A young writer stood at the back of the sold-out Adelphi on opening night and took in the excitement surrounding It Can’t Happen Here. Six months earlier, he had come to New York on a gamble to join the fun, to be a part of “Uncle Sam’s pioneering adventure in a nationwide theatre.” He was barely five feet tall, with a shock of black hair, a prominent nose, and large black-rimmed glasses that made him look like a cartoonist’s caricature of an anarchist. He was twenty-eight years old. His name was Anthony Buttitta.
Buttitta had been born in Chicago. His father was a grocer, but every time he tried to turn his offspring into one—in stores in New York; Monroe, Louisiana; and back in New York—the youth ran away to find the local version of bohemia. He studied government and history at the University of Texas. At some point he lived in Tunisia and Morocco. At the University of North Carolina, where he was studying creative literature around 1931, he and some friends started a literary magazine they called Contempo. They conceived it as a forum for new ideas and “an asylum for aggrieved authors.” The business plan was simple: pay nothing for articles, and sell enough ads for each issue to cover the $24 printing cost. Soon the greatest authors and poets of the day—Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw—began receiving letters signed by Buttitta saying, in effect, “Send us something that nobody else wants. We can’t pay you anything, but we’ll print it.”
Surprisingly, the famous authors responded. Contempo began a controversial three-year run. The Langston Hughes issue almost got them ejected from the university. In it, the black poet and essayist took aim at southern justice in the notorious case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black men accused of raping two white prostitutes riding in a railroad coal car in 1931, and imagined how the second coming of Jesus would be received if he appeared as a black man in the South. The magazine and an experimental play Buttitta had written as a student, produced by the Carolina Playmakers, had brought him to Hallie Flanagan’s attention. She had wired him the previous October to ask if he’d help edit a Federal Theatre magazine.
At the time Buttitta was living in Asheville, in the North Carolina mountains, where he had been surviving the depression reasonably well. He owned a small bookstore that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was in Asheville recovering from tuberculosis and depression, frequented when he wasn’t drinking. Buttitta also was writing press releases for the WPA-sponsored North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, whose director persuaded him to stay on. But he kept up with the Federal Theatre Project from afar, and in February 1936, when the orchestra cut all non-musicians from its payroll, he sent Flanagan a telegram to say he had reconsidered. She wired back to say she still wanted him but would have to get approval since WPA rules prevented projects in one state from hiring workers from another. Buttitta was too eager to wait. He closed a deal to sell his bookstore, then boarded a train to New York.
As soon as he arrived he headed to Flanagan’s office, passing (as he was to write years later) “empty stores and dark theatres, their fronts plastered with ‘For Rent’ signs, posters of new films, and faded three-sheets peeling off the houseboards…'gaudy movie houses, smelling of unwashed bums who used them for sleeping…'souvenir and novelty shops, nickel hotdog, hamburger, and juice joints, catering to sharpies, people looking for jobs, professional beggars rattling tin cups, and visitors from the hinterlands looking for the fabled street of song and dance.”
Flanagan was out of town. Someone told him he needed to fill out a job application, and directed him to the Siegel-Cooper Building. After rattling downtown on the Sixth Avenue el and joining the crowds in the cavernous space under the suspended bulbs that he thought looked “like fuzzy giant spiders,” he learned that a WPA job meant declaring poverty and applying for relief. And a clerk confirmed Flanagan’s warning: he needed two years of residency to be eligible in New York. He wondered if his long train ride into the dismal New York winter had been a big mistake.
But his spirits lifted the next day, when Flanagan returned from Washington. She squeezed him in between competing grievance committees, explaining that the group waiting in her outer office was threatening to picket the Lafayette if Houseman allowed black stagehands to work there. Grievances came in all varieties. The stage unions seethed with old-fashioned racism on one hand and radicalism on the other. A Jewish vaudeville unit wanted independence from the Yiddish theater. Veterans protested the presence of Communists in some project units, while the Communists complained that reactionaries were feeding play scripts to the Hearst press in order to draw negative coverage. A committee of older actors, clad in darned tweeds and patchy furs and keeping haughtily apart from the others, petitioned to have their names kept out of the programs so as not to have it known they were on relief.
