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New musical tells story of Foshay Tower builder
Wilbur Foshay and his
support for union labor

The musical“Foshay” will have five remaining performances July 28-30 at Open Window Theatre in Inver Grove Heights.

July 26, 2023

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

MINNEAPOLIS — If you’re interested in Minneapolis history — and in Minneapolis labor history — you can beat the heat this coming weekend by taking in a performance of a new musical, “Foshay.”

Yes, the story of Wilbur Foshay, the entrepreneur who completed the iconic Foshay Tower in 1929, is in part a story important to Minneapolis labor history.

Open Window Theatre in Inver Grove Heights is hosting the world premiere of  “Foshay,” with music and lyrics by Kevin Bowen, a local playwright who is a Fringe Festival veteran. Five performances of “Foshay” remain this coming Friday through Sunday, July 28-30.

Bowen told the Labor Review that a colleague in the local theatre community suggested Foshay’s story as the subject for a musical.

“Ninety-five percent of people in the Twin Cities know the name but they don’t know the story,” Bowen said. The arc of  Wilbur Foshay’s rise and fall and new life after prison “was the perfect set-up for a play,” Bowen said.

Foshay’s story also was a good fit for staging at Open Window Theatre, Bowen said. And while the theatre’s website says it focuses on presenting stories of “faith, hope and reconciliation,” any religiosity in “Foshay” was not over-bearing.

Wilbur Foshay: A hero for the local labor movement

During the 1920s, Foshay built a growing utility holding company. He constructed the Foshay Tower to serve as his company’s headquarters and to promote his brand — using 100 percent union labor at a time when Minneapolis was dominated by the anti-union Citizens Alliance.

At the time, the Minneapolis Labor Review chronicled the construction of the Foshay tower. The Labor Review celebrated the progress on the all-union project and contrasted it with the delays and construction mishaps (including worker injuries and deaths) at the non-union-built Northwestern Bank Building, which was under construction at the same time.

Along with Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd B. Olson, Foshay was a featured speaker at the 1929 Labor Day weekend celebration at Riverside Park in Minneapolis. The Labor Review reported 30,000 people attending and declared that “no speaker at a Labor Sunday picnic ever received such an ovation as that accorded Mr. Foshay when he stepped to the speakers’ platform and when he had finished his address.”

Minneapolis Labor Review photo from September 6, 1929 issue. The caption read: “W.B. Foshay, president of the W.B. Foshay Company, shaking hands with Leo F. Malaney, president of the Minneaplis Central Labor Union, while J.B. Boscoe, president of the Allied Printing Trades Council, looks on. The picture was snapped at the big labor picnic Sunday just prior to Mr. Foshay’s history making speech.”

The Labor Review further declared, “Mr. Foshay’s address marks the beginning of the end of the regime of terror, threats and bull-dozing which the Citizens Alliance has carried on for years against employers who wanted to do the right thing by their employees and by the community and did not dare to do so because of Citizens Alliance intimidation.”

A few weeks after the Foshay Tower opened with a grand three-day celebration, the stock market crashed. Minneapolis banks called in Foshay’s loans and his company went bankrupt. Foshay later was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to prison. The Labor Review campaigned for Foshay’s pardon and for years afterwards contended that he was targeted by Minneapolis banks because of his support for union labor.

When Foshay died in 1957, Labor Review editor Robley Cramer —the newspaper’s editor since 1915 — wrote that Foshay was “the best business man friend the local labor movement has known.”

Labor Review 1928 image of Foshay Tower

Minneapolis Labor Review front page, August 17, 1928: Photo showed Foshay Tower under construction. The caption read:
“More than half of the steel construction work has been completed on the 32-story Foshay tower building, the immense structure at Ninth street and Marquette avenue, which when finished will be the highest building in the Northwest, and the only structure of its kind in the world. At 5 p. m. Tuesday, the structural steel workers were riveting the huge steel beams into place on the. eighteenth floor. Work started on the 32-story tower during the week of July 13, and all local construction records have been shattered by the rapidity with which the crew of union iron workers have been shoving the framework of the tower up into the sky. The Foshay company has a signed agreement with the Minneapolis Building Trades Council to employ union workers throughout the erection of the tower.”

Foshay: The musical

A great deal but not all of the story of Foshay’s support for union labor is included in the two acts of  “Foshay” the musical.

“It’s art; It’s not a documentary,” playwright Kevin Bowen told the Labor Review.

