Labor Day Post: On The White Rats, The Vaudeville Performers’ Union

Originally posted in 2011

In 1901, the White Rats  went on strike. The White Rats, as the vaudeville performers’ union was known, was founded by comedian and prize fighter George Fuller Golden. No one knows his birthday, so today’s as good as any (and better than most) for a tribute to him

Golden was one of the top stars of early American vaudeville. Joe Laurie, Jr. called him America’s first intellectual monologist. His voracious reading in the classics (especially poetry) and Biblical scripture combined with his natural Irish blarney to produce a popular series of stories about an imaginary friend named Casey whose adventures audiences followed with great delight. But Golden also had a serious side, a sense of fairplay and justice that was bound to get him into trouble in a high stakes game like vaudeville. Part boxer, part idealist, he was just the type of man to go down in a losing battle.

In 1899, Golden had been the beneficiary of the services of the Water Rats, England’s music hall performers’ union, when his wife had fallen sick in London and he had gone without work for months. The Water Rats had paid his doctor’s bills and other expenses, and helped him and his wife get back to the States. Based on his experience, when the managers formed the monopolistic Vaudeville Managers Association, Golden knew just what to do. In short order, he organized a leadership committee to form the White Rats, enlisted a large dues-paying membership and started their own booking office. In early 1901, the performers, getting nowhere in negotiations with the managers, struck. The effort seemed successful for a time when Keith, Albee et al. pretended to capitulate, but it was all a ruse. Within weeks, the strike was broken.

The White Rats collapsed, and Golden became a laughing stock in the business, never working as a leader or an entertainer again, although he did publish one book about his experiences My Lady Vaudeville, still cherished by show biz buffs (and the source of the peculiar rodential swastika you see above). Golden died, a charity case, of tuberculosis in 1912.

To learn more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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One Response to “Labor Day Post: On The White Rats, The Vaudeville Performers’ Union”

  1. Thanks for this, Trav… A good man who lead a fractious membership and who trusted people he shouldn’t have…

    Like

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