Movie History: Canadian Picture Pioneers’ “Win the War Campaign”
In honour of Remembrance Day, Tribute takes a look at the movie industry’s World War II fundraising efforts in 1940.
The summer of 1940 was a tough time to be a Canadian. It was the first summer since Canada had sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe to fight in World War II. Men, women and children around the country held their breath as enemy planes started obliterating British cities on the other side of the Atlantic. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and a large number of Canadians worried that if Britain fell to the Nazi regime and its allies, Canada could become the next target. Suddenly, the thought that Canada could be invaded – a notion that had been unthinkable up to that point – became a grave concern for millions of people across the country.
Cautious for their own lives and eager to hear of their troops’ successes in Europe, Canadians thankfully had a place to retreat to: movie theatres. There, Canadians alleviated their fears by watching comedies, romances and action-packed westerns. At the cinema, war and destruction was a distant thought, if only for a few hours.
With attendance at movie houses across the country rising steadily since the start of the war, the Canadian Motion Picture Pioneers – founded in January 1940 by a group of 19 prominent members of the motion picture industry – came up with an ingenious way to whip up support for our troops. It all started with the devoted efforts of Saskatchewan native Charlie Mavety.
Charlie Mavety – a film projectionist who ran a film delivery business – decided to bring movie star Gene Autry’s professional rodeo show to town to raise profits for the war effort. The rodeo represented everything Mavety was interested in: movies, cowboys, helpfulness and friendship. The Autry effort was a fine start, for it led to $25,000 being sent to Britain, where enemy bombs had caused homelessness and other great hardship.
Continuing these fund raising efforts, on Monday, July 15, 1940, close to 1,000 movie theatres across the Canada helped stimulate the sale of war stamps and certificates by hosting a one-night-only event called the “Win the War Campaign Show.”
This entertainment program was a national effort to get Canadian moviegoers involved in helping out with the war relief efforts. When Canadians arrived at their local theatre, they were asked to purchase a minimum of two 25-cent war stamps in the place of a regular admission fee. In other words, moviegoers would spend what they liked, catch a night of spellbinding entertainment and help out an important cause. The campaign was especially successful with Canadian youth, who were looking for an opportunity to contribute to the war effort.
By the night’s end, more than $712,000 had been raised across the country – at an average of approximately $1.20 given per theatre seat. Nearly half (49.8 per cent) of the total war stamps sold during the event came from Ontario. British Columbia contributed approximately 7.5 per cent; Alberta, 8.5 per cent; Saskatchewan, 4.5 per cent; Manitoba, 6.2 per cent; Quebec, 10.5 per cent, and the Atlantic Provinces, 13 per cent.
War stamps were part of a fundraising initiative to help the Canadian government offset the ballooning cost of World War II. The government sold stamps, certificates, and other victory bonds to help raise more than $300 million for relief overseas and the efforts at home. The movie houses bought the stamps from the government at an established face value, and in return, patrons would receive their investment plus interest when the bond matured years later.
On the evening of the “Win the War Campaign Show,” it was common for Canadians to buy more than $10 worth of war bonds. According to the Hamilton Spectator, two customers at the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton contributed by buying $400 worth of stamps, while one 400-seat Napanee movie house had the distinction of selling an average of $11 worth of war stamps for each seat filled.
The one-night-only affair stretched across the entire country. City estimates for war bond totals included an estimated $100,000 in Toronto, $40,000 in Montreal and $28,000 in Vancouver. Several theatre owners operating in busier regions even decided to increase the minimum amount of stamps required to attend the show, to help boost sales.
Audience participation was staggering. In Hamilton, Westdale theatre owner David Rubin told the Hamilton Spectator that he had never seen crowds quite as enormous show up to the movie theatres. “I have been in this business for a long time, but never before have I seen crowds that completely encircled the block,” he said. “I have had reports from the neighbourhood theatres and they say that they all ran out of stamps. There is no doubt the supply could not keep up with the demand.”
Beyond the regularly scheduled movie, patrons at larger theatres were also treated to other special performances – a vast collection of homegrown acts that included vaudeville-type stage shows, live music and tap dancing. At some of the theatres, song sheets were handed out at the lobby doors and audiences enthusiastically joined in singing patriotic airs and anthems. Sending the message home, commanders in the Canadian military were also present at several movie houses and gave inspiring addresses about donating to help benefit the armed forces.
The “Win the War Campaign Show” was a major milestone for the Canadian film industry, as many around the country realized how cinema could be a powerful factor in gathering people and gaining widespread support for a worthwhile cause. Citizens responded to the thrills of big-screen entertainment while also receiving the satisfaction of contributing to a vital national effort.
—By Jordan Adler