Buffalo's Manny Fried:
Laboring For The Working Man

By Jamie Moses

Manny (Emanuel) Fried is an actor, novelist, playwright, teacher, and labor organizer. Fifteen of his plays have been produced; a collection of short stories and his novel Big Ben Hood have been published, and he is now ready to publish The Un-American, his autobiographical novel.

JM: When did your romance with theatre begin?

MF: When a high school teacher asked me to act in an O'Neill play.

JM: And the writing?

MF: I wrote my first play back when I was about fifteen. I was working at the old Ford Hotel. I wrote a play about the prostitutes I met. I was amazed to find that they were human. I had no sexual relationship with them. I got to know them because like all bellhops, in effect, you become a pimp. If anybody wants a woman you send them over there. I wrote this this play about that. I sent it to my brother, who was at Harvard; he tore it up.  Devastated me.                I

JM: When did you first get involved with labor unions?

MF: Working at Dupont, about 1930. I was in the union, but I had no idea of what was a real union, a company union, what have you.

JM: 60 years ago.

MF: It doesn't seem that long ago, Jamie.

JM: How old are you?

MF: I'm 76. But that's young in my family. My father and mother lived to 97 and 99.

JM: Were you doing any theatre in Buffalo in the early 30's?

MF: I played in A Midsummer Night's Dream at old Studio Theatre on Lafayette St, and some bit parts with the stock company at the Tech Theatre. I got to know Rosalind Russell, who was the leading lady with the Tech Stock Players. I was a theatre usher in high school, so I was always around theatre. I especially liked working at the Shea's Hippodrome where they had vaudeville.

I went to NYC in '33, and during the next six years, I was in about a dozen plays on Broadway. I had a good part in a play with John Garfield, which ran about a year and a half.  During this period I studied with Strasberg, with Clerman, with Odettes, Bobby Lewis, Karnofsky, the whole crew from the group theatre. I became a dancer. I danced with Ben Zemma. I was directed by Martha Graham.

Meanwhile, I was writing plays, and I was a member of Actors' Equity. I gravitated toward the leftwing block of Actors' Equity because they were the ones who were actually fighting for actors' equity.

JM: What was the feeling towards the left then?

MF: Because of the Depression there was a general movement left.  Unemployment insurance, Social Security, all these things were raised by the communists in this country. That's been wiped out. I myself had some tough times. I remember I walked to an automat on 125th St. and said to the manager, "I’m hungry.  Can I have a job?" He gave me a job. First he said, “eat.”

Then I played the lead in a play for the Theatre of Action, and I was approached by Charlie Behan from Universal, and he told me that they were interested in me for films; but I needed to do one more lead. But because I was broke, I came back to Buffalo in the spring and got a job playing football for Canisius.

JM: Were you a student?

MF: I was a student. But when the football season was over I left. But I was away from New York at exactly the wrong time. The Theatre Union was looking all over hell for me to play the lead in a play called Mother, my second lead, which would have resulted in me going out west for film.

JM: Where was the writing?

MF: I was still writing. The writing never stopped. I also directed the Buffalo Contemporary Theatre, which was located in a loft. It was on Ellicott and Eagle right over a gin mill down them. We were sort of the center of all the non-establishment arts in the city at that time.

In '41, the theatre came apart because of guys being drafted. It just disintegrated. My friend George Poole and I went to work at Curtiss Aircraft. We joined a company union there; it didn't do a damn thing. George and I tried to make it into a decent union, and the union put us on trial. They presented the evidence that George had fought in Spain and had associated with the Communists. They voted to expel him by voice vote. They put me on trial next for associating with George. The motion was to expel, and they started with the voice vote. I immediately yelled "everybody who's against voting to expel me on this side, and everybody who's for it over on that side." It was obvious that almost everybody was against expelling me. They couldn't kick me out. George and I then tried to organize the plant for the Auto Workers and kick out the company union. The Army Air Force representative at the plant had us removed as subversives. I started a campaign for reinstatement, which went on for quite awhile. Meanwhile, I went to work as an organizer for the United Electrical Radio Machine Workers. But, I carried on my campaign and finally was reinstated.

