Artie Awards Honor Playwright Manny Fried

by Anthony Chase

On May 11, when ARTVOICE hosts the 2nd Annual ARTIE AWARDS at Marquee at the Tralf, one of the evening's highlights will be the moment when a Western New York playwright is recognized for an outstanding new play. Last year, Joe Agro won the prize for The Ditch Diggers, a play about a working class family on Buffalo’s west side.

This award is special among the ARTIES; in addition to the glass trophy, the recognition carries a $500 cash prize. The idea is to encourage playwriting in Buffalo, the least supported and most lonely of the dramatic arts. Buffalo has cultivated a number of distinguished playwrights over the years. On the national scene, A.R. Gurney, author of such plays as The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room, and Love Letters (opening later this season at the Studio Arena Theatre) grew up here, and Buffalo serves as the setting for most of his plays. Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, recognized by Time magazine as the author of one of the Outstanding Plays of 1991,  is a product of the Mississippi Delta, but she has made Buffalo her home, and has launched her greatest success from Buffalo’s  Ujima Theater Company. Elizabeth Swados hails from Buffalo, as does Tom Mardirosian. So does David Shire.

Even in this distinguished company, however, if we were to choose a Playwright Laureate of Buffalo, there could be no doubt that the title would go to Emanuel Fried.

Emanuel (Manny) Fried, author of The Dodo Bird, Brothers for A' That, Drop Hammer, Elegy for Stanley Gorski, The Second Beginning, Marked for Success, is a Buffalo original. He grew up here. He raised a family here. He has made his career here. His work offers a unique reflection of the story of labor unions and of working people, so central to the history of Western New York. In addition, through his playwriting workshop, he has given guidance and encouragement to dozens of Buffalo's playwrights (including Joe Agro)—indeed, he has, more than any other person given rise to an entire new generation of Buffalo playwrights.

For these reasons, this year and from now on, the ARTIE AWARD for playwriting will be called "THE EMANUEL FRIED AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING NEW PLAY."  The prize is intended to encourage newer playwrights in the Western New York area, and to inspire them toward achievements as distinguished as those of Manny Fried.

Fried's life has been varied and remarkable. His father started as a worker in a cigar factory in New York City, and worked his way up to becoming a dress manufacturer with his own factory and household servants.  The family's fortunes changed again, however, when the factory burned down and the relative who had been handling the insurance turned out to have pocketed the premium. The Fried family went from being very successful to being broke.

The senior Fried took a job as a salesman for Butler Brothers, a wholesale dry goods company. During his travels, he passed through Buffalo and decided it would be a better place to raise his nine children than Brooklyn, and so in 1918, the Fried family including five‑year‑old Emanuel, moved permanently to Buffalo.

Manny recalled his early years in Buffalo over dinner at Garvey's restaurant in the theater district, shortly before his hour call for Chekhov's The Seagull in which he recently appeared.

He recalled the small house in which the eleven Frieds lived on Genessee Street, a house which is still standing. His father had a store on the first floor, and the family lived upstairs. Fried noted that the house he now lives in alone has three times space. He recalled playing sports with improvised equipment in his back yard,  and he remembered vaudeville.

“I worked at Shea's Buffalo as an usher, and I worked at the Hippodrome. I remember all those different acts, and I used to imitate them when I was a kid. At Shea's Buffalo we wore the uniform and we did close order drill and all that kind of stuff."

Fried was educated in Buffalo, except for one year at the University of Iowa.  From the beginning he pursued his interest in theatre.  In between sports and a variety of jobs, he wrote plays, and he acted.

After his year at Iowa, where he studied theater for a year while on a football scholarship, Fried returned to Buffalo to work for the A&P until a moment of anger, a two by four, and a plate glass store window altered his employment situation.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Fried applied for an apprentice position at a summer stock theater ran by the Ford brothers. George Ford was married to Helen Ford, a musical comedy star. He got the job and continued in the theater, even going to New York City. "I did take a break one spring when things were slow to play football for Canisius, but I went right back to New York again."

Fried might never have returned to Buffalo had he not seen a notice on the New Theatre League bulletin board. The Buffalo Contemporary Theatre, part of the "Workers Theater" movement, needed a director. He took the job. "The building and the loft are still there at Eagle and Ellicott, above the gin mill there. That was in 1939.  But then, what with the war and all, the theater came apart. I figured, "I’m going to be drafted soon. So I went to work at Curtis Aircraft."

