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H’w’d dressed in black

Every area of showbiz dimmed its lights when Roosevelt died

If you thought Hollywood had a thing for Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, consider its abiding affection for an earlier president.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, both Daily Variety and Variety devoted unprecedented coverage to his legacy and his impact on the biz. Sure, FDR had served longer than any previous leader and guided the country through both the Depression and WWII, but there was more to it than that.

Both the president and his wife, Eleanor, relished the entertainment media and used them astutely.

FDR penned a letter to Variety publisher Sid Silverman on Dec. 7, 1938, congratulating the paper on a third of a century covering the biz. Printed on the front page of the anniversary issue, it read in part: “The files of your paper must be a goldmine of history to those interested in the evolution and development of the art of amusement since the turn of the century.”

The Roosevelts also empathized with the needs of creative workers during the 1930s, setting up programs that endured for decades, including the 1935 Federal Theater Project, which gave jobs to tens of thousands of out-of-work actors and technicians.

The day after FDR died on April 12, 1945, Daily Variety devoted its front page to a full-page photo of the president, a shot identified as his favorite.

The inside coverage ran for several pages, detailing how every area of showbiz dimmed its lights, as it were: “Broadway stunned: Show crowds are thinned,” “Strip niteries close” and “Studios Close on Death Flash” read the headlines.

“Everywhere one could see the strange manifestations of sobriety that had caught the usually milling noisy Broadway throng,” one story detailed. “In restaurant windows, pictures of the president were prominently displayed with black crepe framing the photos.”

Perhaps most poignantly, it was radio — FDR’s favorite medium and one that he exploited brilliantly with his weekly fireside chats — that rose to the occasion.

“From the New York headquarters of the networks came the electric decision to cancel all programs, that serious music, news and running commentary would be substituted until further notice,” the paper reported.

Both Daily Variety editor Arthur Ungar and Variety editor Abel Green penned columns recalling the commander-in-chief’s contribution to the worldwide fight for freedom and his interaction with the showbiz community.

Said Green in his front-page appreciation: “Every so often arises the captious observation that Hollywood, the fourth largest American industry, has no friend at court. And that show business in general is always the target when Washington solons run out of page-one copy.” Green then detailed the president’s affection for movies and his friendships with people of the stage and screen.

Among them were playwright Robert Sherwood, producer John Golden and actor-manager Eddie Dowling; the White House also met occasionally with top producers, including the Warners, Daryl F. Zanuck, Walter Wanger, Samuel Goldwyn and Frank Capra.

Perhaps because of his own physical disability, FDR championed one charity throughout his tenure, the March of Dimes, and Hollywood enthusiastically took up the cause. A week after his death, Variety reported, there was a move in D.C. and Tinseltown to continue the president’s annual Birthday Ball as a charity on behalf of polio.

(For more in this series, see Variety.com/alookback.)

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