JM: Did you want your job back?

MF: No. I just wanted to make it clear that I was removed because of union activity, not because I was doing anything to harm the war effort. I went back for one day that's all.  Then I went to back to work for the UE and organized a lot of plants in this area; we represented about 30,000 people and played a major role in the labor movement in WNY. I was still writing. I was reviewing movies and plays regularly for the Buffalo Union Leader. I wrote a short story a week for years for the Buffalo Evening Leader.

JM: You didn't want to be a movie star anymore?

MF: No. No, I didn't because this was very satisfying. I was helping people get a better standard of living; we had the best contracts in the area. I fought like all hell. We were militant; we were tough.

I left in 1944 to go into the army. I was in from April of '44 to November of '46. I ended up a first lieutenant over in Korea, participating in getting the Japanese out of the occupation of Korea. While I was in the Army I received a check for my lost pay at Curtiss, and I sent it to my wife who merely spent it.

JM: You were already married?

MF: I got married in 1941 to Rhoda Lurie, whose family owned the Park Lane. She was a good artist, one of the best around. The association with the Park Lane made for a lot of contradictory things—the fact that she had that background, and that when her father died we lived for about a year with her mother in the Park Lane while I was leaving at six in the morning to walk picket lines. Her brother said, "Manny, the UE and the Park Lane can't sleep in the same bed." I said, "Funny, George, they are." Very difficult contradiction.

JM: Were you hearing that from the union guys?

MF: No. Not at all.

JM: You came back to Buffalo after the Army?

MF: I came back in '46. Meanwhile, I'd been writing to Elia Kazan who had directed me when I played the lead in The Young Go First for Theatre of Action. I went to see him in Connecticut where he was shooting a film, and he offered me the job in Boomerang, which Karl Maiden later got, made Karl Malden, that film. I told Kazan I wanted a little time to think about it. I came back home. My friend, Charlie Cooper, who broke me in as an organizer, marvelous guy, was in the hospital. I went to see him. They'd cut off another piece of his leg. He asked when I was going back to work for the union. I said, "Charlie, I don’t know as I'm going back." I said, "You know I'm an actor. I'm not a union organizer, it's an accident. I'm an actor." We got in this long to‑do about how they needed me and he's saying, "Don't abandon us, you redheaded son of a bitch." He died that night of a blood clot. I stayed in Buffalo. That was part of it. My daughter was part of it. My wife was part of it. Inertia was part of it. I don't regret it.

JM: Let's move into the McCarthy era.

MF: Well, our union backed Henry Wallace against Harry Truman in 1948, and I was an American Labor candidate for Congress in this area—didn't do well. Immediately after that, the raids were launched against our union to break it up. During this period I was still writing a story a week. Until, believe it or not, Hugh Thompson the CIO regional director came to me and said the FBI'd come to him and they wanted the stories stopped because I was writing about my experience in Korea. I also wrote about the Un‑American Committee. They didn't like what I was writing.

Anyway, we were expelled. Big battles, tremendous battles. I was called before the Un­American Commitee in '54. I challenged the constitutionality of the enabling resolution establishing the committee. I refused to answer any questions. They could indict me, and then the choice would be between me going to jail or they going out of existence, depending on the decision. They ducked; they did not indict me. However, the experience, what it did to my personal life at that time, is what I deal with in The Un­American. My wife was under tremendous pressure because of her background.

JM: Her family was wealthy?

MF: They owned the Park Lane. It was the gathering place, the exclusive cocktail lounge of the entire city, and of course they owned the apartment house too. It was where all the key leaders of the community met.

