The Story Behind

Walter Murdoch and the Entertainment War

Earle Beattie September 1 1954
The Story Behind

Walter Murdoch and the Entertainment War

Earle Beattie September 1 1954

Walter Murdoch and the Entertainment War

The Story Behind

The battleground: Canada

The stakes: control of North American show business

The pawns: every entertainer from Roy Rogers to Gypsy Rose Lee

The key man: Murdoch of the Musicians’ Union, the “Canadian Petrillo”

THE MOST powerful but least glamorous figure in the Canadian entertainment field today is a mild-looking former lithographer named Walter Murdoch, who at 66 finds himself Waging the biggest battle of a stormy 22-year career.

As the Toronto chief of the Canadian Musicians’ Union, Murdoch ranks in influence second only to James Caesar Petrillo, the union’s tough implacable international president. For the past eight months Murdoch has been Petrillo’s No. 1 general in a bitter inter-union war in the entertainment world which has baffled the Canadian public and dismayed most show people.

The war is still on and it’s shaping up into one of the most ornery squabbles in trade-union history. Although the battlefield is Canada, the implications are international. The participants include big names like Roy Rogers, t he singing cowboy, and Mart Kenney, the bandleader. The stakes are nothing less than total union control of North American show business.

The struggle broke out in the United States last fall hut because of stiffer labor laws south of the border it was exported to Canada and has been ^¡^rtained here ever since. The main battlefields .re Montreal and Toronto, which place next to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas as the top entertainment centres on the continent. Local skirmishes have already been fought bitterly in vaudeville houses, night clubs, television and radio studios and exhibitions. The battle has already had widespread effects. It kept four top dancers off Canadian television for seven weeks and caused Blackstone the Magician and two internationally known singing stars to cancel CBC-TV shows. It kept Gypsy Rose Lee and her troupe from appearing in Hamilton’s Palace theatre. It has barred every U. S. singer and dancer from appearing in any theatre, night club or TV broadcast in Canada. It stopped all Canadian performers from appearing in the Canadian National Exhibition’s famous grandstand show. And it put scores of smaller entertainers out of work in Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Windsor, London and other centres.

At this writing it threatens to black out Montreal’s million-dollar night life, and if the war doesn’t end by fall it can easily mean the end of top-flight entertainment for all vaudeville houses and night clubs from Quebec City to Vancouver.

The main battle is between two international unions, Petrillo’s proud powerful American Federation of Musicians—with 250,000 members—and the

yout hi ul American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) whose gypsylike ranks number about 18,000 vaudeville, night-club and social-evening performers like Bob Hope and Sophie Tucker. Its president is a small dark fast-talking Broadway comedian named Jackie Bright, known on the stage as “the confie auctioneer.”

While these unions have been locked in battle, a third has stepped in and attempted to take over the entire entertainment field in Canada. This is the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists which for a decade has bargained for 2,000 writers and performers in Canadian radio and TV such people as Lister Sinclair, the bearded playwright, and Frosia Gregory, who appears on TV’s A Date With Frosia. The three warring unions belong to the same parent body, the American Federation of Labor.

Should a Dancer Ring a Bell?

The Pet.rillo-Murdoch strategy has been to smash the rival variety union (AGVA) with a one-two punch, first in Canada, then in the U. S. Because the U. S. Taft-Hartley Act prohibits one union boycotting another, Murdoch got the job of smashing AGVA here, then setting up a satellite union for fugitive AGVA members to join. This would have a devastating effect on the American arm of the variety union for it would mean that American stars who stayed in AGVA would have difficulty performing in the lucrative Canadian field. The Musicians and their new associates would boycott them. Petrillo’s follow-up plan was to send letters to every variety artist in the U. S. inviting them to quit their union and join an auxiliary of the Musicians. The Canadian debacle, he hoped, would serve to pry them loose. With AGVA decimated in both countries, Petrillo could turn on its sister unions in the movie, radio, TV and legitimate theatre fields. But things haven’t gone quite according to plan and Petrillo hasn’t yet gone through with his follow-up tactics.

The present struggle is a culmination of a 15-year hassle which centres around this explosive issue: if an entertainer plays, say, a trumpet in the course of his comedy act, is he a variety artist cr a musician? If a pianist jumps from his stool and goes through a song-and-dance routine, which union should get him? Both unions have raided the other’s ranks over this question since AGVA was born in 1939. In 1949, for example, a dancer at the Canadian National Exhibition did a number that

included jingling a bell on her garter. Murdoch ordered her to stop jingling or join the Musicians.