The job at Curtis Aircraft was to have fateful consequences for Fried. It was here that he became heavily involved in labor union activities.

From beginning [sic], his involvement with the union brought tumult into Fried's life. "At one point I was fired from the plant and the company union put a guy named George Poole and me on trial. George was a writer who has since died. They accused George of having associated with communists because he fought in the Spanish Civil War. They held a voice vote and kicked him out. There was a big crowd in the auditorium, and so then they said, 'Manny associated with George.' and by voice vote, the chairman ruled that they had voted to kick me out. I yelled, 'Everyone who wants to kick me out on this side; those opposed on that side!' It was clear that the overwhelming majority wanted to keep me in, so they had to keep me in."

Thwarted by Fried's quick thinking, the company union resorted to more drastic measures; Fried was fired as a subversive. He was reinstated two and a half years later, and awarded back pay. Meanwhile, by firing Fried, the company union unwittingly pushed him into deeper union involvement. He became a union organizer for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers.

"I became an organizer in '41 and then in '44 I went in the army," recalled Fried. "I came back in '46. Now meanwhile I had organized a lot of stuff. I was good as an organizer. First of all, I was naive enough to be honest." He chuckles. "And I could talk, having been an actor and all that kind of stuff."

Still, after the war, Fried expected to return to the theater. "When I came back, I stopped off in New York on the way, and I saw Elia Kazan [the noted director associated with The Group Theatre]. He had directed me when I had the lead in The Young Go First when I was with the Theatre of Action in New York. It was the first play he had directed. He and I had become good friends. He told me he was going to launch me again in a theater career. He was shooting a film called Boomerang at the time, and he said ‘I need you right away.' I said 'I've got a wife and a kid back home and I want to go see them.'  He said, ‘Well hurry up and come back, because you've got to do this.’"

Fried came back to Buffalo, and while he was here, he visited an old time union man named Charlie Cooper, who was in the hospital.

"Charlie was the guy on whom the national labor relations act was established—the Wagner Act. He had one leg, and they had just cut off another piece of it. He asked me when I was coming back to work, and I said, 'Charlie, I don't think I'm coming back. I'm not a union organizer anymore. I'm an actor! It's all a mistake.'  He said, 'You redheaded son of a bitch! Don't abandon us! We need you. We’ve been waiting for you. Come back!'"

And then, proving that he had a sense of the theatrical himself, Charlie Cooper died that night. Needless to say, Fried followed his conscience and stayed in Buffalo to work as a union organizer.  Karl Malden got the part that Elia Kazan had offered Fried.  Still, he says he has no regrets.

"I have had a kind of varied life that otherwise I never would have had. There was no question. I was already directing in New York. I probably would have ended up directing in Hollywood. A lot of guys from the Theatre of Action were out there, and I had already been approached by Universal Studios." Through various accidents and unconscious choices, Fried stayed with the union. Then, in 1956, he was forced out.

"By then, our union was representing 30,000 workers in this area, and I was the international representative in charge. We had come through the red‑baiting period and had been forced out of the CIO because our union backed Henry Wallace rather than Harry Truman. And we were in a continual battle of being raided. FBI visiting all our people and doing their best to destroy us. I just learned that J. Edgar Hoover sent in 25 FBI men to try to get me and two other people in town. They trailed us night and day, opened our mail, tapped our phone, trying to get us under the Smith Act. They presented it before the Grand Jury and the Grand Jury did not indict us."

Fried and his fellow union organizers thought the time was right to bring their union into the mainstream of the labor movement. And so they brought their organization into the machinists union. Forces on the right‑wing went crazy. Father Healey, the so‑called labor priest, demanded that the organizers be fired. By one vote, Emanuel Fried was fired and black listed. His career in organized labor was over. And he couldn't get a job anywhere.

"I figured that the best thing for me to do, to stay close to the people I had worked with, was to sell insurance. And the insurance companies wanted me right away. I had contacts. I was hired and fired by seven insurance companies, one right after the other. The FBI went to see them as soon as I got hired."

