“Carrying the Banner” with Walt Disney’s “Newsies” (1992)
A Classic Hollywood Blog
“And the World will know!” That we ended our Summer Outdoor Movie Nights with a bang! We had one of our largest movie attendance numbers yet again, and saw fans of every age. From babies and kids, to young couples and adults, and even a number of excited senior citizens. Dedicated fans could be heard softly singing along to every song, showing their true love for the film. We don’t blame you. The music is so amazing, you can’t help but sing along!
We played I Spy, enjoyed more classic Walt Disney cartoons featuring Donald Duck, and I shared how this film connected to the traveling exhibit “The Way We Worked” from the Smithsonian, child labor and the real Newsboys Strike of 1899, and how it all came together in the film. Huge shout out to the members of the crowd who joined in Chloe’s dress up fun! There were Newsie caps spotted and a group that all came in their “working clothes” – overalls!
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you to everyone who came out that night and each month this summer! We can’t wait for next year’s movie line up. In the meantime, don’t forget to keep coming to the Museum for all of our great events.
If you haven’t had a chance to see the Smithsonian exhibit “The Way We Worked” yet, don’t worry. You can come visit the Museum Monday – Friday 10am – 5pm and Saturday 10am – 3pm. The exhibit will be here on display through October 9.
Since we’ve been focusing on the history of working in America, we wanted to watch a special movie to connect with this important topic. I instantly knew what movie I wanted to show, because I have been a Newsie fan from the beginning! This is a picture of me at Christmas in 1995, age 3, in my fashionable ensemble of plaid and Lambchop slippers, sporting my new “Newsies” cap that I just received from Santa.
Before we get into learning a little about how they made the movie, I think it’s important to know that it is based on a true story! The New York Newsboys strike of 1899.
If you joined us in person and are looking for a few more fun and historic facts, you’ll see them in italics below.
Child Labor –
At the time, New York was a modern city filled with skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge which was the longest suspension bridge in the world and is featured in the movie, and millions of people, and particularly immigrants living there. Immigration was reaching its peak with Ellis Island, New York serving as a major entrance to the country.
For many kids, the streets were their turf. If their family was lucky enough to live in a tenement, there was no room to play inside. And for many kids, they also slept on the streets because they were homeless.
Many children had to go to work to help provide for their families, or provide for themselves if they were on their own. Many were homeless sleeping on the streets. Child labor was not anything new but it reached new levels during the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of factories. Children could be paid less, do menial work, and thanks to their size, they could fit into small spaces that adults couldn’t.
Child labor laws were non-existent then and wouldn’t really take effect on a federal level until the Great Depression when adults desperately needed the work. Because of this, children faced extremely long hours of miserable working conditions in crowded, unclean factories that didn’t have safety codes.
Some kids who were able to still go to school would then work the afternoon and the night shifts. Other kids worked from dawn until late at night. Only to wake up and do it again the next day.
A slightly more promising, but still grueling, option to avoid the factories, was to become a newsboy, otherwise known as a newsie. Most newsies were boys, but 1 in 15 were actually girls.
Newspaper distributors heavily relied on kids to sell the afternoon paper – More than 50% were sold by newsies. Newsies would catch workers changing shifts or heading home for the day, and would work late into the night until their papers were sold. To be a Newsie, you needed to have a theatrical flair so you could draw a crowd whether that was a distinctive yell, or juggling papers. Most of all, if the headline wasn’t good, you had to make one up that would sell better. It was crucial to sell all your papers because you needed the money to buy more to sell the next day.
The Strike –
During the Spanish-American War in 1898 – There were 10-12 editions of the paper printed a day every time there were new developments. Keep in mind, newspapers were the only source of information – no radio, TV, film, or cell phones. Newsies were working full time around the clock to keep up.
Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, and William Randolph Hurst, owner of the New York Journal, were spending a lot of money on war correspondents to provide coverage for their papers, and they wanted to make up that money. They couldn’t charge the customer, so they both decided to charge the newsies more. Other papers soon followed.
At first, it was fine because the kids were selling enough from the extra editions to make up for it. But then the war ended, and they expected the price to go back. Every other paper reduced their price, except Pulitzer and Hurst. The kids were furious, but what could they do? They weren’t organized, they were basically individual contractors.
As circulation started to drop because headlines were bad, these small workers really felt their even smaller wallets being pinched. Something had to be done. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers since many of the events that you see in the movie, really happened in some form, but I’ll mention just a few –
In Long Island City newsies revolted against a distributor who had been cheating them and they even turned over his wagon. This sparked the city-wide New York strike and caused newsies to form a union with organized rallies in city parks.
At first, Pulitzer and Hurst weren’t concerned. What could a bunch of snot nosed brats do? They sent the police who they referred to as their “blue coated servants of capitalism” to protect them and try to break up the strikes. Police had never faced a 12-year-old striker before, and they held their own. They fought back, which resulted in kids being arrested for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.
The kids knew they needed to get the public on their side, so they had a “Monster Meeting” at New Irving Hall with 2,000 Newsies inside and 3,000 gathered outside. They convinced politicians, entertainers, and now important former newsies to stand by them. Other newspapers covered the story and popular opinion started to turn.
And the Newsies won! The agreement was, the cost of the papers would stay the same, but, kids could now sell back the papers they had left over and get their money back instead of having to eat the cost.
