The Ohio River floods of January and February 1937 covered at least three states (Ohio, Kentucky 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 Febrary 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 legendary telephone scene for radio listeners. In the auditorium itself it is reported that the audinece were somewhat bemused as Luise played the scene behind a screen, so nervous was she of appearing in front of 7000 people. 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 notes that the audience in the venue were 11,000 strong, with a further 100,000,000 listening across the country. The show finished at 5am. The line-up included Dr Walter Damrosch, Bert Lahr, Lucrezia Bori, Beatrice Lillie, Philip Merivale, Milton Berle, Helen Hayes, 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, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Gertrude Lawrence, Gladys Cooper, Maurice Evans, Reginald Gardner, Frank Lawton, Evelyn Laye, Mayor F. H. LaGuardia, Katherine Cornell and many more.