Anyway, the heat was put on the machinists union by Father Healey, who was the spokesman, I think, for the FBI, demanding that all the organizers be fired; we were all suspended in 1956. I was out of work completely for about a year. I thought I'd sell insurance. I was hired and fired by seven American insurance companies in town here, all of whom were approached by the FBI to let me go. Finally, a Canadian company which has a U.S. division hired me. The FBI contacted them and the vice president of the company came down from Toronto to talk to me, a British guy, Mr. Harris. We talked about everything under the sun. Finally, he said, "Work for us, and if you've done anything wrong let them arrest you." So I worked for them from 1956 to 1971. Did very well, the union guys all bought insurance from me. I started writing again, back to writing plays. I wrote The Dodo Bird in 1962. We did it in Toronto and got rave notices. We did it on $400. Can you imagine doing a play on $400. Larry Rothenberg, a friend, called me and asked how much it would take to do the play in New York. I contacted Lilly Turner who is a company manager in New York and she said I could squeeze one on for $15,000. She made a serious mistake. I told him $15,000, he said, "You got it. I made a killing in pork butts." He gave it to me. But then we had no money to stay open and find our audience. It was only publicity. We got great notices.

JM: That didn’t translate into an audience?

MF: No. It doesn't. You've got to keep open to find your audience even if you have rave reviews. The Dodo Bird has been revived four times in New York since, done well every time. It's been done in most of the major cities of the country; it's been translated into German and into Russian.

JM: The 60's?

MF: Well, I was blacklisted during that period. I remember we had a demonstration on Main Street against the Vietnam War; there were only about 10 or 12 of us. We were alone and isolated. The FBI was out there shoving cameras in our faces and bumping us off the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, I was writing like mad. I wrote The Thief which I broke into a trilogy, Drophammer, Cocoon and Elegy for Stanley Gorski.

They called me before the Un-American Committee again in 1964. But the whole atmosphere had changed by this point. The Buffalo Common Council went on record against them. The guys in the steel workers told me "Tell them to go to hell, Manny.” The Courier Express editorialized against them. I challenged them to appear before the Chamber of Commerce to debate their right to exist.

JM: Did they show?

MF: No. They just dismissed it. I refused to answer any questions again on the grounds that they were the Un-Americans. They were the ones who were hurting the country.

JM: How did you feel about Kazan's longshoremen's union in On the Waterfront?

MF: I didn't like it. It showed that essentially all unions are dominated by the gangsters, and while there's no question there's some activity on the part of the Mafia inside the labor movement, it is minimal. Most unions are honest; most union leaders are honest.

JM: What about that whole incident here last year with Ronnie Fino and Local 210?

MF: Well, that's an exception. There's no question there are charges about Local 210. But the Laborers Union is a very minimal part of the union movement in WNY. Fino never did play a role in the AFL-CIO Council. He never even participated in it.

JM: So the image of unions being controlled by gangsters. . .

MF: Is completely false. Most of what you read about labor unions is horseshit by guys who are just opposed to labor unions. You have good locals and bad locals depending on the degree of participation of the membership in the local.

JM: Do unions drive up prices?

MF: Companies use the wage increase as an excuse for jacking up prices because they refuse to work on a narrow margin of profit, which the Japanese do. That's one of the reasons they beat the hell out of us. Unless you pay the people enough money to buy the goods, they can't buy them.

JM: Are unions healthy today?

MF: No, unions are having difficulties, but you'll never wipe them out because people need unions more than for the wages, they need them because they're the only means of self expression in the plant. The main problem with the labor movement in this country is that the top leadership, specifically Kirkland, the president of the AFL‑CIO, does not have the guts to take the President on. When the air controllers were fired by Reagan, a large segment of the labor movement wanted to have a one‑day shutdown of the entire country, and it should have been done. Everybody praises what the union is doing in Poland. You don't get the same praise here. In our country they're doing their best to break the unions, to wipe them out. In all the other industrialized countries of the world the majority of the labor movement is organized. But you have employers who have learned to operate on a narrower margin of profit. Here they're greedy. They go for the maximum, prices as high as you can push 'em up, wages as low as you can shove 'em down.

