and support of the entertainment community is always The Fund’s top priority, it’s important to remember the numerous events, people, and decisions that comprise the organization’s rich past—all of which served to create the foundation upon which today’s Fund is built. From early benefits (like the giant 1916 production of Julius Caesar in Hollywood) to 1982’s nationally-televised Night of 100 Stars; from the initial purchase of cemetery plots in Brooklyn to the first Bread Basket Campaigns, the story of The Actors Fund is not only entwined with the development of America’s entertainment industry, but also the history of New York, Los Angeles, and points in between.

A History of The Actors' Fund of AmericaAs we searched our files for something to introduce this series, we realized we can do no better than our early 1970s compatriots did when they chose the legendary Brooks Atkinson to pen the introduction to 1972’s A History of The Actors’ Fund of America. Written by Louis M. Simon—with special contributions by Ruth Gordon, Nedda Harrigan Logan, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Jean Loggie—the book was published to commemorate the first 90 years of The Actors Fund. While the essay primarily focuses on the theatre side of The Fund’s background—Atkinson was a theatre critic after all—we thought we’d share a few excerpts. It perfectly introduces the history and heart of The Fund, which serves everyone in entertainment, including performers and those behind the scenes in film, theatre, television, music, opera, radio, and dance.

Has it ever occurred to you that the theatre is never better than when it is not trying to make a profit? That is an immoral idea and I like it. When a production is completely spontaneous, when the actors, directors and technicians are working free, the performance is likely to be completely captivating. The emotion it generates is direct, intimate and ardent. That has been the case with The Actors’ Fund all the years I have known it.

It originated with a feeling of loyalty to the theatre. Harrison Grey Fiske, then the young editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror, was annoyed because the theatre was forever giving benefits for many good causes but never for itself. There was no self-interest in Mr. Fiske’s idea; he got nothing out of the proposal; he was not even an officer or trustee of the original board. In fact, and this is characteristically irrational, there was no board or organization when the Fund began in 1882. There was only the enthusiasm of A. M. Palmer, a theatre manager when he was not being a politician, and many of his associates. By holding a series of benefits he and his colleagues raised $34,596.30 for needy actors; and James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, gave $10,000 more. With that money deposited in a bank before the Fund even had an elected treasurer, Mr. Palmer and others who were interested got a charter and elected officers. Among the incorporators were Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Lawrence Barrett, Lester Wallack, A. M. Palmer, Edward Harrigan and P. T. Barnum, a showman better known outside the theatre. It was a good beginning. Good will was the principal asset.

1892 Actors Fund Fair

The 1892 Actors Fund Fair, designed by architect Stanford White

In two respects the Fund reflects the spirit of the theatre. In the first place, the early festivals organized to raise money were fun. The fair put on in the old Madison Square Garden in 1892 was designed and staged by Stanford White and consisted of all sorts of gay and bizarre plazas and pavilions. It also included booths presided over by costumed clowns and comedians. The most colorful actors of the day took part in a series of performances. All that must have given everyone, including the actors, a royal good time. These early fairs were patronized by some of New York’s haughtiest society folk. In 1910 President Taft came from Washington to attend the fair. Actors’ Fund benefits and festivals were never stodgy.

In the second place, the Fund has always drawn on the instinctive generosity of show people. To read this book is to be impressed by the amount of time and energy theatre people have lavished on the Fund. A. M. Palmer, a founding trustee and president from 1885 to 1897, was a dynamo; he endowed the early days of the Fund with energy. Dan Frohman gave the Fund a good part of his life. He was president from 1904 until he died in 1941. If he had been less bountiful by nature he could have spent all his time working in his own theatre, the Lyceum, and with his famous acting company. Walter Vincent, a self-effacing man, was president from 1941 to 1959, and gave not only money but counsel and ideas; and Vinton Freedley, another large benefactor and a conscientious business man, served from 1959 until he died ten years later. Louis Lotito, the current president, has been active in the Fund for more than twenty years. Warren P. Munsell, currently secretary and general manager, began his association with the Fund in 1937. Being a trustee is not for figureheads. It involves making touchy decisions that intimately affect human beings. Many of the most illustrious people in the theatre have been trustees.

Atkinson concludes the introduction with the following:

The Fund is not only a charitable organization but the conscience of the theatre. It is scrupulous and merciful. It preserves the privacy of the sick and needy. Broadway is a gossipy place. But there is no gossip about the Fund. Except in the case of individuals whose troubles were known to me personally, I have never heard anyone discuss applicants for assistance or the plight of those who are receiving assistance. The Home in Englewood has all the comforts and freedoms of a private residence. In short, the Fund is administered with warmth and respect, and its charity is neither smug nor patronizing.

The Actors’ Fund is no monolith. It is all theatre. Theatre people founded it and administer it now. I have enjoyed reading this book because it retains the fever, excitement and the sweeping gesture of the theatre.

If you’d like to learn more about The Fund’s history, check out our more recent book, Curtain Call: 125 Amazing Years of The Actors Fund, available for purchase at The Actors Fund Store.

–Karissa Krenz

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