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Early Members: 1934
I thought the extras who told me about this new organization were a bunch of nuts. I was leery of it and I didn't have the money to spend on frivolous things. So I got in touch with Leon Ames and he explained that they were starting a union that was going to do a lot of things for actors. He said that I had to be sure that nobody saw me go to the SAG office when I joined and to be careful who I talked to. There was this feeling that we would be blacklisted. I never let a producer or director or casting person know I was a member of the union unless I was pinned to the wall. I knew that the big stars were backing the union, it was a Who's Who list of Hollywood. That gave me courage. If the stars believed in it, what kind of a dope was I if I didn't believe in it?
In those golden years of Hollywood, women were treated like disposable Kleenex. My experience started at MGM in 1933. I made two dozen pictures in five years and my hair color changed in each one. We had nothing to say about our appearance. I had to lose weight, although I was a size 8. The strain of the working conditions was almost beyond endurance. I don't know how we survived making Eight Girls in a Boat (1934) for Paramount. We had to jump into a cold lake 20 times for a take. SAG was born while I was making Change of Heart (1934) with Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple, and Kenneth Thomson. Thomson became SAG's first executive, and we all joined. Now actors have choices, which is better than being a ball in a roulette wheel, like we were. [Note: the Guild was not actually "formed" while Miss Barondess was making "A Change of Heart," but this is when she first became aware of the Guild]
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
We all knew that Gunga Din (1939) would be an enduring classic. I was approached by Cary Grant, and I said, "What part do you want me to play?" He said, "You choose." So we tossed a coin. I worked with some great talents. Katharine Hepburn was an attractive and interesting character. Other people would dress up in frills and fancy clothes, she wore blue jeans and sweatshirts and rode her bicycle. When it came to joining the Guild, many of us didn't give a damn what the studios thought. Jack Warner was a loud mouth bully. In the '20s and early '30s I'd work a six or seven day week, and they put me into whatever picture came along. When I finished my role, they'd put me into another project to offset the cost - they did that with everybody, even Cagney.
When SAG was recognized by the studios in 1937, we had a big meeting at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Bob Montgomery read the telegram and Louis B. Mayer was telling us that we, the Screen Actors Guild, were recognized as the collective bargaining unit for actors. A big roar went up from 1,500 - 2,000 people in the stadium. The contracts were signed soon after that. There was a line for several weeks in front of the SAG offices that went down the street of people waiting to join. It was a $10 initiation fee and quarterly dues. When I joined the Guild in 1934 as a stunt man, the initiation fee was $3 and $1.25 for each quarter. I know these figures because I'm the Guild's Treasurer Emeritus and have worked with the numbers for over 40 years.
Before SAG there were some nights I would just sleep at the studio. There were no rules about how many hours you would work or how much time you had between shoots. We'd work all day Saturday and all night. They didn't stop working us until daylight because that's when they did all of the outdoor night shooting. Life was very different before the Guild. On Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) when we had to go back for retakes, there was snow on the ground, so they sprayed it with brown paint and there I was wearing hardly anything and my legs turned blue! Around that time the studios finally recognized the union. I think SAG has done remarkable things and is the best thing that ever happened to actors.
Spending the $5 it cost to join SAG was the best bargain I've ever had in my entire life. I signed a stock contract with Warner Bros. as a chorus girl in 1933 and the conditions were terrible. We'd work from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 the next morning, with no lunch hours or dinner breaks. All we had to sit down on were benches. I was on the SAG board from 1948-'51 and I remember when my health insurance was canceled because I was at risk being an actor. I told Ronald Reagan, who was the President of the Guild then, and he listened, even though he had broken his leg and it was in a cast, propped up on a desk in our tiny office on Hollywood Boulevard. He and others helped out their fellow actors, so I just can't say enough great things about SAG.