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The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection

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"Sing me a Song with Social Significance"

June 26, 2014

Edna Gerber sings in the musical revue Pins and Needles, circa 1937

 

Pins & Needles

“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 reality—a 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.

 

By Kathryn Dowgiewicz
 
 

 

Selected Bibliography

 

5780/134 AV

Contains interviews with Pins and Needles cast members including Dan Meyers, Lee Morrison Cooley, Ida Mandel, Joe Alfasa, Clara Larsen, Rebecca Leff, Herman Rotsten and Alma Charmat Rotsten.

 

5780/PUBS

The collection includes various theater playbills from “Pins & Needles” initial run at Labor Stage, the playbill for “New Pins & Needles” at the Windsor Theater, and the playbill from the 40th Anniversary performance at the Roundabout Theater.  Different souvenir programs with scenes from the show and information on the cast are also found in the collection, as well as the article “How ‘Pins & Needles’ Was Born” by David Dubinsky.  There is also material from the “Pins & Needles” road company including pages with the master plot, set and stage directions, and lyrics and instructions for the various numbers in the show.  The collection contains the sheet music for the score.

 

5780/176P Communications Department Photographs

The collection contains photographs of still shots from the “Pins & Needles” revival at the Washington Jewish Theater as well as photographs from the revival at the Roundabout Theater in 1978.  There are images from various productions including an article about a performance by the Upstairs East Company in Philadelphia in 1963 along with the cast performing scenes from the show.  Also available in the collection is a photograph of David Dubinsky and the “Pins & Needles” cast with President Roosevelt after the private performance in the White House in March 1938.

 

5780/102P Justice Photographs

Included in the collection are photographs of the cast of “Pins & Needles” on stage in the 40th anniversary revival at the Roundabout/Stage One Theater in 1978.  There are articles about the revival and anniversary, as well as scenes from the show.  There is also an article about “Pins & Needles” from a 1985 Justice article.  The collection contains a portrait of lyricist Harold Rome, cast members with President Roosevelt after the White House performance in March 1938, and sheet music.

 

5780P Photographs

The collection contains sufficient photographs documenting the performers and performances of “Pins & Needles.”  There are images and portraits of the cast, scenes from the show and there are numerous photographs of the cast at the White House performance on March 3, 1938 with David Dubinsky, President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

5780/002 David Dubinsky

The collection encompasses general material on Labor Stage as well as concerts, programs and dramatics put on by the Cultural Division of the ILGWU Education Department.  There are many documents and records that deal specifically with “Pins & Needles” including show programs, clippings, articles and copies of reviews.  Available are the guest lists, formal letters of invitations to the opening and letters of acceptance not only for the November 1937 debut, but also to the 1939 New Edition of “Pins & Needles,” and the opening that occurred when the show moved to the larger Windsor Theater.  The collection contains material that documents the touring production as it traveled across the country including correspondence, clippings, articles and reviews from various cities, and letters from union locals where the show appeared.  There are copies of the Dubinsky article “How Pins & Needles was Born,” correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt about the show, and complaints sent to Dubinsky from the cast about Louis Schaffer.

 

6036/006 "Pins and Needles, An Oral History by Harry M. Goldman

The collection contains the dissertation entitled "Pins and Needles: An Oral History" written by Harry Merton Goldman in 1977 to complete his degree at New York University. The dissertation chronicles the musical "Pins and Needles" by providing a comprehensive account of the show from its inception through the final performance. A significant strength and component of the dissertation includes oral histories from the individuals who were involved with "Pins and Needles," including writers, directors, set designers and actors. The end of the dissertation provides an extensive bibliography of both published and unpublished material, the itinerary for the National Tour providing the dates, locations and theaters for each stop on the tour, and a listing of songs and sketches for all three editions of the show.

 

6036/031 ILGWU "Pins and Needles Additional Scrapbooks 1935-1942"

The collection is composed of two sections, records and newspaper reviews, as well as eight bound scrapbooks that document the ILGWU musical "Pins and Needles." The first section primarily contains photocopies of reviews, articles, and stories from various newspapers. Also included are playbills and some copies of programs and playbills from theaters across the country where "Pins and Needles" appeared. There is some information on cast members, a few interviews, and of particular interest, the complete vocal score to the musical.  Additionally there are eight bound scrapbooks that illustrate the history and publicity of the musical through clippings and articles.

 

6036/077 Rose Newmark Collection on the ILGWU Musical "Pins and Needles"

The collection contains personal memorabilia and photo albums of Rose Newmark during her time performing in "Pins and Needles." There is a bound photo album, as well as pages that were removed from an album, with many images that are identified by location on the back. The photographs show sites from various locations, including Unity House, most being places traveled to and visited as the show toured different cities. The images taken by and of the cast while on tour offer a behind the scenes glimpse of the show and life on the road. The photographs also consist of a large number of portraits and headshots. There are also many professional publicity photos, including images from performances, cast group shots and audience views.  Additionally, there is a large amount of documents in the collection. These include newspaper articles and clippings, originals, originals that have been laminated, originals that have been adhered to scrapbook pages, and numerous photocopies. Also available is material from the 20th anniversary of "Pins and Needles."

 An oral history of Rose Newmark can be found in the collection 5780 OH. Also helpful could be the interview conducted with her by Harry Goldman for his dissertation on "Pins and Needles" in the collection 6036/006.

 

6036/081 AV Ruth Graeber interview on “Pins and Needles”

The collection consists of a DVD recording of a program at the Muhlenberg Branch of the New York Public Library on December 4, 1997.  Ruth Rubinstein Graeber was invited to speak about the history of "Pins & Needles" and her experience as an original cast member in the show. Graeber recounted her time rehearsing and performing and had displayed posters with photographs from the show, and at the end of her talk she plays a recording of her singing "Chain Store Daisy." Also in the audience at the library and identified in the video were Elise Bregman Bretton, Eugene Goldstein, and Nettie Harary Schrog.