It’s a story about the power of kids who believe in fighting for what’s right and winning the battle themselves, without adults. In real life, Governor Teddy Roosevelt did not come riding in to help with the rescue.
What happened to the Newsies?
Strikes continued to happen throughout the city up through World War I. Each time though, they were less and less successful. This was partially because they didn’t maintain the organized union structure after the 1899 strike.
Eventually Newsies disappeared. Publishers reduced the number of editions they were printing, instead keeping a morning and evening edition. They eliminated the afternoon edition which the newsies held so much control over. Publishers also worked hard to make newsstands legal to eliminate the newsboy’s distribution and any future threats. And as people moved to the suburbs, home deliver became more popular.
Making a Movie –
Fast Forward to modern times – Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega was looking for a musical to bring to life and discovered the inspiring story of the 1899 Newsies Strike. Fun Fact: For any of you Disney Channel Original Movie fans out there, you might recognize that name. He directed all three extremely popular High School Musical films. Newsies was his feature film directorial debut after doing tv shows, videos, and choreography in other films.
For Jack Kelly, the leader of the strike, Ortega chose a young Christian Bale to play the part – Yes, Batman can sing and dance. And use a lasso which I’m sure came in handy with his action scenes as the Dark Knight. Already a hugely popular star, he was actually a little embarrassed to tell his friends at first that he was making a musical. Co-Star David Moscow, who plays his friend and partner David, felt the same way. He said all his friends were making fun of him that he was going to sing and dance. Because they knew he couldn’t. David admitted he was the “anti-dancer” when rehearsals began. They both quickly learned that a musical is the hardest movie to make.
Rehearsals began in February 1991, with most of the cast training in dance and martial arts for 8-10 weeks, 5 days a week. I say “most” because Christian Bale did not like rehearsals. He was an actor and wanted to be spontaneous. But it’s important to rehearse choreography a lot. After a while they came to an agreement. He didn’t have practice all the time, but 2 days before shooting a scene, he’d have to rehearse to relearn what to do. The choreographers said he was so talented because he would recall what he had learned 2 months before, practice it a few times, and then be ready to shoot. And he came alive on camera.
Everyone’s favorite part of rehearsal was martial arts and stunt training. As David Moscow put it, “that and lunch were the best parts of the day!” Learning to fight was a lot of fun but also exhausting. They were so good at it, Kenny Ortega said later they could have all become stuntmen after the movie finished.
Fun Moments –
As the cast worked day in and day out, they became a family. The older boys would help the younger boys, and the dancers would help the actors learn the routines. And they had a lot of fun doing it.
The boys all really loved Kenny Ortega because he treated them like humans, vs. a supervisor trying to control crazy kids. The cast hung out on the evenings and weekends and Ortega would even go out with them to restaurants and the movies.
The boys showed their affection by “torturing” him, as Ortega said. They loved to play practical jokes on him. One Friday, the boys were hiding on a balcony waiting for him to walk under and they tried to dump a big bucket of water on him. They missed, but Christian Bale and David Moscow were prepared with water guns to ensure he got a full soaking. Ortega said that he left wet every Friday after that. Another time, they filled his trailer to the ceiling with crumpled newspapers so when he opened the door, they all fell on him.
The whole cast also really loved Ann-Margaret. Ann-Margaret plays Swedish singing star Medda Larkin. She got her start in the 1960s as a teen sensation who became a modern sex symbol. Her big film break was in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), and the next year she starred opposite Elvis in Viva Las Vegas. Such an established, famous star was intimidating at first, but she was at every rehearsal and worked and sweated as much as the boys. She would even joke around with them and join in their games.
Bonus Fun Fact: One time, David Moscow was making funny faces at Christian Bale for him to guess what they were, like a monkey. He noticed her watching and got embarrassed. Without missing a beat, she came over and said, “Oh year, what’s this?” and started making faces too. She was officially cool after that.
One of things that makes this movie so fantastic is the music! The reason why the music is so good is because it is written by Alan Menken who also wrote the music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and many many more.
Each song was written specifically with a character in mind. “King of New York” which became the show stopping number, was written as a last minute addition to develop the story arch between the newsies and journalist Bryan Denton, played by Bill Pullman. It quickly became their favorites, and everyone else’s.
The film was released on April 10, 1992 which just happened to also be Joseph Pulitzer’s 145th birthday. Sadly, it did not do well in theaters upon its initial release. At the time, it was the lowest grossing live-action film in Walt Disney Pictures history. It was considered a critical and commercial flop. Can you believe that?!
But! Upon its home video release, it gathered a cult following that is still strong today! You can thank my generation for keeping this movie alive and popular. Its home release was so loved, it made back the filming budget and more just on rentals.
The film continued to be very popular moving into the millennium and soon demand emerged for a stage musical adaptation. Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical opened in March 2012 – almost 20 years exactly after it’s theatrical release, with music and lyrics by Alan Menken which included both old and a few new songs. The show was nominated for 8 Tony Awards and won 2 – Best Choreography and Best Original Score.
The show was released in theaters in 2017 after it was recorded in front of a live audience. Back in college while my husband and I were dating, we had a special date night driving over 40 miles to go see it! If you are dying to see the stage version, you are in luck! You can watch it on Disney+.
And now, go help the Newsies carry the banner and enjoy this inspiring story of hope and courage against all odds!
Contributed by Chloe Seider, Program Coordinator and Classic Film Buff