*The following is chapter from an upcoming book, written, researched and edited by Gregory C. Pappas about the American response to Greece’s role during World War II called “America Calling.” The book will share in great photographic detail, the American media, entertainment, general public and business community’s response to Greece’s epic “No!” to Italian invaders and the subsequent Nazi occupation and resistance.
It was the “Golden Era” of Hollywood when celebrities like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard occupied tabloid headlines and films like Disney’s Fantasia and Gone With the Wind captivated the nation.
Shirley Temple, Bob Hope and Bette Davis were household names in America and were beloved by millions.
And simultaneously, the war was raging in Europe.
Fed constantly by headlines and an occasional newsreel coming from Europe, the people of America had become captivated by the courageous and valiant efforts of the people of Greece who fought and pushed back Mussolini’s forces, and eventually overrun– but not without a fight– by the Nazi Germans.
Famine and despair would overcome Greece. And America responded in a massive way.
An effort was launched by railroad magnate Harold Vanderbilt and film industry executive Spyros Skouras called the Greek War Relief Association no less than ten days after the Italian attack on Greece in October 1940 to provide food and other forms of aid to the Greek people.
Greece would eventually fall under Nazi occupation and the subsequent naval blockade led to massive starvation in the city of Athens and throughout the countryside.
Never in American history has there ever been such a unified and massive campaign to support a foreign charitable cause than the support of the people of Greece during World War II.
The nationwide effort was bolstered by businessmen, community leaders and a massive Greek American grassroots network led by AHEPA and the Greek Orthodox Church led by then Archbishop Athenagoras, politicians of both parties, schools and universities– and the Motion Picture Industry– in a major way.
In Hollywood, countless stars, celebrities, studio heads and industry heavyweights got behind the Greek War Relief movement, making it the single largest humanitarian fundraising campaign in American entertainment industry history, including an organized fundraising campaign of the Motion Picture Industry involving 8,000 cinemas throughout the country.
In St. Louis, an overflow of people who came out for the opening night of Republic Films’ “Sis Hopkins” led organizers to add adjoining theaters. In Pittsburgh, the premier of Walt Disney’s Fantasia was held at the Fulton Theater on March 5, 1941 which was followed by a post-premier radio telethon with numerous celebrities.
These gala premiers took place everywhere. Films like Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Gone With the Wind held gala premieres in cities across the nation with ticket proceeds from opening nights benefiting the Greek War Relief campaign.
Major events also took place in big American cities that brought together practically every major A-list Hollywood star at the time.
At Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on February 8, 1941– while Greek forces were pushing back the Italians in the Albanian mountains, a massive radio telethon called America Calling was broadcast on CBS, NBC, numerous independent stations and throughout Europe.
The event sought to send a loud message to the fighting Greeks– America is here, ready and willing to help.
Jack Benny and Bob Hope were the “co-masters of ceremonies” of the variety show that featured some the biggest names of the time including The Merry Macs; Shirley Temple, Charles Laughton, Groucho Marx and Clark Gable.
In New York City, stars gathered at Radio City Music Hall for a gala variety show on March 28, 1941 called the Greek Festival for Freedom starring Judy Garland, Irving Berlin, Ed Sullivan, the Andrews Sisters, the Rockettes, Danny Kaye and practically every major New York-based star of the era.
A letter in Film Daily published by Samuel Goldwyn thanked the motion picture industry for coming through with flying colors during a campaign supporting, “thousands of women and children in Greece, whose men are defending democracy and will benefit through our industry’s cooperation.”
Goldwyn thanked cinemas throughout the nation and announced that $1,014,450.52 was raised over period of nine months by film studios from more than 8,000 cinemas throughout the nation.
Adolph Zukor also wrote in praise of the film industry. He was the legendary founder of the Paramount Pictures empire and one of the most influential men in the film industry. Zukor got heavily involved in the Greek relief campaign.
“We have collected $850,000, this money was in addition to that raised on the West Coast by a committee headed by Sam Goldwyn. I am confident that our industry raised directly more than $1,000,000 for Greek Relief. We have already wired $500,000 from our division to Athens where it was used to purchase food, clothing and medical supplies so badly needed by the women and children of the gallant little country. I am proud to be a part of an industry that has responded so handsomely in a crisis like this.”
Money raised by the Motion picture industry, according to Zukor’s archives “was used to buy medicine, clothing and food for the helpless women and children of that country. A great deal of the money was also used in the evacuation of more than a million women and children before the Axis powers arrived.”
“More than 8,000 theaters participated in the drive,” Zukor continued. This was the largest number of theaters ever enrolled for a charity drive in our industry, and the amount collected far exceeds that of any similar cause in our industry.”
Similar efforts took place throughout the nation and from the early 1940s through the end of the decade and even well after the Nazis had retreated from Greece, support continued.
When all was said and done, the GWRA raised $500 million of today’s dollars in food and other assistance for the people of Greece, with massive shipments of grain, equipment, livestock and other forms of material support for the destitute war victims. (*$30 million in 1941 had the same buying power as almost $500 million in 2015.)
Hollywood’s role stood out as the catalyst to engage and involve “average” star-struck Americans who watched their favorite celebrities attending fundraising galas, participating in radio telethons and lending their names– all in the name of Greek War Relief.
DID YOU KNOW:
*A teen-aged girl from Lowell, Massachusetts made her stage debut in a play that raised funds for Greek War Relief. Decades later, Olympia Dukakis would go on to win an Oscar and become one of America’s most beloved actors.
*Walter Winchell, the era’s most listened to radio gossip columnist was a huge supporter of Greek relief efforts, giving his own money, as well as encouraging millions of listeners to support the people of Greece.
*A young Italian-American singer named Frank Sinatra’s first-ever concert at Madison Square Garden was a benefit for the Greek War Relief campaign.
*At a benefit in Chicago, Jack Benny auctioned off his violin at an event that netted more than $20,000 for the cause.
*Dozens of actors who were employed as salaried employees under the “studio system” of the 1940s pledged a percentage of their salaries to Greek War Relief efforts. This card, signed by Jane Withers, one of the biggest child stars of the 1930s and 40s, shows her pledge of $150 to be deducted in $15 installments.