“The Greatest Spectacle the World Has Ever Seen for the Greatest Need the World Has Ever Known”
Though I’ve seen one library cataloging this poster in its collection as a movie advertisement, Hero Land was so much more.
The Hero Land Bazaar opened in the Grand Central Palace on Saturday, 24 November 1917. The police opened the doors early because of the impatient throng. Waiting inside were a replica of the Hindenburg line in the basement and war relics mostly on the top floor: gas masks, helmets, Bibles with bullet holes, machine guns, a downed German airplane, a downed zeppelin. The British tank, housed in a shelter built just outside, could not stage a trench crossing until the Fire Department granted permission for it to fire live machine gun rounds.
Under the leadership of John Moffat of the National Allied Relief and the Committee of Mercy, the bazaar filled the building with booths, shows, lectures, eateries, and other fundraising efforts for various war relief outfits. An earlier spectacle, the Army and Navy Bazaar—with no official connection to either the army or the navy—had apparently gained a bad reputation for lining the organizers’ pockets more than supporting the war-related causes.
The most outrageous display was the third floor’s imaginative rendition of Baghdad:
“At the entrance there were black slaves and screeching peacocks, real ones, grouped about the oil jars that once held the fate of the Forty Thieves. There was, of course, a “Persian Garden,” with many young women under veils; there was a booth for every country that was located anywhere in the same part of the world as ancient Baghdad, and mysterious caverns and caves with beautiful invitations without and promises of more beauty within” (NY Times, 25 Nov 1917).
It was no doubt this floor that inspired Mrs. Gertrude Athernon to promise that the entire Hero Land experience would be “like an escape into the Arabian Nights from the dull horrors that are coming closer every day” (NY Times, 24 Nov 1917).
The Canadian Log Cabin exhibited furs, Native American beadwork and rugs, maple candy, and photos from the front: “The pictures have become famous in Canada, where hundreds of persons have recognized relatives in the pictures. Soldiers are shown leaping out of the trenches, going over the top with smiles on their faces. Captured Boches by the score are there, and German dead—most of the dead men shown are German” (NY Times, 25 Nov 1917).
The Stage Women’s War Relief brought Broadway stars every day, sometimes filming them at its booth and showing the footage later during the bazaar. The American Godmothers’ League sold wool to be fashioned into garments for the troops; the Blue Cross sought funds to aid wounded horses and dogs. There were doll auctions and a skating rink, and British and French war films. The Russian street scene came alive with a palm-reader, orchestras, and cigarette girls. There was a beauty store, and a booth for having your silhouette made. The Smileage Book let you buy tickets for soldiers for the shows that traveled from training camp to training camp. At the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund booth, blind men demonstrated their new expertise at making electrical contraptions.
The bazaar’s “The Daily Tank” newsletter and the book The Defenders of Democracy book were handed out free.
On opening night, an international delegation of 1000 people sang the anthems of the allied nations. Enrico Caruso performed, and cast members from Chu Chin Chow, including Tyrone Power, acted a piece from the show. Each of the next several days were themed: American Day (25th), French and Alsace-Lorraine Day (26th), British Day (27th), Jewish Relief Day (28th), and, on Thanksgiving, Navy Day (29th). British Day saw American soldiers conducting bayonet drills under the direction of a British officer, and Navy Day a Thanksgiving pageant and sports favored by the bluejackets: boxing and pie-eating. The sailor who won the latter managed to choke down fourteen pies.
I gleaned the above information from the New York Times articles covering the bazaar. I would love to find archival material from Hero Land. It seems—undeniably so—a heady and extremely significant moment for cultural historians of war, modernity, and spectacle (and Orientalism to boot).
Would someone please step up and write this book? One sale guaranteed.