Sometimes union men have even rushed up to performers just before curtain time threatening to stop the show unless the performer joined the rival union. Such entertainers found themselves paying dues to both unions. Highly paid performers such as Victor Borge, the pianist-comedian, could afford this double membership but the majority found it unjustifiably expensive.

Although a peace of sorts was patched up between the two unions in 1950 the raiding still continued. Last October Jack Bright, AGVA head, sounded the tocsin in Buffalo: “It looks like a grim battle is in order.” Bright’s union won a couple of preliminary skirmishes when the U. S. courts backed it up. Then Petrillo changed the battlefield to Canada and turned the strategy over to Walter Murdoch in Toronto.

Murdoch has often been called the Petrillo of Canada and in this country he is as controversial a figure as his boss in the United States and just as hard-boiled. But you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He is tall and straight-shouldered, has pinkish cherubic features, wears tri-focal glasses and a close-cropped mustache, and has sparse white hair. He has the reputation of enforcing the union rule book to its literal limits, honoring all contracts to

These Stars Were Caught In The Squabble...^

Earle Beattie

and the Entertainment War

the letter and disciplining members who turn up late fo> rehearsal or who tak*3 iess than union scale on engagements. Murdoch’s detractors are numerous, ins de the union and o'Ut. A booking agent calls him “arrogant,” a theatre manager declares he is “a damned dictator” arid a prominent orchestra man say.5 “his meetings are like a lecture.” But such is Murdoch’s power that none will agree to be identified by name.

The public knows Murdoch as the man who often won’t, let n>usiciand play free f°r charities or appear on radio programs' where recordings are used, who threatened to black-list Queen’s University because students da* ced ° records, who kept the violinist RubinofF from playing in four Toronto high schools and who, two years ago, prevented a Wind musician from emigrating to Canada from New Zealand. In that instance, Murdoch told the Canadian Immigration Department that Julian Lee, a jazz artist , could not work here as a musician until he had a year’s residence.

Many rank-and-file musicians say Murdoch’s 22year power is based on divide-and-rule tactics. Military bandsmen form the core of Murdoch’s support, the union boss himself being a leader of a military band in Toronto. Dance-band players and concert musicians can’t seem to get together in a common front against him, in spite of their grumbles.

The closest anyone ever came to unseating Murdoch was in 1951 when Carne Bray, a young sixfoot bespectacled bass-fiddle player in Mart Kenney’s hand, came within 24 votes out of 1,100 of winning t he presidency. A call for a recount and an argument, on procedure brought a New York representative to settle the issue -in Murdoch’s favor.

For all the members who tight Murdoch, there are many who swear by him. These people declare that he fights for them against radio station owners who would use amateur bands exclusively, dogooders who expect musicians to work for nothing, and operators of night clubs who try to heat down prices. Samuel Hersenhoren, a dapper little goateed conductor in Toronto, says Murdoch gives the union a businesslike leadership that would he hard to replace. Norman Harris, a theatrical agent who has knowfv-Mr (doch since 1930 and who recently became an fjer of the Musicians, says, “You'can rely on his s0nï(rify anf^ him a contract is

sacred.” Fra f Tumpane, Continued on page 53


who writes a column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, recently lauded Murdoch for paying his musicians out of the union trust fund to play free at parks and hospitals.

Murdoch has been a career union leader since he first joined the Toronto local in 1917, bringing in with him his Imperial Concert Band. His business ability was demonstrated early when he was given the job of selling the union building on University Avenue. The Musicians expected $15,000; Murdoch got them $75,000 from an insurance firm.

He became president of the local in 1932 and in the next 22 years built it into the second largest of its kind on the continent and put it on firm financial feet. Today it has a membership of 2,400, a yearly income of more than $50,000 and assets of nearly $250,000 carefully invested in dominion and | provincial bonds, Ontario Hydro and CNR. The local pays him a salary of $6,625 a year. Becoming Canadian representative on the union’s national board at New York in 1938, Murdoch also got a say in the running of another 41 Musicians’ locals across Canada and another $2,600 a year salary. At the same time he has kept his hand in as an active musician by leading the Royal Regiment of Canada band which plays at National Hockey league games in Maple Leaf Gardens. His fee for that job, which gives him the rank of captain in the Reserve Army, is turned over to the union’s welfare fund.

