By K. Kevyne Baar

McFarland & Co. 205 pages. $39.95.  ISBN 9-1-4766-7259-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns


Books about the blacklist during the McCarthy era in the United States usually focus on what happened in Hollywood when hundreds of actors, writers, producers and others were compelled to appear before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and testify about their alleged membership of the Communist Party. When it came to writers they were often also asked about their union, the Screen Writers Guild (SWG). There are now shelves of books of varying kinds (memoirs, case histories, and more) about the writers, in particular. And dozens of academic essays, and magazine and newspaper articles, plus films.

It always intrigues me that we know very little about the numerous technicians (electricians, carpenters, camera operators, etc.) working in the film industry, who were, perhaps, caught up in anti-communist investigations and allegations of subversion, and so lost their jobs. Is it that they didn’t seem as glamorous as actors and directors and producers? Newspapers probably didn’t bother to report it if a plumber, who may have been a communist, or even just an active trade unionist, was fired for refusing to testify and name names. And later writers, looking to publish books about the blacklist, have naturally wanted to cover the personalities and events that will arouse a response from the general public. A recognisable name makes for good headlines.

The same might be said of the theatre, where there were investigations, though on nowhere near as big or controversial a scale as in Hollywood. They didn’t attract as much publicity. Nor have they been the subject of as much attention in recent years.  Which is why K. Kevyne Baar’s book is a welcome addition to the library of books about blacklisting due to McCarthyism. However, let me emphasise a point that Baar is keen to highlight. Senator Joseph McCarthy was not in any way connected with HUAC, nor was he ever involved with any of the investigations carried out by that committee. It’s just that he was prominent in anti-communist activity, especially with regard to government employees. He made outlandish claims about communist penetration of the civil service and even the armed forces. And so his name is now a catch-all term for purging people seen as subversives.

The significant thing about many of the actors, stage managers, and others, who were summoned by HUAC  when it began its investigations into the world of the theatre, is that they had started their professional lives in New York. They moved to Hollywood, and then returned to New York when work in films dried up. But it was often with the Group Theatre and/or the Federal Theatre Project that they had begun to establish reputations for their skills.  It needs to be noted, however, that there were not many, if any, well-known actors involved in the theatre hearings. At this late date it’s doubtful if many people will recognise names such as Will Geer, John Randolph, and Sam Jaffe, all of them reliable support actors in Hollywood films, unless they happen to have an interest in cinema history. Zero Mostel might be an exception to this rule, having been seen in later films like The Producers and The Front. The latter was about how blacklisting operated in TV in New York.

There is little doubt about the fact that most of the people concerned probably had been members of the Communist Party, or significantly close to it. The Group Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project (part of Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA) programme to support unemployed theatre workers), inevitably had some communists in their ranks. The 1930s were years of deep economic depression, and communism appeared to be one solution to the problems besetting the United States and other countries. No-one at that time imagined that the play they had been in, the article they had written, the petition they signed, and the demonstration they took part in, were all being carefully logged by the FBI, local police forces, and independent anti-communist organisations. The information would be stored and brought out fifteen or twenty years later to be used as evidence against them when someone refused to reply to the infamous question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Even a favourable review in a communist publication could be counted against an actor or a playwright.

One of the problems facing those called to testify in Hollywood and elsewhere was that they had difficulty in getting support from the organisation (their union) they might have expected to provide advice and assistance. But it does seem that most American unions were not prepared to face up to the rampant anti-communist hysteria in American in the 1950s. They often took matters into their own hands, without pressure from the authorities, and purged their memberships of known-communists. The cowardice of unions in failing to support blacklisted members could often lead not just to unemployment, but tragedy. Philip Loeb, fired from a role in a popular radio series, The Goldbergs, and “faced with financial hardships which compromised his support of an ailing child killed himself”.  He had belonged to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), but received no help from it. Another actor, J. Edward Bromberg, died of a heart attack probably brought on by the stress he was suffering from. He had been blacklisted and unable to find work.   

The Screen Writers Guild (SWG) in Hollywood had backed away from speaking out in support of the Hollywood Ten, the group of writers, directors, and producers who had been sent to prison for refusing to name names and otherwise co-operate with HUAC. It may be true to say that the hearings were a heaven-sent opportunity for anti-communists in the SWG to get their revenge for defeats they suffered in factional fighting in the 1930s.  As for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its President, Ronald Reagan, happily co-operated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in identifying alleged communists in the union.

It was a different matter when HUAC started to call witnesses from the theatre in 1955 and 1958. The actors’ union, Equity, took a firm stance against any form of blacklisting, and even negotiated an agreement with the body representing theatre owners to the effect that no-one would be denied employment because of a refusal to be a “friendly witness” with HUAC. This gave the actors the confidence to refuse to co-operate. It would seem that only one out of the twenty-nine summoned in 1955 freely admitted to one-time membership of the Communist Party and named names of others he said he knew to have also been members. That was George Hall, a minor and not-particularly noteworthy actor. I doubt very much that HUAC gained any great publicity benefit from his testimony.

