Newsies is coming to town. The roadshow version of the Broadway musical will be setting up shop in Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre this week. Although on Broadway Newsies was nominated for eight Tony Awards, the motion picture that inspired it did not do nearly so well. It was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1992, not exactly a golden year for musicals on the big screen. As a movie, Newsies was a financial and critical flop: the only awards for which it was considered were Razzies in several categories. The producer of Newsies, Roger Corman alumnus Mike Finnell, earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Picture. And the great Alan Menken (of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast fame) actually won a Razzie trophy for the year’s Worst Song.
Yet somehow the much maligned movie has become a cult hit, with youthful fans aplenty. It’s fun to look back on it, and see exactly who was involved. Among the singing and dancing New Yawk newsboys who go out on strike against Joseph Pulitzer’s World, the most prominent is played by none other than an eighteen-year-old Christian Bale. (He took on this role some three years after he shot to fame as an incarcerated English schoolboy in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, Empire of the Sun.) And Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher who’s pretty much the villain of the piece, is portrayed by one of Hollywood’s finest, Robert Duvall.
Yes, in 1899 there really was a short period in which a band of scruffy newsboys, who purchased newspapers wholesale so as to make a living hawking them on New York street corners, did strike against the World, as well as William Randolph Hearst’s Journal. Leave it to Disney to add some romance, some picturesque physical jeopardy, and some razzle-dazzle song and dance routines. But the real story shows up in my colleague James McGrath Morris’s fascinating biography of Pulitzer. In order to cut expenses, “The World raised the wholesale price of the paper from 50 cents per 100 to 60 cents. . . . Trimming a dime from a newsboy’s take might not seem like much. But when this amount was spread over the paper’s vast circulation, it could make up an entire annual deficit of nearly $1 million. Pulitzer’s managers bet that the ragtag collection of immigrant children, who often didn’t even speak the same language, could hardly put up much resistance. They were wrong.”
To crush the strike, the World recruited homeless men as scabs. They were quickly attacked by the newsies, and the bad publicity proved an embarrassment to Pulitzer and company. They offered the strikers a sop: permission to return unsold newspapers for credit. Within a week, the strike was over. Morris comments, “The World was the richest and most successful newspaper enterprise in the nation. At any time Pulitzer could have put an end to the strike by giving the boys a chance to sell the World at the same rate as they sold other papers. But he chose not to. Although he himself had once been a teenager living on the streets of New York, Pulitzer showed no mercy over a dime.”
The contradictions in Pulitzer’s life are dazzling. As an immigrant boy fleeing anti-Semitism in Hungary, he started with next to nothing. His pluck, determination, and verbal skills led him to Horatio Alger-type success. He lives on in his contributions to the journalism school at Columbia University, including the prizes that bear his name. But his was not a happy ending. Jamie Morris has a great – and maybe a movie-worthy -- tale to tell.
Biographer James McGrath Morris (whose most recent achievement is “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press”) will be a featured speaker at the sixth annual conference of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, on June 5-6, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The public is most welcome!