Walter Murdoch’s personal life is one of middle-class suburban serenity, far from the angry torrents that swirl around him as a union leader. He was born in Kingston in 1888 and spent his youth in Hamilton where he played football and the trumpet. He went to work in his late teens for the Canadian Northern Railway and rose to an office position with the president. “I learned one great lesson there,” he says. “One day I asked the president a question just after he had shut his roll-top desk. He turned to me and said, ‘Walter, when I shut that desk I don’t think about the railway until I open it the next morning.’ ” Murdoch never takes his union business home with him. He arrives at his office at 279 Yonge Street, at 11 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m.

Murdoch left the railway to go to work for his boss’ son, who owned a photo - lithography firm. Murdoch knew nothing about the subject but picked it up quickly. He was president of the firm for twenty years and worked at his union job during his lunch hour and in the evening. Only when his union duties grew too heavy did he divorce himself from business—in 1940.

Today Murdoch lives in Etobicoke, west-end suburb of Toronto, with his wife and a daughter who is head of the home economics department at Etobicoke Collegiate. Another daughter is married and the mother of two small

boys, of whom Walter is particularly fond. When he was head of the photolithography firm he took a young apprentice, Wallace Clover, a fine pianist,” into his home and looked after him as a son. Clover, who became a $15,000a-year executive in a Maplewood, N.Y., lithography firm, died last June.

Murdoch’s hobbies are music he likes to make his own arrangements— photography and fishing. Watching him at leisurely work with his 3-D camera or bending over his music stand, jotting notes, one cannot visualize the man Petrillo calls “a great fighting union leader.” Yet Murdoch s nerveless skill and fighting qualities

were quickly illustrated as he kicked off the war with the variety artists in Toronto.

He fired the opening gun in January by dispatching letters to theatres, night clubs and booking agents announcing that no musician in the city would play for members of the variety union after Jan. 17, except where contracts extended beyond that date. Next, he dispatched a letter to Robin Logan, Toronto manager of the variety artists’ union, telling him his members could have music for their acts after the deadline if they joined a special “auxiliary” of the Musicians’ Union and tore up their AGVA cards.

The beleaguered variety artists caved in easily. The local was a weak one and the members had been rankling under “absentee dictatorship” from New York. Only one man spoke against joining Murdoch. He was Ernest Corley, who brought a puppet show from England and had tangled with Murdoch when be used recordings at night clubs for his show. But Corley was shouted down and there was a rush of variety artists to join the Musicians. By April 30, 98 percent of the membership had quit AGVA, paid a $10 initiation fee and signed for a $24 annual fee to join with Murdoch. This marked the first time that the Musicians had taken on any and all variety artists. Previously they went after only those AGVA men who played an instrument.

Caught Between Stools

Murdoch took these important steps on his own initiative. His executive ratified his actions after he made the moves. AGVA manager Logan and his assistant, A. S. (Slim) Burgess, crossed over to the enemy side and went on Murdoch’s payroll to help set up the auxiliary union.

In the next few weeks Murdoch doggedly went after all those who refused to quit the variety union and join the new one. The first people to feel the sting of his boycott were four dancers on the CBC’s variety show, The Big Revue — Bill Yule, Babs Christie, Andrew Body and Robert Van Norman. When they reported for rehearsal Jan. 21, orchestra conductor Hersenhoren, on orders from Murdoch, refused to play for them.

The dancers were caught between two stooLs. The Big Revue’s producer suggested they go down to fill out mimeographed forms at Murdoch’s office, resigning from AGVA and joining the new union. No sooner had they done this than AGVA’s president, the comedian Jackie Bright, arrived in Toronto from New York to rally the few remaining members. Yule and Miss Christie were nominated to the local board to see the issue through. Now they were in the awkward spot of belonging to two rival unions at once.

A tug of war ensued. Murdoch bluntly warned them that if they stayed with AGVA no union musician on the continent would play for them. Yet, if they left AGVA, they would he black-listed by every variety artist in the U. S. Yule, who danced in Las Vegas before coming north, could never go back.

“I decided against it,” Yule says. “It’s not that I care so much about the union—most of us join it because we have to—but when they said you must join Murdoch’s union, [ felt like resisting.”