The 1958 hearings did land a bigger fish when Arthur Miller had to face questions from Committee members. He had a more-prominent profile than earlier witnesses from the world of the theatre (Death of a Salesman had been a success), and there was more publicity attached to his appearance. There is a story about Miller being approached by one of the Committee and asked if he could persuade Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife, to have her photo taken with the Committee member. The inference appeared to be that Miller might get an easier ride if he agreed. He didn’t, and was subsequently questioned about his possible involvement with communists, and his play, The Crucible, in which the story of the 17th century witch-hunts in Massachusetts was taken to be an oblique comment on what was happening in America in the 1950s.

A degree of controversy surrounded the investigation of Joe Papp, the founder and producer of the Shakespeare Theatre Workshop which staged free performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Central Park. Papp was asked if he had “the opportunity to inject into your plays or into the acting or the entertainment supervision which you have, any propaganda in any way which would influence others to be sympathetic with the Communist philosophy or the beliefs of communism?”. Papp replied briefly, saying among other things: “I cannot control the writing of Shakespeare. He wrote plays 500 years ago”.  After appearing before HUAC he lost his job at CBS, but “opted for arbitration and became the first person to win reinstatement during the blacklist”.

Reading about the suggestion that Shakespeare’s work might be a useful tool for subversion, I was reminded of an earlier exchange when Hallie Flanagan during her testimony made a reference to Christopher Marlowe, and was immediately asked, “You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a communist?”  This occurred during the 1938 hearings. Philistinism was never in short supply among HUAC’s members.

The hearings into the theatre mostly occurred after those that took place and created such fear and havoc in Hollywood. No-one was sent to prison and though some citations for contempt were handed down, they do not appear to have ever been put into operation. The folk-singer Pete Seeger had been held in contempt at the 1955 investigations, but it was later overturned. If a reference by Baar to the experiences of Charles Dibdin, an actor and television director, are anything to go by, HUAC’s activities continued into the 1960s. He had been fired by NBC after his earlier refusal to co-operate with HUAC, but in 1961 he appeared again and testified, which presumably meant that he acknowledged being a member of the Communist Party in earlier years, and also named some names. He then returned to regular work in television.

It is a fact, however, that the blacklist had at least partly broken down by 1960. Baar records that Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was openly acknowledged as the screenwriter for films like Exodus and Spartacus. The signs of a fightback against McCarthyism had been evident from the mid-1950s and McCarthy had shown himself in a bad light as he blustered and argued during the televised “Army hearings” in 1954. He died in 1957 as a result of his alcoholism.

The question arises as to why the actors in New York were better able to withstand attempts to force theatre managers to dismiss alleged communists? The active nature of Equity in terms of negotiating contracts which required employers to guarantee that refusing to co-operate with HUAC was not a reason to fire anyone, obviously had a key role to play. In addition, theatres weren’t as reliant on advertising as TV was. Pressure could not be brought to bear by sponsors running scared in the face of opposition to their being seen to be linked to programmes which employed blacklisted writers or directors. Another factor was the nature of the audience for theatre, as compared to that likely to go to the cinema or watch TV. Were theatre-goers more sophisticated and less inclined to see local communists as constituting a serious threat? They were, perhaps, more independent and did not like to be told that they shouldn’t go to see a praised play because one of the actors in it had been politically indiscreet twenty years before.

Baar does more than describe the ways in which individuals coped with the problems arising from being called before the Committee. They had to be summoned first, and that involved being served with a subpoena. She has accessed the reports of Dolores Faconti Scotti, a process server for HUAC, and though they are essentially fairly routine documents, in which Scotti describes how she tracked down and served the required summons, they do make for informative reading. The ways in which the individuals concerned reacted varied. Attempting to serve a subpoena on Madeline Lee, Scotti almost came to blows with the actress in an argument that extended down the street. She also faced some hostility from Sarah Cunningham, but in her report stated that John Randolph, Cunningham’s husband, was “pleasant and friendly” when handed his subpoena.

There is information about Red Channels, a publication listing the names of actors, musicians, technicians, and others active in TV and radio who were alleged to be (or had been) communists, or who were sympathetic to the ideas of the Communist Party. It was compiled by several ex-FBI agents and used as a kind of guide for management when deciding whether or not it was safe to hire someone. And there was a man called Laurence Johnson, the owner of supermarkets in Syracuse, New York. Johnson “launched a ‘Campaign for Americanism’ that virtually brought the television industry to its knees”. He called for a boycott of any products that were advertised in connection with TV programmes that featured anyone named as a communist.

Broadway and the Blacklist is valuable for the way in which it looks at blacklisting in the theatre and, in certain cases, in radio and television. It is clearly written, has a useful bibliography, helpful notes, and appropriate illustrations.