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A Way To Bring Shows To Soldiers

One of the most famous USO photos: in the sweltering heat of Burma, Ann Sheridan hugs a deliriously grateful GI

The USO had planned to provide live entertainment for the troops, both as a morale boost for the men and as a way of taking the burden off the small towns near the bases, which at best, usually had only a small movie theater. But what started out as a way to bring shows to soldiers had, by the war's end, become the single greatest entertainment enterprise in show business history.

Soon after the USO was officially launched in early 1941, professionals in the entertainment industry - including movie studio executives, producers, and agents - became concerned over how the new organization would fare in hiring talent, producing shows, and handling the other complex details that such vast undertakings would entail.

Walter Hoving, the USO's first president, sought the advice of entertainment industry leaders. Upon their recommendation, the USO created Camp Shows, Inc., on October 30, 1941. This organization was funded through the USO; however, it was governed by a separate board of directors drawn from the ranks of entertainment industry giants intimately familiar with all the intricate tasks peculiar to show business.

The president of Camp Shows, Inc., was Abe Lastfogel, king of the talent agents and chairman of the board at the William Morris Agency. Through his efforts, all the major entertainment unions - including the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity, and the major musicians' unions - agreed to allow entertainers to waive pay and working conditions requirements in order to bring live shows to armed forces personnel.

A parallel effort was being organized by Thomas J. Watson, Sr., president of International Business Machines (IBM) during World War II. In the fall of 1940 he led the way in forming the group Friends of New York Sailors and Soldiers, which became the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy in January 1941. The committee distributed records and books to men from across the States. By May of 1941 the Citizens Committee was presenting shows in seven trucks loaned by General Motors to serve as mobile stages in Army camps east of the Rockies. One of the first shows was at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The earliest overseas tour began on October 30, 1941, and continued for two weeks at defense installations in the Caribbean with Laurel and Hardy, John Garfield, Ray Bolger, Chico Marx, and Mitzi Mayfair. In November 1941, the group was officially included in USO Camp Shows, Inc. When the United States officially entered the war, plans were immediately made to bring regular live shows to Americans fighting overseas.

Under Lastfogel's direction, four main entertainment circuits were designated for show tours. The Victory Circuit brought such fully staged Broadway shows as Mexican Hayride, Panama Hattie, Blithe Spirit, The Little Indians, and Over 21 to 640 stateside military bases with facilities for large audiences. The Blue Circuit brought smaller companies of vaudeville entertainers to military bases without facilities for large audiences. The Hospital Circuit brought special entertainment units to military personnel in hospitals. The most well-known of all USO-sponsored entertainment efforts were the Camp Shows' units that toured the Foxhole Circuit, boosting the spirits of American soldiers, airmen, and sailors around the world with shows in Alaska, Australia, Baffin Island, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Burma, Canada, the Caribbean, Central Africa, China, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Greenland, Guam, Hawaii, Iceland, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Labrador, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, New Caledonia, the South Pacific, and the Soviet Union.

Of the various circuits, the Foxhole Tour is perhaps the most famous. If you've seen (or read) "Four Jills In a Jeep" by Carole Landis, Bette Midler and James Caan in "For the Boys" or any of the Bob Hope Christmas Specials, you've seen the Foxhole Tour. The first overseas celebrity tour was actually not a Camp Shows production. Four Hollywood women, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair and Carole Landis toured England on behalf of the American Theatre Wing, a charity run by stage women, beginning in May 1942, just three months after our troops arrived there. (Their adventures are chronicled in "Four Jills in a Jeep".) It took Camp Shows another year to get permission to send units to England. However, by 1946 it had sent 5,424 entertainers overseas. Twenty-eight players lost their lives while on USO tour, primarily in transport plane crashes.

Camp Shows, Inc., engaged over seven thousand performers, who became known as "Soldiers in Greasepaint." Many well-known figures of stage, screen, and radio donated their talent, comprising a veritable Who's Who of stars of the 1940s. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Ann Sheridan, the Andrews Sisters, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Dinah Shore, Paulette Goddard, Ed Gardner of "Duffy's Tavern," Al Jolson, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Gertrude Lawrence, and Walt Disney were among the cavalcade of stars who so willingly gave of themselves to bring delight and laughter to American servicemen in every far-flung corner of World War II. Before the war was over, Martha Raye had entertained soldiers in every theater of war where American troops were stationed.

Big-mouthed comedian Joe E. Brown, who was to lose his son in the war, was the first Hollywood star to tour front-line bases, playing for the troops in Alaska and the Aleutians in 1942. Brown had a signature joke, a corny joke really, which made it all the more endearing. Louis Sobol, in The American Legion Magazine, described the scene. [Brown] would point to a GI in the audience and demand: "You over there! Where do you come from?" The answer might be Brooklyn or Pittsburgh or Dallas - it didn't matter. Then Brown would shout: "You mean you adtnit it?" Brown later went on to be the first USO performer to tour the China-Burma-India theater of operations.

Marlene Dietrich, whose sister was a prisoner at the Belsen concentration camp, took a particular risk in playing to soldiers: Adolf Hitler had placed her on his infamous death list. Nonetheless, Dietrich performed at Utah Beach, Normandy, in July 1944, a mere twenty-eight days after D Day. A few months later, during the Battle of the Bulge, Dietrich and her unit were about to be captured by German troops when they were rescued by soldiers from the U.S. 82d Airborne Division.

