Alvin George – Local One’s Living Legend
August 20, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
As members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One stagehands enjoy many hard-won benefits like good pay, significant pensions and quality healthcare. But other than 91-year-old Local One veteran Alvin George, none can claim the honor of resurrecting Jesus eight times a week, and seeing old-time Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead in the buff.
“These were all experiences I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world,” George told LaborPress.
In just a few months, George will celebrate 92-years on Planet Earth – 65 of them as card-carrying member of Local One.
“I think unions helped shape this country,” George says flatly. “It would be wrong to try to eliminate them.”
George was newly graduated from New York University and working as a disc jockey in Goldsboro, North Carolina in the early 1940s when his love of a special girl named Gloria brought him back to New York City where he was raised, and eventually introduced him to the footlights of Broadway.
“In the old days, the stagehand union was like a father/son organization,” George says. “You got into the union if your father was in the union – not like it is now.”
George’s first job as a stagehand was assembling scenery for a production of “Carmen Jones” at the City Center.
“What a great experience for me,” George remembers. “You had to be a cowboy and lasso cleats attached to the frame of the scenery from one side and then the other to make a corner. It wasn’t easy.”
George soon married Gloria, and in 1946 he started a fledgling advertising agency with a few old NYU buddies. But he wasn’t finished with show business. In fact, he was just getting started. And in 1948 George officially became a member of Local One.
“I was trying to build a business in advertising and working in the theater at night,” says George. “I was putting in some pretty long days. Sunday was the only day I was off because at that time, theaters weren’t open on Sundays.”
Days at the advertising agency were stressful and mentally draining. But evenings at the theater offered George a chance to flex his muscles and jettison all his workaday cares.
“It was just great for me,” George says. “I made many, many friends.”
George remembers the “giants” of labor who helped chart Local One’s future – tough, passionate guys in shirt-sleeves and suspenders some with cigars sticking out of the corners of their mouths. Men like John McDowell, Bill Gorey, Louie Yeager and Solly Pernik.
“These are the guys that set the tone,” George explains. “And it is their legacy upon which the union was built to become what it is today: a sophisticated international organization. They knew labor and they knew the political environment. Without them, I don’t think we would be where we are today.”
It was around this time working on a production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” when the young George found himself on the “fly floor” high above the stage and sultry Tallulah Bankhead’s makeshift dressing room. His job using sandbags as counterweights to raise and lower the scenery as well as the curtain was exhausting. But it did have one peculiar perk.
“On our side of the stage they set up a dressing room which was four-sided – but roofless,” George laughs. “And who’s dressing room was it? Tallulah Bankhead’s. I thought to myself, ‘Boy! This is a neat benefit! I’m not getting any monetary benefits, I’m not getting any medical benefits – but I’m seeing Tallulah Bankhead naked as a jaybird eight times a week.”
The “fly floor” was a hoot for a young guy in his 20s, but the loquacious George actually had the opportunity to become friendly with some of the biggest stars in theater and television, including Helen Hayes, Carol Channing, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Perry Como, Martha Raye, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar.
“I think I enjoyed the Sid Caesar show the most,” George says.
The last production George worked on before retiring in 1973 was “Jesus Christ Superstar” – where he helped engineer the aforementioned miracle by bringing the Savior “up from the cellar and onto the stage.”
George also sold his ad agency that same year, and later went to work for a family-owned agency where he remained for almost 25 years before being forced into unwanted retirement in 1997.
“I was the only one still using a typewriter,” George says. “They would point to me and say I was the resident dinosaur. I was angry. I felt I had experience, I was a good presenter, I spoke well and I could sell. But there I was.”
Fortunately, Gloria had the answer.
“My wife, who was smarter than I was said, “Al, why don’t you take some computer lessons?”
At an age when most folks are looking back on their lives, George was about to embark on a new and exciting chapter in his life.
“I went to the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House,” he remembers. “The computer course was one day a week in the evening – six students on one computer. It was like a Marx Brothers movie with all of us around the computer trying to get a finger on the keyboard to see a letter come up. But I learned the basics.”
George learned so well that the instructor asked if he would help in her English Language class. He agreed, and after a couple of years, when that same instructor announced she was moving on, George took over her class. Soon after that, he approached educators at Hunter College, and for the next nine years taught in their International English Language Department conducting conversation circles for foreign students.
In 2009, the Literacy Assistance Center of New York recognized George as Volunteer of the Year for his work in literacy and as an advocate for English as a second language.
“I had three careers,” says George. “An advertising man, a stagehand and an educator.”
Sadly, a weakened economy has interrupted George’s career as a talented educator.
“In 2011, we lost our funding like everything else in the city,” he laments.
Despite the adversity, the veteran stagehand says he still feels “pretty lucky to be here.”
He lost Gloria seven years ago after 59 years of marriage and lives quietly alone – if a bit restlessly – partly on a stipend from Local One’s inactive fund. A few years ago, George advocated for, and won, a cost of living increase for inactive fund members.
“I asked for the increase in a speech I made at a union meeting,” George said. “When I finished I got a standing ovation, and the membership unanimously approved the increase.”
Although his long association with Local One helps him remain independent in the same Manhattan apartment he’s lived in for the last 37 years, George worries about his grandchildren and other younger working people today.
“What’s going to be here for them?” he wonders. “Is healthcare going to be available? Are pensions going to be available? Is Social Security going to be able to withstand the load?”
Reflecting on all the gains Labor has won throughout the years – job security, healthcare, sick pay, vacations, pensions and maternity leave – George comes to the conclusion that, despite its detractors, unions are an inexorable part of American society.
“There is a definite need for unions as part of the whole environment,” George says. “It’s the democratic way.”