I have two columns in The WAVE this week, both related to Newsies.
The Politics of Newsies
By Norm Scott
|OK - So it's an old photo|
I was so excited to be part of the recent Newsies production at the Rockaway Theatre Company. Much of the play follows the real 1899 strike which inspired a 1992 Disney film which was turned into a 2012 Broadway musical. The story follows a citywide strike by newsboys who were the key distributors of newspapers in the streets of New York. The newsie strike is described in detail in the 2003 non-fiction book Kids on Strike! This was before child labor laws.
The lead character, Jack Kelly, (played to perfection by Sam Kelley) is possibly based on a real character, 18- year old Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti. The play makes publisher Joseph Pulitzer into the main villain but in the real story his competitor William Randolph Hearst was also responsible. I played the part of the evil Snyder who ran a “refuge” – really prison – for boys. The Refuge reminded me of recent stories of the century old Florida state-run Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna, where boys were abused in every way possible, including being murdered. The school was closed in 2011. Colsen Whitehead based his recent wellreceived novel, The Nickel Boys, on the school.
Snyder’s refuge is funded by the city and he clearly does Pultizer’s bidding, including leading a group of goons to beat up the newsies when they go on strike, fundamentally shutting down the entire city newspaper distribution system. A telling moment comes when a newsie, after being beaten, runs to a cop for help and he clubs the newsie. Police forces from their very origin have been instruments of controlling unions and workers and siding with the owner class.
The newsies are very poor and most are living on the streets or on rooftops. Exceptions are Davey and his little brother Les, who have parents (and are mocked by their fellow newsies – “where do I get myself a mudder?”), but have been forced to leave school and sell newspapers to support the family after their father suffers an on the job accident and can’t work. The charismatic vagabond and emotional firebrand leader, Jack Kelly, also a talented artist, has won the hearts and minds of the newsies (and Katherine, a rare female reporter).
But it is Davey who has an education and knows stuff Jack doesn’t, who provides the blueprint for forming a union and the strike. Yet when they are on the verge, the more conservative Davey, who has more to lose suggests holding back. Jack retorts: if your father was in a union he would have been protected when he got hurt on the job and you wouldn’t have to sell newspapers. That wins Davey over. Naturally, as in real life, the bosses hire scabs and pay them more. The majority of newsies want to use violence against scabs, but Davey says they lose unless they stand together and Jack and he convince the scabs to join them.
The fictionalized romance between street fighter Jack and the educated Katherine who turns out to be (spoiler alert) Pulitzer’s daughter adds the romantic element, but also a political one. Here’s where we enter fantasyland, but after all, this is a Disney production. When the newsies are demoralized after they are beat up by the goons led by Snyder (me) who smashed the cripple Crutchie with his own crutch and he is dragged off to the refuge, it is Katherine who rallies them, not Jack, (a lead in to the showstopper tap dancing “King of New York”). Jack’s spirit is revived but when he saunters into Pulitzer’s office and discovers who Katherine is, he is arrested and bitter and takes a bribe to sell out the strike, which has some basis since Kid Blink and Davey in real life also supposedly were bribed and had to step down as union leaders: a really important point about how some union leaders are sell-outs (as a UFT member, no comment).
I had been wondering why the historically anti-union Disney would create such a seemingly pro-union work of art. But the current corporate Disney does have some unions. But again it is Katherine who wins Jack and the boys over and her upper class friends (including the son of Hearst) help the newsies put out their own newspaper written by her which wins over the city.
Once again, the upper class kids come to the rescue. The final straw is the intervention of Governor Theodore Roosevelt on the side of the newsies. Wiki reports that in the actual strike, Theodore Roosevelt didn’t do anything. In real life the newsies won some victories due to their own efforts, but here, left on their own, would have failed. It took the intervention of powerful politicians and noble wealthy people to save them. Seemingly, Disney fantasyland, but touching on some truths. Like the goon character I play, Snyder, is the only one to take a fall while the politicians and corporate chiefs escape. And I might even have committed suicide while in jail.
Norm is always in fantasyland when he blogs at ednotesonline.com. And see his Memo from the RTC column.