Federal Government Support of the Arts

Crumb in the CETA programIf it hadn’t been for the CETA program, I would never have found myself on an old burlesque stage getting kicked through a wall by a yeti.

I was paid by the federal government, through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), to play three roles in the Dell’Arte Players’ “Whiteman meets Bigfoot.” One of the roles was a scientist who pisses off Bigfoot (actor Don Forrest on fur covered stilts) and quickly finds himself on the business end of a big foot.

This gig helped launched my career.

CETA was not the first program to pay actors and clowns. In 1939, on a Tuesday in May, 107 circus performers, 18 clowns, 50 musicians, 42 technicians, 15 dogs, 3 monkeys, 3 ponies, 2 bears and a bucking mule opened under canvas in Sunnyside N.Y. All of the humans were working for The Federal Theater Project’s Circus Unit, getting the same kind of paychecks that FBI agents, IRS auditors and U.S. senators received.

In its four years, the Federal Theater Project (FTP) employed more that 12,000 people in 150 separate units – puppeteers, actors, playwrights, dancers, musicians, designers, vaudevillians.

For thousands of people, FTP was a kickstart, a lifeline, a government paycheck for their work as artists on stage, in schools and in the circus ring. For many artists of my generation, CETA was our FTP.

Franklin Roosevelt started FTP in 1935, Richard Nixon enacted CETA in 1973 and now in 2021 Joe Biden has introduced the American Jobs Plan. Will there be another program for artists who are working hard to make a living while trying to heal our collective soul after the pandemic? I hope so.

FTP supported Circus
Federal Theater Project supported circus in 1939