JM: How do you respond to the collapse of the workers' paradises in Eastern Europe?

MF: Needless to say, it was disconcerting. At the same time I disagree with the spinning that's being done in this country as to what it means. The people who have lived in Eastern Europe with guaranteed employment, housing costs 3% to 5% of income, free health care, free education right through university are not going to hand that away. As we were coming out of World War II, and remember the Soviet Union and the U.S. were working together, I thought that we would combine the best of both systems. I still think that has a good chance of happening.

JM: It was deferred?

MF: It was deferred because of a mindset in this country to destroy completely the entire economic system of the Soviet Union by forcing them into an armaments race which they, not having the industrial setup that we had, could not afford; they would not be able to give their people the consumer goods that they would want, and that's the problem in the Soviet Union.

JM: This was a deliberate plan?

MF: No question. It was cited by John Foster Dulles as the thing to do. Recently, we realized it was breaking us, too. The fact that we are now a major debtor nation is the result of that armaments race. We realized that if we continue this armaments race we are going to be even further behind Japan and West Germany. What we have now is a realization on the part of the U.S., along with the Soviet Union, that both countries need to cut back on armaments production. In order to do that, they had to end the cold war. Let the countries in Eastern Europe go wherever they want with the understanding between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that we will not take advantage of that in order to move against the Soviet Union. And we can see we're not doing that. And of course the Soviet Union thinks we ought to let go of Nicaragua and El Salvador, and we will. We will.

JM: Were you ever a member of the Communist Party?

MF: I was a member of the Communist Party—you're the first guy I've ever told that to—from the period of the late 30's until I went in the Army, '44. That was it. When I came out, I never rejoined.

JM: You've recently finished writing The Un‑American?

MF: The Un‑American is something I wrote originally in 1954, right after appearing before the Un‑American Committee, and I've rewritten it; got it in fine shape. It's ready for publication now.

JM: Do you think The Un-American has a more significant meaning now?

MF:  I think people are interested in finding out what was happening back then from the inside. Nobody has written what happened to their personal life, how they felt as they appeared before the committee, decisions they made and what it did to them in their own social scene. In The Un-American, I do. I mention the Park Lane and what it did in terms of my relationship with my wife. She's dead, so now I think it's alright to do it.

JM: Do you think there will be a renewed examination of communist philosophy as a result of the Eastern Bloc collapse?

MF: Nobody can predict what's going to come out of Eastern Europe. In dialectics you have opposing forces, each pressing for what they want; what comes out is something neither one planned. Walesa in Poland has made it very clear that it is not a return to capitalism.

JM: Romania wants to outlaw the Party.

MF: What we see here is something that contradicts all the old propaganda that the Communist Party is a monolithic organization controlled by a center. Communist parties in each country were different and are different. I go back to Thomas Jefferson—I don't care whether it's the Communist Party or the Republican Party, every generation has to clean out the leadership. Every generation has to fight for its liberty because what happens is whoever gets into power, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is nothing new with me, I said way back. Treat all leaders as potential enemies, all leaders of governments, all leaders of unions, because by their very position they tend over a period of time to think that whatever they do is right, and there's only one way to handle them—never give them a blank check and keep your foot a yard up their rear-ends, which if they want to do good will help them if they’re going to do bad they need it. That's been my philosophy. I believe in rank and file participation. Pressure from below. That's what's doing things in Europe and that's what's missing here. We don't have the pressure from below. There's no question the government is wrong in Nicaragua, and they still go their own way because there isn't pressure from below. The Vietnam War was all wrong, but it didn't stop until people started going out into the streets. You're not going to change things any other way.

JM: There's a certain capitalist euphoria in the news media right now.

MF:  Oh, I think anybody who has that is deluding themselves; we have never been in as bad shape since the last Depression. The stock market is shaky as hell, the economy is shaky as hell. Instead of being the best creditor nation in the world, we are the largest debtor nation in the world—we are in trouble. I would like to see the billions we spend on so‑called defense cut way back, which we can do now with the Soviets cutting theirs back. If necessary, a tax increase. We should have a national health program. It's unbelievable that we are the only major industrial nation in the world that doesn't have national health insurance. We should have the best educational system in the world. With all the homeless, and the degeneration of the homes in our country, we should have a major housing program.

