Unions gave theatre Pins And Needles 80 years ago – (musical theatre melodies)

Political theatre has always had a place in the world.  At its extreme it is pure propaganda and gives only one view but in the free world the slant may be less severe but still one sided.  From ancient Greek through to Shakespeare and on to Stoppard it is a much valued theatrical form.  On the lighter side it can be in the form of satire as seen in shows such as Of Thee I Sing and I’d rather be Right or more direct as in The Cradle Will Rock.   But much political comment has come through the form of Revue from its germination days in France and Germany. 

Great Britain had censorship until 1968 but the United States had no censorship other than in a moralistic way in the eyes of the various States and Cities.  The thirties saw the world slowly coming out of the Great Recession and the rise in the importance of Unions looking after their member’s livelihood.  Local Unions had their lighter side in that they often acted as social clubs.  The American Musical Rags showed how important it was that Unions were formed.  One such Union from that time was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  It was strong in New York where its own newspaper called Justice was produced.  Justice’s editor in the mid-thirties was Max Danish.  He had the idea of putting on an amateur revue cast from the workers they represented.  Material was to be by various people giving a political slant towards worker’s rights.  The songs were to be written by Harold Rome.

Harold Rome had studied architecture and law at Yale and wanted to become an architect in New York.  He started writing revue songs for a Jewish summer resort.  His songs were ‘socially conscious’ and attracted the eye of Max Danish.  The show was to be called “Pins And Needles”.

The Union used the Princess Theatre, a 299 seater where Bolton, Kern and Wodehouse had helped create the Broadway musical, as their meeting hall.  They had renamed it The Labor Stage and it was where they were to present the show.  The cast were all members of the union and the accompaniment was simply two pianos.  It was rehearsed after work and on weekends and when it started of 27 November 1937 played on Friday and Saturday evenings.   However, it was obvious from the word ‘go’ that this light-hearted politically aware piece was a hit.  The cast gave up their day jobs and the show played eight times a week moving to the 849 seat Windsor Theatre.  In total it ran for 1108 performances.

During its run Eleanor Roosevelt requested a performance at the White House which she attended with her husband President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Harold Rome went on to even greater success and broke into the world of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.  He had recorded for Columbia his show I Can Get it for You Wholesale and the idea of his recording songs from the revue, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary, was born. 

It was a simple studio reconstruction with Rome and a few artist friends helping with the songs and Stan Freeman at the piano.  But Rome also invited a young lady who had a small part in Wholesale for which she had received great reviews.  The ladies name was Barbra Streisand and the rest is history.  The LP was later issued as a CD. 

In 1978 the Roundabout Theatre Company revived it Off- Broadway and it ran for 225 performances. 

London saw it in 2010 at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn.

For those who are interested, “Musical Theatre Melodies” to be broadcast on 96.5 FM on Tuesday, 28th November will feature an 80th Anniversary tribute to the Harold Rome revue “Pins and Needles”, from the 1962 U.S. studio cast recording featuring Barbra Streisand, Jack Carroll, Rose Marie Jun, Alan Sokoloff and Harold Rome. This will be preceded by an introduction from New York-based theatre critic and Internet columnist, Peter Filichia. 

The remainder of the programme will feature selections from the Harold Rome revue “Call Me Mister”, from the 1946 original Broadway cast recordings starring Betty Garrett, Lawrence Winter, Danny Scholl, Paula Bane, Jules Munshin, Chandler Cowles, Harry Clark and Bill Callaghan.

The broadcast will go “to air” between 9 – 11 p.m. EDT local Melbourne time; (= 10 a.m. – 12 noon GMT in Britain; = 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. NZDT; = 5 – 7 a.m. EST New York time; = 2 – 4 a.m. PST Los Angeles time.)

For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer2/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.


Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive