Disaster posed reel challenge

Moviegoing saw increase due to Hindenburg footage

Brandishing burns and a fractured ankle, one Ben Dova cashed in on his miraculous escape from disaster, pocketing $350 for a one-shot appearance on the Robert Ripley “Believe It or Not” radio show on NBC.

Dova, a vaudeville comedian, had been skedded to play the Roxy Theater in Manhattan and had jumped to save himself.

Jumped from what, you ask?

Well, it was May 6, 1937, and with that you may have guessed what the disaster was: the crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Daily Variety called the tragedy correctly: “The first time on record that the entire world had grandstand seats at a major catastrophe.”

As it happened, all five of the newsreel services were on hand to record the disaster, which took the lives of 35 of the 97 people onboard.

As Daily Variety reported the next day, May 7, “Prints of the Hindenburg crash were put aboard planes as early as 6 a.m. today and were in many theater projection booths in distant cities in time for opening shows.”

In most cities Stateside, moviegoing doubled because people were drawn to the dramatic footage. This was, after all, pre-CNN and Fox News.

According to Daily Variety, the footage was “the best reel shots ever obtained of a major news event,” and in fact became etched in the American imagination as the preeminent disaster of the 1930s. (Evocative too, Daily Variety said, was the outburst from radio announcer Herb Morrison: “Oh, the humanity…”)

Variety‘s weekly edition, published the following Wednesday had all the stats on the newsreel frenzy.

“Demands for prints were so great that laboratories were pushed to capacity. Some theaters were not content with merely one company’s reels and ordered prints from other makers, putting all on their screens.”

The paper estimated that 22 million people regularly saw newsreels in that period, but that the crowds swelled to 50 million that weekend.

Complicating matters was the fact that newsreelers had been counting on the Hindenburg successfully returning to Germany to airlift film back to the States the following week from the coronation of Britain’s George VI.

The disaster, however, effectively put an end to Transatlantic airship cros sings.


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