© 2016 Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
"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
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
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.
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. The material, and especially the articles and reviews, help to chronicle
the success and popularity of the show.
Additionally there are eight bound scrapbooks that illustrate the history and publicity of the musical through clippings and
articles. The newspaper clippings are glued to the pages and many have come lose. The scrapbooks are fragile and in poor
condition and therefore difficult to handle. The information contained in the scrapbooks are as follows:
Scrapbook Box 6: 1935-1937. This book contains clippings about Labor Stage and some of the shows and performances in addition
to "Pins and Needles," including "Steel." Also included are playbills, and clippings and articles from newspapers
across the country.
Scrapbook Box 7: 1937. This book contains clippings from Yiddish language newspapers.
Scrapbook Box 8: 1937. The book focuses solely on clippings and information about the Labor Stage performance of John Wexley's
strike drama "Steel," a play about the unionization of the steel industry.
Scrapbook Box 9: 1937-1938. Included in this book are clippings, articles, reviews, and brief newspaper snippets for "Pins
Scrapbook Box 10: 1937-1938. The book contains a collection of small clippings from newspapers across the country that mentioned
or had a story on "Pins and Needles."
Scrapbook Box 11: 1938-1939. Collected in this book are small clippings and announcements from newspapers that mention "Pins
Scrapbook Box 12: 1940. This book has programs, articles and clippings that document the new version of the show, "New Pins
Scrapbook Box 13: 1937-1943. The book holds newspaper articles and clippings, programs, and tickets for not only "Pins and
Needles," but other Labor Stage productions and events as well.