The American Guild of Variety Artists was chartered in 1939 by the Associated Actors and Artistes of America ("4As") to represent "variety" entertainers--circus and vaudeville performers, comedy and animal acts, night club singers, magicians, such highly paid stars as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Danny Thomas and Dinah Shore and poorly paid "exotic dancers" at drinking joints. The White Rats (1900), the American Artistes Federation (1919), the Actors Betterment Association (1933), and the American Federation of Actors (1934) had all made attempts to address the poor working conditions of workers in this field through unionization. AGVA's immediate progenitor, the American Federation of Actors, had its charter revoked after the "4A's" charged it with mismanagement and misuse of funds. The AFA joined IATSE, confronting the fledgling AGVA with disputed jurisdictions from the outset. The decline of vaudeville, the impact of radio and television on live entertainment, and such problems as a rapid turnover of executive secretaries, charges of communism, financial difficulties, and recalcitrance of producers and agencies, beset the organization in its first decade. From 1942 through 1946, and again in 1947, the "4A's" held AGVA in trusteeship.
In 1948 AGVA regained autonomy and its first national convention took place. The business of building the union proceeded with additional problems--a jurisdictional dispute with the American Federation of Musicians that lasted from 1948 to 1952 until the jurisdiction in question was ceded to the Musicians; conflicts with sister theater unions; controversy over AGVA's new insurance plan. AGVA struggled for jurisdiction over television, one it could legitimately claim because such TV pioneers as Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, who frequently performed in nightclubs, were AGVA members. AGVA produced a short-lived variety television show to substantiate its claim, but it reluctantly relinquished the jurisdiction to the Television Authority, which merged with the American Federation of Radio Artists to become AFTRA. In 1954 in response to a conflict with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, the union created the AGVA circus to play opposite Ringling. AGVA took over the Brother Artists Association, which had been chartered by the "4A's" in 1939 to organize the burlesque field. Serious jurisdictional disputes with Actors Equity erupted over legitimate shows staged by Las Vegas hotels, topical reviews in Greenwich Village nightclubs, and Industrial Shows.
In the 1950s, Jackie Bright, AGVA's executive secretary, provoked the wrath of a faction led by Penny "Blondie" Singleton which accused him of running a one-man union, misusing union funds to pay a libel settlement against Bright and other pecuniary matters. With membership and income at a low point and jurisdiction shrinking, comedian Joey Adams was elected president. He promoted another AGVA television show that failed to get on the air, instituted AGVA Audition Nights in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and inaugurated the AGVA Entertainer of the Year Awards, a televised variety show emceed by Ed Sullivan with proceeds for AGVA's Sick and Relief Trust Fund. He lobbied successfully to have Congress declare AGVA Week in October 1961. Other attempts to increase the union's prestige and jurisdiction included a reciprocal agreement with the Mexican performers organization, attempts to organize rodeo cowboys and cruise ship performers, continued crackdowns on "cuffo" or free performances.
In 1962 the Senate Committee on Government Operations chaired by Senator John McClellan started investigations into possible AGVA links with organized crime. They revealed that a significant portion of AGVA's membership were "exotic dancers" who were actually "B-girls" (bar girls) or prostitutes, some imported under false pretenses from Canada, some held against their will. The Committee charged that AGVA had known of the situation since 1953 but had done nothing because the union wanted the girls'dues payments. Investigations centered on the Chicago area, but spread to other cities. AGVA's financial records were seized by the Bureau of Labor Management. The National Labor Relations Board ruled that AGVA's branches be reorganized as locals. Jackie Bright was suspended, resulting in intensified infighting, growing financial problems, and union administration by an interim committee.
In 1964 an anti-Bright faction took control of AGVA and attempted to improve the union's image and financial situation. It staged an integrated variety show in Birmingham, Alabama. It defeated Actors' Equity's bid for jurisdiction over Mike Todd, Jr.'s World's Fair Minstrel Show. Committees of performers attended contract negotiations to safeguard their rights. Many branch offices were closed or combined and employees dismissed in an austerity move. An anti-trust suit was filed against the Artist Representatives Association, a guild of agents in 1966. At issue was the percentage agents demanded from the AGVA members they represented. In concert with other performance unions, AGVA succeeded in getting the restrictive New York cabaret card law repealed in 1967. The union opened a Las Vegas branch for the first time in 1968 and closed its unsuccessful home for the aged in 1970. A new constitution reorganizing the executive board and lengthening officers' terms was adopted; and Penny Singleton, who had headed the interim committee, was elected executive president in 1969.
In 1970, AGVA was forced to borrow $100,000 to keep going. The "4A's" held hearings into AGVA's problems and considered revoking its charter or putting AGVA under trusteeship. Financial problems increased. More branches were closed resulting in lessening services. AGVA was unable to achieve agreements with ARA or the Circus Producers Association. Las Vegas hotels refused to sign AGVA contracts in 1972; the "4A's" took over the Las Vegas negotiations. Many members refused to pay dues, so the union's income was reduced to almost nothing. Fraud charges were brought against AGVA's 1972 Entertainer of the Year Awards; rights to the program were sold to Ed Sullivan Productions in 1975. In response to repeated calls from members for the "4A's" to take over AGVA, the AFL-CIO sent representatives to study AGVA's problems. By 1974 the union was broke. All but the New York, Hawaii, and New Orleans offices were closed, and the national headquarters faced eviction. A Federal magistrate was appointed to handle AGVA's finances. In 1975 when Penny Singleton was declared the winner of a bitterly disputed presidential race, her opponent, Eddie Rio, formed a rival union, the Variety Entertainers Guild of America (VEGA). VEGA drew away many AGVA members leaving membership at an all-time low of 6,000, down from 30,000 at its height in the Fifties. In the late 1970's, the union once more regrouped and managed to keep going with a small staff and limited membership, mainly entertainers in nightclubs and arena shows.
The difficulties AGVA encountered can be attributed, in part, to the transient and diffuse nature of its membership and their changing employment status. Employers interpreted the Landrum Griffin Act in such a way as to exclude from union protection variety entertainers who were deemed independent contractors. Without the protection of a closed shop, outlawed by the Taft-Hartley act, individual performers had little recourse when employers refused to pay social security or unemployment insurance. The variety field has been further eroded by the revolution in entertainment resulting from videocassette recorders and home box office. Despite these impediments, AGVA, like its sister theatre unions, has attempted to legitimate the stage as a work place by struggling to preserve the lives, livelihood, and sometimes even the limbs of entertainment professionals. From bonding performances to assure that performers in one-night stands are paid, to fighting for safe rehearsal floors for Disneyland dancers, AGVA has tried to establish minimum basic conditions for variety performers throughout the country.
"A History of the American Guild of Variety Artists: Dissertation Proposal," by Lori Seward, NYU Department of Performance Studies. Eventually, Ms. Seward chose another topic for her dissertation.