JM: Can the arts stimulate pressure from below?

MF: Unfortunately the arts in this country, the establishment arts, have opted out of any major role in deciding any important issues. Commercial theatre will have nothing to do with getting people into motion. Some films are being made that are good; you've got Oliver Stone, who has the guts to make a damn good film—Salvador and Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, the theatre has degenerated so tremendously in its subject matter, that while 95 percent of movies are crap, good films are better than the best plays. Right now, establishment theatre is dedicated to keeping content out. There's more excitement at the comer ginmill than there is in most theatres.

JM: What would energize the arts community into doing more substantial work?

MF: It's a question of content.

JM: What's keeping artists from getting at relevant content?

MF: The people who control the productions don't want that content.

JM: Because they're concerned with dollars?

MF: That's part of it. They're also concerned with not developing values, or forces who will upset their control. I learned that from Franz Stone, who sat for a long while as the chairman of the Arts Council making sure it provided the safety valve to let off steam and did not act as what some others were arguing it should have been—the means of mobilizing people into participation, not putting them to sleep—not homogenizing working people into thinking we are all middle class. And by middle class, they mean aping the values of the upper class. As long as the word "union" is treated as something that's derogatory, as it still is in this country, certainly in upper class circles, as long as our newspapers are generally tilted against labor, much as they say they are not, you have this difficulty of getting anything done that will enhance the means for involving working people in the arts.

JM: How do you get people involved in the arts?

MF: It’s a difficult problem.  You’ve got to develop people out of that area of society to write about it.

JM: Are the writers there?

MF: What you're asking is that people be born suddenly with capabilities as writers. There's no such thing. People are developed as writers, and if we encourage them, these people write. I've seen it teaching in the Writers in Education Program for Just Buffalo. I've seen it in the kids in the vocational school, who are writing short plays, and damn good ones, and we only teach there for seven days at a crack; and they did well. They begin to see the importance of their lives, and how to put it into dramatic form.

Now one of the problems is the people who control these things often have either complete contempt for this work or believe that that's unimportant and of no value. You have a slight vein going against that with August Wilson writing about the blacks; they accept that because the blacks are a potential threat in this country, feeling as they do, correctly, that they've been getting a dirty deal.

JM: I was impressed with Wilson's Joe Turner play. Studio Arena is always accused of never doing anything significant.

MF: Usually they don't.

JM: That play was very powerful.

MF: I agree. Anytime a play deals with the lives of blacks it tends to have a strength to it because you're dealing with people who are essentially an oppressed group, and you pour into that personal life the big issue. I mean the big issue in terms of society, and certainly, that's a big issue. Everybody knows it's all crap about them getting advancement. They still live in the worst parts of the city; they still have the lousiest jobs.

JM: Have you seen any changes since the 50's?

MF: Minimal, in the overall. You have your tokens, in different places. And while it's true that you have some blacks being elected to office, so far it has not resulted in a major change in the condition of black people.

JM: Does the increased visibility of blacks on television have any effect?

MF: That's one of the hokiest things that's ever been pulled. By putting them on television it seems as if they're being integrated in because they're used in commercials. Out in society they're not being integrated in.

JM: Does the TV image of the Cosby Show make that reality more possible?

MF: No. It lulls the rest of our society who believe in fairness into thinking it's being done. All you have to do is drive down the East Side; go through the ghetto. The rest of the city is not like that.

JM: Does the future of Buffalo arts look promising to you?

MF: I don't know. I wish it were. I'm not sure.

SOURCE: Moses, Jamie. "Buffalo's Manny Fried: Laboring For The Working Man", Arts in Buffalo, vol. 3, no. 3, 1989, pp. 2, 4, 11, 12.

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