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Carnegie Hall: A Place for All in Times of Crisis

Throughout its nearly 130-year history, Carnegie Hall has been a place for all in times of crisis, providing a forum for civic leaders to rally around a cause, a platform to raise funds in relief of those in need, and a venue for artists to offer respite and solace through performance. Here is a look back at several key moments.

World War I

During the mid-1910s, overall sentiment in the United States remained mostly against entering the conflict that had been raging in Europe since the summer of 1914.

On March 9, 1917, the Emergency Peace Federation held its Rally Against US Participation in World War I at Carnegie Hall. According to The New York Times, the raucous meeting “raised more than $4,000 to send what they called ‘Twelve Apostles of Peace’ over the country to stimulate public sentiment against American participation in the war.”

Less than one month later, Congress passed a war declaration, and soon organizations like the American Defense Society were holding rallies like the “Win the War” Mass Meeting on May 7, 1918, during which President Theodore Roosevelt spoke on the subject “Do Your Fighting and Do It Now.”

After the war, the United States—including events at Carnegie Hall—shifted to trying to help the world return to some semblance of normalcy while also making sense of what had happened. On July 8, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson appeared at the Hall to deliver his first report on the Treaty of Versailles. According to the New-York Tribune, although Wilson was more than three-and-a-half hours late, “nearly 4,000 men and women arose and cheered for several minutes” when he stepped on stage.

Photographer and filmmaker Burton Holmes, whose popular travel lectures were like the Travel Channel for audiences in the pre-radio and pre-television eras, responded in January and February of 1919 with a series of “5 Victory Travelogues” featuring himself “With the ‘Yanks’” in various locations throughout war-torn Europe.

Great Depression

In 1932, the economy was cratering and unemployment pushed beyond 23% when in July, Robert E. Simon, owner of Carnegie Hall, announced a series of Free Midday Concerts.

According to The New York Times, at the first concert on July 25, 1932, the Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church said that music helps keep up morale during the [economic] slump. “Sometimes we wonder how we have stood life so long. Then we see courage, real courage in everyday life, and our belief in human nature is restored. So many thousands today need to regain their courage. They need their thoughts changed and strengthened by the beauty of music, and here we may call the masters of harmony to our help.”

In 1934, Carnegie Hall—in cooperation with the United Parents Associations of New York City—presented two series of events for children and young people. The program on November 10, 1934, featured the Carnegie Hall Circus, which included Tulsa & Judy, “the smallest performing baby elephants in the circus world … 3,000 pounds and still they are cute.” The Carnegie Hall Circus provided welcome distractions for children amidst the economic upheaval happening around them.

Spanish Civil War

The impact of the continued global economic and political upheaval of the 1930s was reflected in the events at Carnegie Hall in more somber ways as well.

On August 18, 1938, a memorial service was held for Benjamin Leider, the first American to be killed while fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). According to the guide to the Benjamin Leider Papers at New York University, Leider—a newspaper reporter and photographer—enlisted in the Spanish Loyalist Air Force in September 1936 and died in Madrid on February 19, 1937, when his airplane was shot down.

World War II

As political tensions in Europe continued to grow in the late 1930s, American reactions impacted presentations at Carnegie Hall.

A Mass Meeting in Protest of Five Years of Hitler Terror took place on January 30, 1938. The headline in the next day’s New York Times read “Hitler Denounced By Nazi Foes Here—3,500 Jam Carnegie Hall to Protest His 5 Years of Rule—Throngs Turned Away.”

By 1942, the United States was engulfed in the conflict. At a Carnegie Hall event called the Artists’ Front to Win the War on October 16, Orson Welles introduced Charlie Chaplin, who “thanked God” for President Roosevelt and called for the opening of a second front in Europe because the “American people want to get this bloody job done and get it done now.” A capacity crowd of 3,000 listened, with loudspeakers transmitting the speeches to an overflow crowd lined up behind the Hall on West 56th Street.

On April 25, 1943, Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony in an all-Tchaikovsky program, and War Bonds sold as payment for tickets to the concert raised $10,190,045—at the time a record for a single concert. The manuscript of Toscanini’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was auctioned off as part of the benefit.

A much broader impact on the Hall’s audiences came by way of the New York City Defense Recreation Committee, established in 1941 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Anna M. Rosenberg, who later became assistant secretary of defense under George C. Marshall. By the time the committee was disbanded in 1946, it had distributed millions of free tickets for active service members to Broadway shows, movies, sporting events, and concerts, including many at Carnegie Hall.

AIDS Epidemic

As the United States began battling the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Carnegie Hall hosted several events that raised money and awareness for individuals living with AIDS. Leonard Bernstein, Marilyn Horne, Yo-Yo Ma, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, and many others gathered on November 8, 1987, to present Music for Life, a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis that raised $1.7 million.

On January 30, 1989, the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS presented Children Will Listen, a benefit for the education and care of children affected by AIDS and their families. Hosted by actors Daphne Maxwell Reid and Tim Reid, the event featured performances by Patti Austin, Betty Buckley, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and others, with appearances by Richard Dreyfuss, Raul Julia, Kathleen Turner, and Greg Louganis.

Tony Award–winning singer and actress Bernadette Peters made her headlining debut at Carnegie Hall on December 9, 1996, with a (nearly) all-Sondheim program to benefit Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The New York Times called the concert “thrilling” noting that “genuine sweetness, not the saccharine regality dispensed by the average show-business diva, is such a rarity on the pop stage that it is difficult to believe it when it stares you in the face. But Bernadette Peters, who made her solo concert debut on Monday at Carnegie Hall … effuses sweetness as naturally as she breathes.”

Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.