In 1942 a trio of Hollywood movie stars came to Mansfield to raise money for the US war effort, and their appearances were filmed for theater news reels by local filmmaker Harry DeLaney.
In September of that year World War II was already impacting life in Richland County with the rationing of gas and other commodities, and as young men were leaving for military service the factories here were re-tooling to manufacture war parts for the epic struggle ahead.
To raise money for this colossal undertaking the US government sold War Bonds, and working men and women were asked to invest a percentage of their paychecks into the effort.
Celebrities of the time, stars of radio and cinema, toured the country to make personal appeals, in towns of all sizes, with face to face patriotic rallies that generated enthusiasm for the sale of War Bonds.
The stars who came to visit Mansfield started their day in Akron, raced to Mansfield for five quick appearances, and finished their stint that night in Marion. Organized by the Hollywood Victory Committee, the traveling group did a tour of Ohio over a two week period, making as many as 20-30 appearances a day.
The true superstar of the day was Fred Astaire, whose iconic gentlemanly song and dance style is still admired today as much as it ever was. The other two celebrities, less recognized today than they were in 1942, were singer Ilona Massey, fresh off the success of three movie musicals where she was billed as ‘the new Dietrich;” and comedian Hugh Herbert, whose zany screen persona in Warner Brothers movies of the 30s is generally considered the precedent for the style of the Three Stooges.
All three of these personalities, who were familiar and glamorous in the 40s, are still honored today with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The three celebrities arrived in town by motorcade in time for a fund-raising luncheon at the Leland Hotel, where plates sold for $76 dollars, that covered a War Bond and lunch for a dollar.
An auction was held in the Leland ballroom, and Ilona’s bouquet sold for $7,200, after the first rose went for $2,000.
The stars visited the Westinghouse plant, Mansfield Tire, and Ohio Brass before a grand rally at the Square downtown, making their appeal to 16,500 working Mansfielders and raising $76,000.
Committed to raising money, and setting the tone of self-sacrifice, Fred Astaire auctioned off his own cigarette case for a bid of $10,000, and Ilona Massey sold the gold earrings she wore for $1,000. An additional $1,500 came from the sale of Victory Corsages, sold for a dollar a piece by a corps of 60 hometown girls.
It was a thrilling day for Mansfield, and it is amazing to be able to revisit that experience today through the miracle of motion pictures. Preserved in 16MM film by Harry DeLaney, the crowds of 1942 still project their excitement in these quick glimpses through time.
DeLaney was the projectionist at the Ohio Theater for 50 years, and his love for News Reels combined with his enthusiasm for filmmaking in a most fortunate way to leave us small windows into our community’s past.
Some of his films have an audio track, but the “Stars Over Mansfield” clip survives today without any sound attachment.
It would be worth hearing Ilona Massey’s rendition of the National Anthem because it must have been stirring. She was a naturalized American citizen, having been born in Budapest, Hungary, and made her way to the US as an opera star.
She certainly appealed to the immigrant population of the city, whose representative from The Hungarian Social and Political Society of Mansfield stepped forward at the Square to present her with a ceremonial orchid.
When Ms Massey spoke to the crowd, she remembered her desolate life in Hungary after World War I that made her resolve, “If I ever find anything worthwhile, I’m going to fight for it. I’ve found it – the United States of America.”
“Fellow Americans, you don’t know how proud I am to say that to you.”