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The Past Is Prologue

A conversation with Screen Actors Guild archivist Valerie Yaros

October 29, 2000|LISA LEFF

The Screen Actors Guild's strike against commercial advertisers has generated a lot of emotions among guild members, but Valerie Yaros is one of the few experiencing a sense of deja vu. That's a shame, insists Yaros, who, as SAG's archivist, has become a one-woman encyclopedia on the guild's early history.

She notes that the first SAG strike nearly 50 years ago stemmed from identical grievances over pay for actors appearing in filmed television commercials. Walter Pidgeon was the union's president, with Ronald Reagan, William Holden and Glenn Ford among its directors.

But to Yaros, 40, who works out of a supply room at SAG's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, the past can and should be a source of inspiration, particularly in this amnesiac town.

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SAG was founded in 1933 and yet never had an archivist until you. What has your work entailed?

When I first came here [four years ago], the historical materials were in pretty sad shape. The guild was so busy moving forward all the time that it never gave any thought to preserving what it had generated. I was asked to "just organize what we've got." I soon uncovered four boxes of old documents in storage that were absolutely astonishing. I found the original 1947 non-Communist affidavits signed by almost the entire guild board--Ronald Reagan's, Boris Karloff's, Gene Kelly's. The more I uncovered, the more astonishing the scope of the guild's story became, and I began to investigate on my own.

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How have you gone about fleshing out the guild's history and its archives?

I find a lot of inexpensive material on eBay. For example, I got a 1925 program from when [former executive secretary] Kenneth Thomson toured with a revival of the play "The Rivals." I even found, for $5, a program from the 1934 Film Stars Frolic, a three-day event designed to raise money for the guild that wiped out the treasury because too few people attended. If I feel we can't justify spending the members' money but I think it's something we need in our collection, I'll buy it myself. I'm also in frequent contact with retired guild officers and staff. There is no one left from the very earliest years, but Jack Dales, who was with the guild since 1937 and was its executive secretary from 1943 through 1972, is still going strong at 93. Do you know how wonderful it is to be able to call someone up and ask them about something that happened in 1939?

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What has been the value of these materials to researchers and the guild's staff?

Recently a biography on Boris Karloff was published that discussed in detail his time on the guild board. Our materials made this possible. Another author has been researching a biography of guild president Robert Montgomery for years. In January, months before the strike was called, William Daniels, the president, opened his speech with some quotes about the commercial advertising industry made by a former president of the guild. He didn't identify that president, but from the reaction of the crowd you could tell that everyone thought it was someone recent. Then he dropped the bomb. It was Walter Pidgeon in November 1952. You heard people gasp.

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Does the first strike in 1952 hold any lessons for those involved in the current strike?

We are still dealing with the same core issue: What is the value of the actor? One thing I hope my research will show people is that human nature is constant. If I read you something from 1895 talking about how poorly actors were being treated, that will tell you these aren't new problems.

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Are there other issues that keep cropping up?

Everyone thinks that the issue of foreign production and the flight of jobs to Canada is new, but it's almost as old as the guild. The earliest reference I've found to "runaway foreign production" is from the proceedings of a 1938 convention.

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If there was a fire at the guild's headquarters tomorrow and all the materials you've collected were destroyed, what would be the impact of that?

The guild's history would vanish. You would be left with what little has already been published about the guild, much of which is wrong.

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