The dancers reported back to The Big Revue, where they still had 11 weeks to go on a 26-week contract. Again Murdoch called off the music and they stood aside. At dress rehearsal, Hersenhoren refused to play until the dancers were removed from the studio. They couldn’t even sit in

the studio audience. Thus the CBC, in effect, buckled under Murdoch’s ultimatum by telling the dancers that others would have to be hired in their place unless they could perform within a given time. While they were idle Yule and the others were paid straight time, as per contract. But they lost the overtime pay they would have picked up at extra rehearsals.

While all this was going on Murdoch struck a second blow by shutting out some of the variety union’s top American members. Shirley Harmer, a dark appealing 21 - year - old singer from Oshawa, had come home from a year’s phenomenal success in the U. S. She was to appear on The Big Revue, where her career started, but the Musicians stopped her.

Jacqueline James, the statuesque blond musical-comedy star, a featured singer in Toronto’s Melody Fair stage shows last year, was also cut off. Later she resigned from AGVA to appear in the Canadian Apparel Fair. She joined Murdoch’s auxiliary and escaped U. S. retribution by going on to London, where she is now the lead in Guys and Dolls. Blackstone the Magician also felt the boycott and had to cancel a TV date.

A number of smaller fry got pushed around as Murdoch’s boycott curtailed club dates—the small acts at conventions and social evenings that are the performers’ bread and butter. Two ballroom dancers from Hamilton, John Popaleni and his sister Mary, found they couldn’t dance at a Royal York hotel convention because Mart Kenney’s band wouldn’t play for them. They stood in the wings, waiting to go on, the dispute completely incomprehensible to them. When the orchestra finally played God Save the Queen, Mary broke into tears. By June they still were out of work.

Ernest Corley, the puppeteer who spoke up against Murdoch, found himself in trouble early in February. He was to appear in the big Hobby Show at Toronto Coliseum. Murdoch warned that if Corley performed, musician Horace Lapp wouldn’t play. Lapp was an accompanist for the Kate Aitken program in another part of the building and did not take part in the same act and was not on the same stage as Corley. Murdoch was unmoved by this argument. Corley refused to change unions. To avoid canceling the Kate Aitken program, the Hobby Show’s manager asked Corley to leave. It meant that Murdoch could shut down an entire show by threatening to withdraw a single musician.

Shirley Beat the Boycott

Reeling, AGVA hit back at Murdoch with two court actions. Corley sued him and the Hobby Show for $10,000. The Big Revue dancers—after an absence of seven weeks—went back on that TV program on a court order. Then they sued Murdoch, Hersenhoren and two other executive members for $80,000. Both cases are still pending.

A second jolt for Murdoch’s union came on April 24 when the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists suddenly took over the variety field in Canadian television. While the two big international unions were quarrelling, the Canadian union quietly negotiated a contract with the CBC making it sole bargaining agent for all artists appearing before TV cameras and any musicians who speak while on the air. The hope was that the CBC would cease to be a battleground between musicians and variety artists and that TV stars from the U. S. who are members of AGVA could now appear without fear of boycott, simply by taking out a

working card with the Canadian union. So far this has worked but there are no indications that it will continue.

The first test came off successfully with Shirley Harmer who returned to Toronto and appeared on The Big Revue under the new arrangement. Murdoch excused this lapse by saying he was out of town at the time it happened. But at the end of July he dropped the bombshell that showed he was ready to fight in earnest. He announced that no musician would play for any U. S. member of AGVA on television—or in night clubs or theatres either. This virtually sealed the border to singers and dancers from the U. S. and to those British stars who are AGVA members.

Behind the TV manoeuvre were two prominent Canadian radio and TV personalities, Neil LeRoy, now president of the Canadian Council, and Bernard Cowan, vice-president. LeRoy is the thin suave master of ceremonies on the Dominion network’s Court of Opinions. Cowan is the announcer on Friday night’s Toronto Symphony “pop” concerts. Their organization is eleven years old and has 2,000 members from Halifax to Vancouver.

LeRoy and Cowan have challenged any ambitions Murdoch may have to dominate the Canadian TV field. Later they were to challenge his dream of dominating vaudeville and night-club fields.

Meanwhile Murdoch himself had brought a hornet’s nest around his head. His boycott had inevitably challenged Canada’s biggest variety spectacle, the Canadian National Exhibition’s grandstand show. The headline attraction was to be Roy Rogers, the cowboy star, and his cowboy troupe. Murdoch, to protect the members of his new auxiliary, said his men would supply music for the show only if the singers and dancers in the Musicians’ Union “weren’t discriminated against.”

