“Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.” -- The New York Tribune, quoting Kid Blink's speech to 2,000 strikers, using phonetic spellings to highlight his dialect.
It was July of 1899, and New York was not only experiencing a hot summer, it was in the middle of one of the biggest newsboy (aka “newsie”) strikes in American history. This is the slice of history that sets the stage for Newsies: The Broadway Musical. While this production is a work of fiction, a great deal of that fiction was rooted in real-life events and many characters were inspired by real-life people. So how different is this show from recorded history? How much did it get right? Let’s take a look...
The Spanish American War left a public hungry for information and they sought out the only daily source of news available. In turn, newspapers took full advantage of this demand by waging a circulation war on one another with flashy headlines, evening editions, big front page photos and illustrations. But that wasn’t enough. To try and to squeeze out every last cent from this boom, they also raised the wholesale price of papers to the newsies. Even though the burden was shifted to them, the newsies were okay with the increase initially as they were also profiting from the increased demand for “papes”. However, it all changed after the ceasefire in 1898 and eventual treaty in 1899 officially ending the Spanish-American War. Paper circulation plummeted, along with the newsies’ livelihood. While most news publishers rolled back the wholesale cost to pre-war prices, Joseph Pulitzer’s The World and Williams Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal held firm. No longer able to make a living on higher-priced papers coupled with poor sales, the newsies were forced to take action. These were just kids, and most were orphaned and homeless, living on the streets or in boarding houses. Selling “papes” was their only way out of complete poverty, and that source of income just dried up. Newsies agreed to boycott selling papers, began to organize, and put the papers on notice: roll back the price, or papers don’t get sold. The strike was on.
The Real Joseph Pulitzer & Theodore Roosevelt
As early as 1883, at only age 36, doctors recommended Pulitzer slow down and ordered him to take time away from the stresses of running a business. However, instead of boarding the European cruise ship in New York, Joseph Pulitzer skipped the vacation in order to negotiate a deal with Jay Gould to purchase The New York World. Rather than relax, Pulitzer poured himself further into work, but at a cost. Nearly a decade later, his failing health took such a toll on Pulitzer that it kept him largely isolated from public. In fact, he was spending time in his vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine, and never even set foot in New York during the newsboy strike. Likewise, then New York Governor, Theodore Roosevelt did not intervene during the strike and had nothing to do with its ultimate resolution.
Despite these glaring differences in the portrayal of these goliaths of history from the stage production, the bad blood between the two was quite real. It’s only too bad that the stage is about as close to a real face-to-face confrontation as anyone would have seen in real life. Pulitzer had no love for Roosevelt and was quite public of his disapproval. Roosevelt, in turn didn’t appreciate the constant negative press that Pulitzer pumped out. In later years, Pulitzer was even indicted by the federal government for criminally libeling (then President) Roosevelt and the banker J.P. Morgan. The charges were brought about after The World exposed a fraudulent payment of $40 million by the United States to the French Panama Canal Company. The charges were eventually dismissed and proved to be an affirmation of the first amendment and freedom of the press from governmental powers.
The Real Don Seitz
We don’t know much about Don Seitz the person, but we do know he was the managing editor for Pulitzer at The World. Unlike Pulitzer, Seitz was directly on the front lines of the strike, reporting back to his boss almost daily. At first he wrote about some “trouble” on the part of the newsboys; eventually informing Pulitzer that “the newsboys strike has become a menacing affair”, and adding “the advertisers have abandoned the papers and the sale has been cut down fully 2/5... It is really an extraordinary demonstration.” Naturally, the real life Don Seitz is a direct link to the Newsies’ character of Seitz.
Similar to the stage version, both The World and The Journal made attempts to break up the strike through intimidation, employment of scabs to sell papers, and asking the police to intervene. A full two weeks later, the newspapers finally relented under the pressure of the public, poor sales, and lack of advertisers, and agreed to a compromise allowing the newsies to sell papers; still at the increased price but without all the risk. It was a compromise they could all live with. On August 2 the newsies began to sell papers again.
Now that we’ve touched on the real-life history, in Part 2 we will take a look at the real life individuals that inspired a few of the main characters in the show.
In the meantime, go to KVTA.org to get your tickets!
Showtimes are Saturdays September 29 & October 6 @ 7:00 pm,
and Sundays September 30 & October 7 @ 2:00 pm.