Lesser-known entertainers, of course, provided most of the performances. Throughout the war, they brought, incredibly, 428,521 live shows to stateside and overseas audiences of armed forces men and women numbering 212,974,401. Among them, for example, was Maebelle K. Smith, who brought her "Ziegfield in Miniature" shows to service personnel at training bases throughout south Florida. Another was Billy McIntyre. A soldier-musician who was attached to a USO unit, he played with the "Dogtaggers," the first American band to play jazz in the Soviet Union, at Poltava Air Base, in January 1945.

Many of these "Soldiers in Greasepaint" faced the same dangers as the fighting men they were sent to entertain. Thirty-seven of them died in the course of the war, including musical theater star Tamara Dreisen, who was killed along with twenty other performers in a plane crash in Lisbon, Portugal, in February 1943. Severely injured in the same crash was singer Jane Froman, who later recovered and resumed touring for the USO. Benny Goodman and Sammy Kaye were among the top names in popular music who regularly braved the dangers of combat zones to bring their batons and orchestras to the front to entertain the troops. And, of course, the legendary Glenn Miller (Maj. Glenn Miller, director of the Army Air Corps band), was killed on December 16, 1944, when his plane went down en route from England to France.

All entertainers in overseas units had to follow strict guidelines of conduct to maintain military security. In order to protect the secrecy of troop locations, USO entertainers on the Foxhole Circuit were strictly forbidden from revealing their schedule or itinerary to anyone and afterward could not relate where they had been or to . what units they had played. (Nearly fifty years later American performers such as Jay Leno and Steve Martin encountered the same kind of restrictions when they visited American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.)

In addition, since civilians attached to military units overseas were liable to be mistaken for spies if captured by the enemy, USO performers were required to wear special uniforms identifying them as noncombatants. A case in point is what happened to the comedy duo of Jane and Joe McKenna, who at Normandy in late July 1944, less than two months after D Day, went out for a ride after dark and were captured by a German patrol. The McKennas later recalled that, although the Germans spoke no English and they no German, they communicated to their captors in pantomime and other gestures that they were entertainers and not soldiers; the drawn guns were lowered. Twelve days later, Jane and Joe McKenna were liberated by the advancing Allies.

Foxhole Circuit entertainers played to all sizes of audiences, from as many as fifteen thousand GIs at a large stadium or airfield to as few as fifteen or twenty soldiers standing around a jeep at a remote battlefield crossroads. Field-hospital performances were the scene of many poignant memories for USO performers. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, with the help of his wooden-headed partner Charlie McCarthy, managed to get a smile and a laugh out of a soldier who, after experiencing a particularly fierce bombing raid, had not eaten or spoken for over a week. It was actually "McCarthy" who made the breakthrough when he said to Bergen, "Oh, nuts, boss, say something bright. Our pal here is bored." The soldier struggled to a sitting position, grinned weakly, and said, "Hi." It was the first word he had uttered in eight days. Bergen would later refer to the incident as one of the highlights of his long and distinguished career.

Unfortunately, not all of the memories were happy. A young woman singer with the USO, on a visit to an Army hospital in Italy, was asked by a wounded soldier to sing "Abide with Me." When she began to sing, he abruptly stopped her, and said he did not want her to perform it then but later, at his funeral. Hiding her shock, she tried to joke him out of his morbid prediction, to no avail. A few days later, the soldier, barely into manhood, died; the equally young singer granted his wish.

The Camp Shows' units brought to millions of young servicemen on the front lines of World War II both a slice of American life and a lot of hope - Bob Hope, that is. On May 6, 1941, five months before the USO took its official plunge into show business, Hope's radio show, sponsored by Pepsodent Toothpaste, was broadcast in front of a live audience of Army personnel at March Field, in Riverside, California. His brand of humor - which novelist John Steinbeck described as "topical, both broad and caustic, but never aimed at people, but at conditions and ideas" - articulated for the men what they were experiencing in those days when war clouds loomed in the immediate future. He later remarked that the servicemen and women he played to appreciated his act mainly because it communicated to Americans at home what they were going through, and he characterized himself as the Army's "ski-nosed Western Union." Soon afterward, Hope played to troops at Camp Pendleton and San Diego Naval Base - which Hope later called "one of the largest pools of lonesome men in the United States" - where the broadcast was again a laugh-packed success. For the rest of the war, Hope's Pepsodent Show regularly appeared at military bases throughout the country.

In 1946, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Hope with the Medal of Merit, the first of many high honors Hope would receive over the years in recognition of his efforts to keep up the spirit of America's armed forces personnel.

Steinbeck, writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1943, captured best the essence of what Bob Hope meant to the troops: The story is told in one of those nameless hospitals ... Hope and company had worked until gradually they had got leaden eyes to sparkling, had planted and nurtured and coaxed laughter to life.

A gunner, who had a stomach wound, was gasping softly with laughter. A railroad casualty slapped the cast of his left hand with his right hand by way of applause. And once the laughter was alive, the men laughed even before the punch line, and it had to be repeated so they could laugh again. Finally, it came time for Frances Langford to sing. The men asked for "As Time Goes By." She stood up beside the little GI piano and started to sing. Her voice was a little hoarse and strained. She had been working too hard and too long.

She got through eight bars when a boy with a head wound began to cry. She stopped, and then went on. But her voice wouldn't work anymore. She finished the song whispering. Then she walked out, so no one could see her, and broke down. The ward was quiet. No one applauded. Then Hope walked into the aisle between the beds and he said seriously: "Fellows, the folks at home are having a terrible time about eggs. They can't get any powdered eggs at all. They've got to use the old-fashioned kind you break open." The hospital exploded into laughter. "There's a man for you," Steinbeck concluded, "there is really a man."

Frank Coffey. Soldiers in Greasepaint: Entertaining the Troops. Always Home: 50 Years of the USO--The Official Photographic History. Brassey's Inc, 1991.


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