The New York chiefs of AGVA hit back. They said that Rogers could not perform if Murdoch’s auxiliary-union members went on. AGVA threatened to black-list the CNE unless it used variety-union members exclusively, and backed it up with the threat of a $2,000 fine against any AGVA member taking part in the show.

Two ex-mayors of Toronto now heading the CNE, president Robert Saunders and general manager Hiram MacCallum, tried frantically but vainly to bring the two unions together. Jackie Bright and other AGVA bosses went to Toronto for a face-to-face meeting with their arch foe Murdoch. Neither union budged an inch.

By mid-June, plans for the $400,000 14-day show were in a state of paralysis. Then, unexpectedly on June 19, the Exhibition signed a contract with AGVA in New York. It stipulated that all performers in the show must be AGVA members. But Murdoch sat imperturbable and said he hadn’t agreed to supply music. Some 30 members of his auxiliary who wanted to work in the CNE show were now faced with returning to the union they had deserted, or losing their summer work.

If Murdoch was worried by the squeeze he now found himself in, he didn’t show it. The same month his boycott reached out to Hamilton to stop Gypsy Rose Lee and her chorus line from appearing at a vaudeville house. The famous stripper is a former vice-president of AGVA. The theatre manager had to pay for an expensive troupe which never got on-stage, because there was no music.

The CNE impasse dragged on until July at which point the Musicians and the Exhibition officials negotiated an agreement that saved faces but pleased few bystanders. Murdoch agreed to

play for the Roy Rogers troupe and any AGVA acts from the U. S. at the CNE. This still left the Canadian members of his auxiliary union out in the cold for no AGVA member would be seen dead on the same stage with them. In an attempt to keep the loyalty of his auxiliary members Murdoch negotiated an under-the-table agreement with the Exhibition board which will allow some Canadian artists to appear at the CNE bandshell—in another part of the fairgrounds—and give some others jobs selling programs and tickets. But the fact remains that the big Grandstand show—which was ninety-five percent Canadian in 1953

will be almost entirely U. S. in makeup this year. One hundred and twenty Canadians, who might normally be on the Grandstand stage, won’t appear in the show’s cast.

Montreal was the second shock centre of the union war. Here the Musicians’ boycott threw scores of performers out of work and threatened to black out the city’s famous night life. The pattern was the same. An auxiliary union was set up by the Musicians and 175 variety artists were lured over to if. Hardest hit of Montreal’s 300 night spots, which pay talent $8 millions a year, were the small clubs with shortterm contracts. (The bigger clubs, such as Bellevue Casino and Normandie Roof, temporarily escaped the boycot! while their longer contracts remained in force.) At one club an accordionist had to boycott his wife, who sings for him, because he belongs to (lie Musicians and she to AGVA.

Again the variety artists fought back in court, but this time they lost. Another body blow hit the variety union on June 8 when the Musicians issued a reminder stating they would play for no AGVA acts after June 21. This threatened total eclipse of afterdark entertainment in Montreal. The Sheraton-Mount Royal’s Normandie Roof cancelled its expensive night-club acts. But the Musicians’ offensive began to crumble when twelve night spots defied them by hiring non-union bands. AGVA members performed with the non-union musicians. All the war has done in Montreal is to weaken the two warring unions.

Murdoch, however, claimed victory and got a standing ovation from 1,200 delegates at his union’s international convention in Milwaukee when he described how his boycott had crippled AGVA in Canada. But the victory wasn’t total because the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists, meeting in Montreal about the same time, came up with a bold idea: they proposed to bring the battered AGVA into their own organization. Then they entered into delicate negotiations with all entertainment unions except the Musicians in the U. S. for the right to represent their members in Canada. If these negotiations succeed it means that entertainers in this country will pay dues to only one union, instead of several.

This will put the CCAA in a powerful position. The new move threatens to end the Petrillo-Murdoch dream of final domination on both sides of the footlights. But it certainly doesn’t mean the entertainment war is over. Having practically knocked one union out of the ring, the Musicians are quite capable of taking on another. If the Council takes over from AGVA and other entertainment unions, Murdoch says, “I certainly will oppose them. That’s reaching out too far. Right now I’m concerned with AGVA; after that we’ll look over the other situation.” And Walter Murdoch has fought enough successful union wars to know that the battle that really counts is the last one. ★