2016-07-20 / Star Journal

Movies Provide Distraction From World War II


The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal

Welcome to July 1940!

In the spring and summer of 1940, the Nazi war machine cut a swath of destruction across Europe, with one nation after another falling to the seemingly unstoppable might of the German blitzkrieg. Having largely subdued the Continent by July, Hitler set his sights on beleaguered Britain, launching air raids on cities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Battle of Britain would ultimately prove a costly defeat for the Germans, as Nazi air power could not overcome the valiant efforts of the Royal Air Force. Closer to home, with the clouds of global conflict darkening the horizon, America was well into the 1940 election cycle where President Franklin Roosevelt easily defeated fellow New Yorker, Wendell Wilkie, to win an unprecedented third term.

Poster for Gone With The Wind Released December 15, 1939. Poster for Gone With The Wind Released December 15, 1939. With the nation preparing to fight the gathering fascist menace, Queens was ready to play a key role in national defense. In July 1940, the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation leased the mostly vacant Ford Building on Northern Boulevard to manufacture $44 million in equipment orders from the US Navy and foreign governments. The large structure, which manufactured gas masks during the World War I, was built in 1915. Known today as The Center Building, the venerable edifice hosts the New York Foundling Hospital, city government offices and other tenants.

In five short years, Queens and her people would enter a new world, barely recognizable from the halcyon summer days of 1940. That July, however, many locals blissfully enjoyed timeless pleasures, such as a trip to a local movie house. Visitors to the Trylon Theatre on Queens Boulevard could put down 75 cents for a matinee viewing of the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind,” starring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. On July 9, others turned out to see world middleweight boxing champ Ken Overlin TKO challenger, Harry “the Belting Brakeman” Balsamo, in a bout at the old Queensboro Arena in Long Island City. Before its demolition in 1950, riders on the Ditmars-bound elevated trains often caught glimpses of fights in the 4,000 seat arena, and local children frequently snuck in to watch the matches for free.

That month, members of the Czechoslovakian community in Queens turned out for a far more solemn task. More than 1,000 people gathered at the Bohemian Hall on 24th Avenue to pay final respects to John Bartunek, a local leader in the movement to regain freedom from Nazi oppression in his homeland. Among the mourners was Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, who proclaimed there would come a day when “The red, white and blue flag of Czechoslovakia will again fly over a free country.”

Masaryk died under mysterious circumstances in Prague eight years later, never again knowing true freedom from foreign oppression in his native land.

Local Czechoslovakians sadly had one more bitter farewell before the month was out. The Urban Hall in the Winfield neighborhood had stood for some 50 years as a home to local Czechoslovakians, hosting many joyous folk dances and cultural festivals. The Hall was destroyed by fire one day that July, taking with her memories of simpler times, of freedom, peace and a nation that many in Queens once called home. Among visitors to the old landmark was exiled Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who came to preach his brand of socialism to a captivated audience of New Yorkers.

That's the way it was in July 1940!

For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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