The Ohio River floods of January and February 1937 covered states along its 981 mile course (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois) and left 385 people dead and more than a million people homeless. Devastating vast areas of city and farmland they are still the worst floods in Ohio’s history. At the time the federal government and the Red Cross raised millions of dollars to assist those affected and many radio stations broadcast blanket news coverage, with messages for victims and rescuers for weeks. As happens now in times of disaster, many celebrities acted together to hold fundraising events, and the largest of these was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on 11th February 1937.
The benefit concert was a star-studded affair with singers, actors, radio personalities, composers, conductors and more taking part. At this point in her career Luise had made only two American films (Escapade and The Great Ziegfeld) but she was already a huge star. The Great Ziegfeld had been released the previous summer and only a month before the concert she had collected her first award, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Her first Academy Award would follow shortly. It was her role as Anna Held in this film that Luise revisited for this benefit concert and she performed the already famous telephone scene for radio listeners. In the auditorium itself it is reported that the audience were somewhat bemused as Luise played the scene behind a screen, so nervous was she of appearing in front of such a huge crowd. Radio listeners, of course, were none the wiser.
The concert started at midnight and was broadcast live across the country into the wee small hours. Noel Coward was the Master of Ceremonies introducing an unbelievable roster of artistes for five hours’ worth of entertainment. In Coward’s diaries he writes:
“I was up until six this morning running this enormous Benefit for the Flood Relief at Radio City Music Hall. The show started at 12:30 and finished at 5:00a.m! I was Master of Ceremonies and had to introduce all the stars as well as do “Dance, Little Lady” myself with an orchesstra of 70. The whole thing was incredible. There were 11 thousand people in the place itself and 100,000,000 listening in as the whole thing was broadcast all over the country. I had to make a series of tactful speeches and it was great fun although tiring.
Every star in New York appeared including Stravinsky, Helen Hayes, the Russian Ballet – Beatrice Lillie – Gladys Cooper – Luise Rainer – Gertie [Gertrude Lawrence]. Oh Dear, really. Everybody (even Sir Cedric!). He refused to appear unless I introduced his idiotic wife too whom no one had ever heard of. So I introduced “Sir Cedric and Lady Hardwicke” and then , immediately afterwards – “Miss Beatrice Lillie and Lady Peel!” There was a nice big laugh!)”
The line-up also included Dr Walter Damrosch, Bert Lahr, Lucrezia Bori, Philip Merivale, Milton Berle, Ruth Gordon, Igor Stravinsky (conducting Erno Rapee’s orchestra in ‘The Fire Bird’), Cab Calloway, Guy Lombardo, Blanche Ring, Deems Taylor, George Jessel, Enrica Mann, Maurice Evans, Reginald Gardner, Frank Lawton, Evelyn Laye, Mayor F. H. LaGuardia, Katherine Cornell, Vincent Price and many more. See the original advert for the event below for a list of those appearing…