9. THE DEATH OF THE THEATER

Dies and his committee had bloodied the Federal Theatre Project, but the coup de grâce was still to be applied, and the dagger lay in the hand of Representative Clifton A. Woodrum. Woodrum, a conservative Virginia Democrat who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, held the purse strings. He had the potential to do just as much if not more damage than Dies, and he announced his intention to do just that. It was time, he announced, “to get the government out of the theater business.” His vehicle was an Appropriations subcommittee that he also chaired. Its charge was to investigate relief spending, a sweeping mandate that allowed the chairman free rein.

Hallie Flanagan was optimistic at first. Here at last, she believed, was an opportunity “to have a real investigation with findings made public.” She wrote Woodrum to that effect but his response was the same as that of Dies: she heard nothing.

In fact, Woodrum recycled the Dies Committee’s collection of suspect witnesses in hearings that began in the spring of 1939. As had Dies, he concentrated on the projects’ weak spots. For the Writers’ Project, that meant the troublesome New York office. His attacks against the Theatre Project were broader, but also concentrated on operations in New York. Unlike Dies, Woodrum had paid investigators at his disposal, but objectivity was not in their job description.

The chief investigator was H. Ralph Burton. He was hired to look at the accomplishments as well as the failures of both projects, but those good intentions, if actually meant, quickly deteriorated. He assembled reams of material, which he used in selective and damaging ways. This was especially frustrating to Flanagan, who was proud of the fact that in its four years the theater project had been so successful at attracting audiences that box office receipts, not tax dollars, had been paying for all its non-labor costs for some time. Theater rentals, costumes and scenery, and play royalties were funded from the $2 million the project had taken in from paying customers, an impressive figure given the top ticket price of 50 cents for most shows. The government had paid these costs in the beginning, but Burton testified only that the project cost more than it took in. This was hardly surprising, since its original purpose had been to give work to the unemployed, but he declined to point this out.

Burton’s men pored over Writers’ Project manuscripts for evidence of “class-angling” and other “Communist propaganda.” What they didn’t find they were willing to plant. Aiming to produce visual proof of the project’s leftist tilt, they visited the empty offices one lunch hour armed with cameras and some Communist literature they arranged on desks for an intended photo session. An administrator, James McGraw, caught them in the act and threw them out before they could photograph the “evidence.”

Only one committee member objected to the parade of unchallenged witnesses. Clarence Cannon, a Missouri Democrat, pointed out that they were “people who either have been fired or are going to be.” When Burton recycled a charge from the Dies Committee hearings—that members of the New York Writers’ Project were communistic based on their gift to Edwin Banta, the fired worker who turned out to be a spy and an informer, of a book signed by Communist leader Earl Browder—Cannon reminded the committee that discrimination based on politics was barred in the WPA and cited Mayor La Guardia’s statements disavowing any subversive control of New York WPA units. He also contested their conclusions. When a witness presented as evidence of communistic intent the fact that audiences had hissed at a police character in a play called Life and Death of an American, Cannon reacted with unbridled scorn: “So because in a play an audience gets up and hisses a policeman, you think that is sowing the seeds of communism? This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. If that is sowing the seeds of communism, then we have communism all over this country.” He called the statement opinion without fact, and “wholly worthless.”

But no one else spoke up for the Theatre Project. Indeed, an internal decision had been made to sacrifice it for the overall good of the WPA. Ellen Woodward had resigned as deputy administrator over women’s and professional projects back in January, when she was appointed to the Social Security Board. Florence Kerr, one of her regional administrators and a longtime friend of Hopkins from Grinnell College days, was appointed to replace her. With Hopkins’s departure in December for the commerce secretary’s post, Aubrey Williams had moved to full-time administration of the National Youth Administration, and Howard O. Hunter, Hopkins’s Midwest regional administrator, had replaced him as the WPA’s second in command. Collectively with Harrington, this new regime judged the theater to be expendable. The numbers talked. Two and a half million jobs were on the line, as against 8,000 in the theater project.

The House Appropriations Committee reported out a $1.775 billion relief bill for the year beginning July 1, 1939. It contained the stipulation that no funds were to go to the theater. Flanagan still believed the project could be saved; she had many supporters, and she knew she could persuade them to descend on Washington. But when she asked Hunter—she had never been given the opportunity to meet with Harrington—who would lead the fight to save the FTP, he told her there would be no fight.

Flanagan fought on regardless. She ignored WPA rules and rallied thirteen House members who agreed to speak for the project. Another promised to introduce an amendment putting the project back into the bill. New York theater critics telegraphed Woodrum as a group disputing his statement that they disapproved of it and urging that it be continued. Brooks Atkinson, the noted drama critic of the New York Times, wrote that the project “has been the best friend the theatre as an institution has ever had in the country” and that it “deserves to be rescued from partisan politics.”

But as Flanagan wrote later, partisan politics were “booted and spurred.” Representatives speaking for the project on the House floor were shouted down, as was the amendment to restore its funding. Having lost the battle in the House, she turned to the Senate. Here Hollywood joined the fight, with James Cagney among those offering to guarantee the non-labor costs in the California project. Lionel Barrymore made a radio speech in which he said that killing any of the arts projects was “almost like taking one of the stripes out of the American flag.” Actress Tallulah Bankhead—the daughter of House Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama—visited the Senate Appropriations Committee and pleaded with a catch in her throat, “But actors are people, aren’t they? They’re people!” The attacks set Flanagan to musing. She couldn’t accept that the congressmen who called classic plays by Sheridan and Molière dangerous and indecent, or who said that other plays stirred class hatreds, really believed what they were saying. She wondered instead if they were spurred by fear of a more literate public educated by plays on current events such as the Living Newspapers, or by fear of better understanding between blacks and whites, because many politicians found thinking people a risk.

And when Flanagan actually won the battle in the Senate, hope remained. Its version of the appropriation bill retained three-fourths of 1 percent of the total for the Federal One arts projects, including the theater. But hope faded as quickly as it surged. Traditionally, differences between the House and Senate versions of bills each has passed are worked out in a conference committee from both houses. This time, when the conferees met, Woodrum and the other House members refused to yield, threatening to kill the whole relief appropriation. Roosevelt called it “discrimination of the worst type,” but he signed the bill rather than bring the entire WPA to a grinding halt.

The Federal Theatre Project went dark at midnight on June 30, 1939, with several successful productions still on the boards. One was the innovative Swing Mikado, a jazzy update of the popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Another was Pinocchio, Yasha Frank’s adaptation of the children’s story that had found an enthusiastic audience with children and adults alike. Frank wrote a new ending for the final performance. In it, Pinocchio became a puppet again after a brief life as a boy. With stagehands striking the sets on an open stage before the audience, the actors laid him in a wooden box that bore his epitaph: “KILLED BY ACT OF CONGRESS, JUNE 30, 1939.”

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