From the Archives with Byron Hanson: August 2013

1945-1959 Fourteen years of “unfairness”?

A reader asked for more details about the “trouble with the musicians union” Interlochen had some years ago, so I’ll retell the old tale to younger generations not directly affected by the feud. The complete story could fuel a doctoral dissertation, but I’ll offer just the essence of the argument that became the longest and perhaps the most daunting “battle” in our history.

Joseph Edgar Maddy joined the American Federation of Musicians when he played violin with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1908 and remained a member for the next 37 years. As both a performing musician and a young teacher he was well aware of situations where the concerns of student musicians and professionals may clash.  James Caesar Petrillo was a trumpet player who rose to be president of the Chicago local union, and in 1940, national president of the union.

Radio network broadcasting, sound movies, and the National High School Orchestra all made their debuts in the late 1920s and all became solidly established less than a decade later. When early broadcasters sought to air samples of NHSO concerts, the union complied and when the Grimsby-Grunow Company offered the Camp $13,000 to broadcast an hour of each Sunday night concert in 1930, Dr. Maddy readily agreed to pay a standby orchestra of union musicians, since the Camp would profit not only from the cash and the transmission costs absorbed by the network, but stood to gain significantly from the publicity of having the programs brought into homes across the nation.

Now consider that this was also the era of the Great Depression plus serious political crises overseas, and the introduction of sound movies meant the loss of thousands of musicians’ jobs when they were no longer needed in the movie theaters. Radio broadcasts and recorded music threatened to eliminate live music in restaurants and nightclubs, a very serious matter not only for musicians but for their counterparts in all parts of the entertainment world. In this atmosphere, a union leader could hardly allow the radio industry to offer concerts by school children at little or no cost while taking away the livelihood of the professionals. Mr. Petrillo took an increasingly harder line at each opportunity to control the producers of radio, movie and recordings, and in company with leaders like John L. Lewis, Petrillo was not afraid to attack powerful industries and politicians. Not even a plea from President Roosevelt could change his determination to win adequate compensation for his union members. But Maddy was not a man to back down either, challenging the union to cite even a single instance where union players ever lost employment because of a few children playing on the air. Most observers could see that denying the interests of school children wouldn’t win the union any friends but only provided a goldmine for the political cartoonists, and the battle continued when Maddy tried to present school music on the air as a “free speech” right. Then just before the camp opened for the summer of 1942, Petrillo forced the network to cancel the Camp network broadcasts and in 1946, Dr. Maddy’s union membership was rescinded when he continued to conduct at Camp after it was added to the union’s “unfair” list, and all union musicians would risk losing their union membership if they worked here.

There are many more angles to this story, but suffice to say that though the impasse remained, the war had ended, the world had seen drastic change and workers’ welfare had improved in almost every way. After years of vilification by the press, in the early 1950s Mr. Petrillo hired a public relations advisor and spent thousands of dollars to influence public opinion, prompting one writer to observe that “in most descriptions of him which now appear, he is considered to be a human being.” He retired in 1958 having never relinquished his position on Interlochen, but in a short time, the union’s new president, Herman Kenin, took Interlochen off the “unfair” list to quietly restore peace and even traveled to the Camp with other AFM officers as a gesture of goodwill.

Ironic Footnote: this 1959 initiative did little more than to reestablish the code of ethics long in effect between the union and the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) - the essence of which Dr. Maddy had initially proposed as MENC president in 1938!