And while Bowen did not use the back issues of the Labor Review as a source, he did research primary sources in the Frazer Arnold papers at the Minnesota History Center. Arnold was a Colorado attorney and friend of Foshay. The collection in which Bowen researched includes Foshay’s personal correspondence, including Foshay’s letters from prison, newspaper clippings, trial records, and materials related to the campaign for a pardon for Foshay.

Some of the lines in the script, Bowen said, come directly from Foshay’s marketing materials and from letters he wrote.

I’m no theatre critic, but I thought the dialogue as well the song lyrics in “Foshay” tell the story smartly and well.

A live pianist performs the score.

In writing a musical, Bowen said, “98 percent of the time I do the music first… I kind of hear the lyrics through the music.” Of the three aspects of writing a musical — dialogue, music, lyrics — “the lyrics are usually the hardest ,” Bowen said. “When you get it right, it’s rewarding.”

The three main actors — Michael Conroy as Wilbur Foshay, Yvonne Freese as Foshay’s wife, Leota, and Joshua Meltzer as Foshay’s business associate, Henry Henley — portray their characters convincingly and with both humor and seriousness.

Four supporting actors round out the small cast, playing multiple characters — including one character who portrays a Labor Review reporter!

Foshay musical photo
Actor Michael Conroy plays the part of Wilbur Foshay. At one point, Foshay’s character states, “it always amazes me when companies don’t pay their employees a living wage.” To the architect designing the tower, he says, “one more thing... when you build my tower I want you to use union labor, 100 percent.”

Bowen takes no position on whether Foshay deserved to go to prison or not. “We’re trying to show history as it occurred and let people form their own opinions,” he said. “I wasn’t editorializing. I was trying to follow the history.”

Foshay and his business associate Henry Henley departed the Ramsey County jail May 5, 1934 to serve a 15-year sentence in Leavenworth prison.

Later in May 1934, the historic strike by Minneapolis Teamsters would include clashes involving hand-to-hand combat between strikers and a private army fielded by the anti-union Citizens Alliance. In July 1934, Minneapolis police opened fire on striking Teamsters, killing two and injuring dozens more. The Teamsters would eventually prevail in the strike, breaking the power of the Citizens Alliance and making Minneapolis a union town.

The musical “Foshay” does not address this escalation of conflict between labor and the city’s anti-union business elite which erupted as Foshay and Henley began their 15-year prison sentence.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt commuted Foshay’s and Henley’s sentences after three years, releasing them from prison, and, in 1947, President Harry Truman issued full, unconditional pardons for the two men.

When Henley died in 1945, Labor Review editor Robley Cramer wrote: “Foshay and Henley were assailed, vilified and persecuted. Yet had employers and interests that today have agreements with organized labor and operate under union contracts recognized not only the fairness but the correctness of the labor policies pursued by Mr. Henley and Mr. Foshay, years of strife and turmoil could have been saved Minneapolis and the city would be far more advanced in many ways than it is today.”

“W.B. Foshay, Friend of Labor, Dies,” read a headline for an editorial in the September 5, 1957 issue of the Labor Review. Editor Cramer wrote: “W.B. Foshay was a great man with a great vision. He was a kindly man and because of his cooperation with the trade union movement he brought down the wrath of the anti union financial interests of the city that fought and badgered his great enterprises into insolvency… To those who fought the battles for the trade union movement, however, Mr. Foshay will be remembered as a benefactor who was forced to sacrifice because he cooperated with the trade union movement.”

See the show

The remaining performances for “Foshay” include:

• Friday, July 28 at 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, July 29, at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, July 30 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

The Saturday, July 29 show at 2:00 p.m. recently was added and has the greatest number of seats available.

Tickets cost $25, or $21 for a partially-obstructed view.

For tickets:

Minneapolis Labor Review front page, July 19, 1929: One headline declared the Foshay Tower to be a “triumph of union labor craftsmanship” while another headline reported delays in construction of the Northwestern Bank Building, a non-union job.

Minneapolis Labor Review front page, August 30, 1929: The headline gave Wilbur Foshay top billing with Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson as speakers at a Labor Day weekend event at Riverside Park in Minneapolis.

‘I hope to see the day when throughout this nation and all its possessions there will not be a person who does not have sufficient to live comfortably and happily and have luxuries and comforts for his family.’

—Wilbur Foshay,
quoted in Minneapolis Labor Review, September 6, 1929

To learn more: Visit the Labor Review archive, search for “Foshay,” and 498 hits will appear. Access the archive from the home page at www.minneapolisunions.org.



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