In 1870, Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, had requested a funeral at another church for fellow actor George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased had been an actor, the Priest refused. After some prodding by the stunned Jefferson, he suggested that “There is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” Jefferson responded, with all the dignity an actor can muster, “Then I say to you, Sir, God bless the little church around the corner.” And indeed, the Rev. George Hendrik Houghton, who had founded the church at age 28, accepted the funeral without question. Across the country, newspapers of the day reported the incident, and even Mark Twain editorialized vehemently upon the subject. The “Little Church” became a spiritual haven for actors, and many leading members of the theatre community adopted it, including the great Edwin Booth, who founded the Players, Harrison Grey Fiske, founder of the Actors’ Fund, and Henry Montague, founder of the Lambs.
During the Roaring Twenties, the Guild served as a social and artistic center for its members while quietly assisting those in need. Among the first leaders of the Guild were George Arliss, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Minnie Maddern and Julia Marlowe. During the early years several future stars were helped at crucial times in their careers, and later generously remembered the Guild with contributions and Bequests. During the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, the Guild continued its charitable programs and fellowship gatherings featuring afternoon teas with the likes of Basil Rathbone, Otis Skinner, Raymond Massey, Peggy Wood, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Katherine Cornell. Annual fundraising Theatre Benefits became an early tradition throughout this time. The Seventies brought the Guild several major bequests, and the dedicated management of its growing endowment during a favorable stock market enabled the Guild to increase the scope of its activities steadily into the Eighties and Nineties.
Our organization provides substantial charitable support for people of the performing arts (over a million dollars since 1995), primarily in the New York City area. While many have some connection with the performing arts, our members come from many walks of life, and from amazingly diverse backgrounds. We are an active performing arts fellowship of volunteers. We support the performing arts by seeing individuals through potentially career-ending financial crises. We celebrate the theatre profession in ways unlike any other organization. We have helped to make possible the appearances of some of the most brilliant talent on the stages of New York and the nation, by sustaining the owners of that talent when they needed help. It is this direct human impact that makes our contribution to the art form meaningful. The Guild’s charitable programs primarily focus on people who perform live onstage in front of live audiences.
Our contribution to the profession is manifested in the individual success stories of our grant recipients; and in the enthusiasm, good will and dignity we instill in every performer who passes through our doorway, or who witnesses the many beautiful stained glass and brass memorials to actors that can be found throughout the “Little Church.”
The Episcopal Actors' Guild of America, Inc.
"Charitable help for performers of all faiths, and none"
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“The Stage has, beyond any other profession, been ever the handmaiden of charity. Does disaster occur, has a suffering to be healed, has a charity to be lifted up, the eye of the supplicant first looks to the stage, and never looks there in vain.”
This wonderful observation on the generosity of people of the theatre, taken from an 1871 New York City newspaper in our Guild Archives, most certainly applies to the members of today’s ecumenical and inter-denominational Episcopal Actors’ Guild. The Guild was founded in 1923 and incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit in 1926. It is a charitable fellowship organization governed by its Constitution and By-Laws, and is the result of the youthful idealism of several extraordinary individuals.
It is the only surviving offspring of the Actors Church Alliance (1899-1923), an ecumenical organization founded by a young actor, Walter Bentley, who gave up his career to become a priest. In 1923, its members and officers then founded the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, encouraged by Father Bentley and welcomed to its permanent headquarters by The Rev. Randolph Ray, the newly-seated Rector of the “Little Church Around the Corner.” Father Ray, a cousin to Tallulah Bankhead, was a lifelong theatre devotee, who had a very young Fred Astaire confirmed at the Little Church, and often hosted his friends Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward for lunch at his Rectory. Officially called the “Church of the Transfiguration,” this place of worship already had a 50-year relationship with the New York Theatre Community.