Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942
We will no doubt see, in the coming weeks and months, many protests, rallies, fundraisers, and perhaps concerts all dedicated to offering aid to the Ukranian refugees, and those still fighting on their own land against a deadly aggressor. Rallies and other events to raise money and build morale in such difficult circumstances are nothing new. Americans have had to do it for their own victims of war; you may recall the all-star Concert For New York City a few weeks following 9/11.
Reaching further back in time, March 10 marks 80 years since Madison Square Garden hosted a huge, marathon rally for the Navy Relief Sociey, three months after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. The organization had been touring the country in a series of rallies to sell war bonds. But this particular rally was a mammoth event, filling the Garden’s 20,000 seats, a good number of which were taken by servicemen in uniform. The rest seemed to be comprised of just about every American entertainer alive and working at the time. The live radio broadcast of the proceedings could be considered a precursor to later radio and television events held to raise money for worthy causes.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, even the most popular comedians had to tread lightly with their material. The legendary Fred Allen, whose popular program had been on the air for nearly ten years at the time, once explained:
“When World War II started, the complexion of the news items on our show changed greatly. In the early days of the war after Pearl Harbor the papers were filled with depressing news. Some weeks it was impossible for us to find subject matter that could be treated in a comedy manner. As the war progressed the Government instituted rationing. Food, rubber, gasoline and other shortages were serious…The comedy dialogue had to be written carefully. While trying to get laughs we had to be serious in the treatment of the matter being discussed and stress its importance to all of us in the country. These liberties taken with the news must have gotten results. During the war years, we received letters from Mayor LaGuardia, of New York City…and many other government agency heads complimenting us for calling government drives and other information to the attention of the mass audience.”
The event at Madison Square Garden provided an opportunity to take a collective breath and — in the patriotic and somewhat vengeful spirit of the times — enjoy some laughs, often at the expense of the Axis powers. It was broadcast by several New York radio stations; According to the listings for that evening, WHN’s coverage ran from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00. WMCA aired the festivities between 10:00–10:30, WOR and WNEW both joined in from about 11:30 until midnight (although it’s possible that the broadcasts remained on the air longer than scheduled).
In his opening remarks, Allen included a few verbal jabs at some of the assembled show business personalities, and then added a few more aimed at New York mayor La Guardia, who later conducted a joint concert of the Police and Fire Department bands. Later in the evening, journalist and de facto emcee Walter Winchell reported to the jammed arena that the show had so far raised $156,000. Boxing champion Joe Louis was present as well. A few weeks earlier, he had donated his winnings from his boxing match with Buddy Baer, which was also sponsored by Navy Relief Society. Louis was never known to be an articulate speaker, but he nevertheless offered a few heartfelt words about his own feelings of patriotism. “I’m only doin’ what any red-blooded American would,” he said to the crowd. “We’re gonna do our part and we’ll win ’cause we are on God’s side.”
Comic actress/singer Martha Raye’s even briefer message, directed at the Japanese, began with, “I want to send an open letter to the Japs,” which she followed with a hearty Bronx cheer into the microphone, triggering thunderous applause from the crowd.
Other stars appearing that night included Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Jimmy Durante, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Al Jolson, Merle Oberon, Tallulah Bankhead, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Olsen & Johnson, and almost fifty more. Myrna Loy did a mock striptease before auctioning off her hat for $30,000. Her pair of elbow-less crimson gloves went for $25,000. Also on the bill was the “Florodora Sextette” a motley group consisting of Vincent Price, Ed Wynn, Danny Kaye, and even Boris Karloff, all of whom dressed in drag for their musical comedy turn.
Billboard magazine reported that an anonymous group of cabbies, playing poker as they listened to the show on radio, decided to donate all of their money on the table, and delivered their grand total of $13.00 to the doorman at the Garden.
The marathon show ran nearly six hours, almost until the dawn’s early light, and long after the radio broadcasts ended. The event reportedly raised a total of $10 million in bonds, and $200,000 for Army Relief as well. And it signaled only the beginning of the entertainment world’s efforts to help win the war.
As for today’s current world crisis, such events would be welcome to raise money and awareness of the refugees’ plight.
Until next time…
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