Finally, after a year without employment, he got a job with the Canada Life insurance company, which, as a foreign concern, was less vulnerable to FBI meddling. With all his contacts in the labor movement, Fried was a remarkable success at selling insurance.

"Very soon I only had to work for a couple of hours a day, and the rest of the time, I'd write. I wrote a whole series of plays between'57 and '72. First I had them done in Canada. I couldn't get them done here. Finally, David Fendrick, Terry Doran, and Tony Lewis got together and produced Elegy for Stanley Gorski. That was the breakthrough. And then Buffalo Ensemble Theatre started to do one play after the other of mine. Then Neal [Radice] did Brothers for A' That. Drop Hammer was done by Michael Mirand in the back room of Nietzsche’s. In that one, we used mainly union people. We were supposed to run four weeks; we ran six, and then we only closed because these people had other obligations and couldn't continue."

Opposition to Fried's union activity was to permeate every aspect of his life. At one point, the FBI tried to Pressure the Jaycees into rescinding a playwriting award they had given him. Friends dropped him, and the FBI advised neighbors not to let their children play with the Fried children.

On the theatre scene, Fried got some flack and lost some friends when he was cast in a Studio Theatre production of Hedda Gabler—he had some history with a couple of the board members.

Fried's union background also kept his plays from being produced in Buffalo as quickly as they were produced in other places.

"Around the time Dodo Bird was done in Now York," recalled Fried, "and got rave reviews all down the line—the AFL-CIO started a labor arts program in four cities—I think it was 1976. And Buffalo was one of them. I was contacted and asked to do a play. At the meeting where they were to decide who was to run the program, Father Healey showed up and said it was too important a project to be under anybody's control but the church's. So he named a guy who was an English teacher out in South Park. Well the program faltered. All they tried to do was get audience for the existing stuff—nothing related to labor.

"The fellow who had first come to me suggested that we go to the Studio Arena, because he was going to lose that job, and talk to Neal Du Brock about doing The Dodo Bird. I knew Neal well. I had organized his audience for him when he did The Death of Bessie Smith at the Jewish Center. Since I was politically hot at the time, I didn't front it, but I laid out the whole plan, and we jammed that place. Neal said, "Manny I'd like to do it, but we can't lay out that kind of money for a play that is unknown. It's too risky."

Fried committed to selling out the entire run before it had even opened. Du Brock still said no, and explained “Our board would never allow me to do a play by you, Manny," recalled Fried.

With time, the heat on Fried has cooled down. He is now able to play whatever roles he wants without complication. Studio Arena has still never produced one of his plays, but it seems more a question of neglect. He has a new book coming out called The Un‑American, which deals with the effects of the conflict he had in trying to handle himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 and keep his family together at the same time while his wife had reached the breaking point in the face of all that publicity. “She just couldn't take it any more, and was going to leave with the kids" said Fried. "At the same time, I felt I had the ethical responsibility to take the committee head on rather than retreat, and so I challenged the constitutionality of the enabling resolution establishing the committee. I tried to get them to indict me so they would have to either throw me in jail or disband the committee. They said they would indict me, but they never did. They wouldn't risk it.

“My wife stayed; I was married 48 years. She died almost exactly three years ago.   We had our problems, stemming from those kinds of things, and it effected [sic] the rest of our married life. It never went away. She was from the family that owned the Park Lane and was one of the stock holders and that's what caused the problems. She came from that world and I was from the militant union world. Her world rejected her completely when she refused to leave me. Her older brother wanted her to leave me. That's Elizabeth's Story [Fried's most recent play, Elizabeth's Story will debut at Ujima Theater Company on April 16]. The play deals with that whole situation. Rhoda was a painter, the best artist in western New York, but her career as an artist was hampered by being married to me. The play is very autobiographical. I think it's the beginning of me getting into autobiographical writing beyond my experience with the union. I'm proud of the writing I've done related to the union. I think I’m the only person who has done that. Now I'm beginning to explore something new.”

Manny Fried's life serves as a model and an inspiration. It is only fitting that the ARTIE for outstanding new play should bear his name.

SOURCE: Chase, Anthony. "Artie Awards Honor Playwright Manny Fried", Artvoice [Buffalo, New York], vol. 3, no. 7, March 25 - April 7, 1992, pp. 3, 25.

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