When she had finished tallying the day’s assortment of complaints for Buttitta, Flanagan said she had just had an editor thrust upon her by John Nance Garner, the vice president. Pierre de Rohan was his name, and if Buttitta could work with him she’d put him on the payroll as a non-relief supervisor to get around the residency requirement. The Rockefeller Foundation had just donated a press, so the Federal Theatre magazine could now at least be printed; its first three issues, starting in November 1935, had been run off on a mimeograph machine. Buttitta told her he wanted the job, and Flanagan sent him off to meet de Rohan, who worked out of an office two blocks away on 42nd Street.
De Rohan walked in after Buttitta arrived. He was resplendent in a velvet-collared coat, spats, and a homburg, and carried a Malacca cane. Buttitta had already talked with Mark Marvin, one of the other writers on the magazine, and been told that de Rohan had written for one of the Hearst papers but was “no editor.” His main contribution to the magazine would be an amusing “Box Score” that did not shrink from criticizing project productions. He was preparing the first of these for April, the fifth edition of the magazine and the second to come off the new press, and would give the New York billings “three runs, four hits, and two errors.” He initially told Buttitta he didn’t need him on the magazine, then relented and sent the newcomer out to gather stories.
As Buttitta fanned out through the five boroughs to take notes on musicals and puppet plays, Shakespeare and Molière, Yiddish theater, children’s plays, vaudeville, and the circus, another new arrival was making his appearance.
Milton Meltzer was older than Frank Goodman, but then so was everybody working under the precocious Goodman. Meltzer hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of eastern European immigrants. His father washed windows in factories, stores, and offices to make a living. Clean windows were among the first things a business could do without in hard times, and as the times got harder, more windows were boarded over than washed, and the depression hit the Meltzers. Nevertheless, Milton started college in 1932, entering an experimental teacher-training program at Columbia University in New York City with a scholarship paying part of his way. The program combined classroom study with a year of farm or factory work. To subsist, he worked part-time in an uncle’s garment factory, found odd jobs, and took a loan to supplement his scholarship. He spent his year of factory work back in Worcester spray-painting women’s shoes, and then returned to New York in 1934. He started his senior year at Columbia in the fall of 1935.
But that fall his father died of cancer, and the economic news he read in the papers convinced Meltzer that his prospects were bleak: one-third of last spring’s college graduates had been unable to find work. He remained in school through the winter, but dropped out in March 1936, less than three months from graduation. Then, instead of returning home to Massachusetts, he rented a fifth-floor walkup in the shabby west twenties of Manhattan and applied for home relief, claiming he was an unemployed writer. He had a few clippings to his credit and was approved; thereafter, the city paid his $3 weekly rent and gave him $5.50 every two weeks for food. He lived on cheese sandwiches and coffee, and put the cardboard from discarded egg cartons inside his shoes to keep out the rain.
Meltzer’s older brother Allan was working in the Federal Theatre’s publicity department, press-agenting shows including the voodoo Macbeth. Observing that one of Frank Goodman’s staff was spending more time trying to recruit his coworkers into the Communist Party than he was preparing materials for the youth press, he urged Goodman to hire his brother.
Bossing a Columbia dropout appealed to the high-school–educated Goodman. The workers Ted Mauntz had given him all had had some college, except for the deaf and speechless man who served as his chief clerk. (They communicated by writing notes back and forth, and Goodman considered the clerk “the best thing that ever happened.”) They could write well enough but were snobbish and a little lazy, while they in turn thought Goodman was the B-movie press agent he resembled, a shameless hustler who didn’t appreciate the cultural worth of what he was promoting and was overbearing to make up for his youth and lack of education. Still, no one could deny that he got the information out.
Goodman looked at Meltzer’s clips and took him on, assigning him to prepare the special mailings that went out to English, speech, and drama teachers before project performers visited their schools. Meltzer came to agree with his colleagues about Goodman, but the standard white-collar pay of $23.86 a week was a vast improvement over home relief, so he kept his opinions to himself. He, like Tony Buttitta, would remain with the Federal Theatre Project until 1939, when a rising tide of anti-Communist hysteria produced by congressional hearings engulfed the project and threatened not only the remaining arts projects but the entire WPA.