In 1941, the U.S. Army made a plea for entertainment for troops preparing for the war in training camps around the country. The Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy responded and, in May1941, sent out seven traveling show buses, bringing entertainment to service men in Army camps east of the Rockies.
Meanwhile, a Hollywood committee financed by agents and producers, and with the cooperation of the Screen Actors Guild, put on several large shows at military camps in California. But the demand for entertainment continued to increase.
Later that year, the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy, the USO and show business representatives met to come up with a solution. The result was USO Camp Shows, Inc., officially launched Oct. 30, 1941, as a separate corporation affiliated with and supported by the USO. USO Camp Shows, Inc., was designated by the War and Navy Departments as the ”Official Entertainer” of the men and women of the armed forces. The USO’s tradition of bringing entertainment to service members around the world was born.
During the peak of action in 1945, USO Camp Shows were presenting 700 shows a day, with more than 300,000 performances overseas and in the United States, to an audience totaling more than 173 million. From 1941 to 1947, more than 7,000 performers put on 428,521 shows of all kinds. The entertainers included stars of screen, stage, radio and the concert stage, as well as vaudevillians and “unknown” entertainers who wanted to show their support for the troops.
In the United States, stars made hospital visits, put on shows at military bases or served coffee and doughnuts in “canteens.” These celebrities include June Allyson, Milton Berle, Kathryn Grayson, Anne Jeffreys and Ann Miller. At the original State Door Canteen, located in Times Square, troops could meet the stars, be entertained and often be served a meal by stars “on duty.” Among those who performed were Kay Kayser and his band; Ed Wynne, Zavier Cugat and his band; Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians; Gypsy Rose Lee; Count Basie and Ethel Waters; Harpo Marx; and Benny Goodman and his band, with Peggy Lee. Other Stage Door Canteens opened around the country. Bette Davis helped to open the Hollywood Canteen, where actresses Ann Sothern, Hedy Lamarr and Linda Darnell could be found pouring coffee for service men. The “units” sent overseas to some 42 countries included Variety Units, Concert Units, Play Units, Musical Comedy Units, Sketching ArtistsUnits, Name-Band Units, all-Negro Units, Sports Units and All-Girl Units.
Camp Shows entertained as many as 15,000 soldiers seated on the ground, as few as 20 in jeeps based at a lonely outpost and at the bedsides of wounded soldiers recuperating in military hospitals.
The stars were not paid, but many performers were dependent on their earnings from these shows for their livelihood, although often for fees considerably lower than they could have made had they not interrupted their careers.
USO Camp Show Circuits included:
- The Victory Circuit (1941), which brought full-sized revues and concerts to larger military installations;
- The Blue Circuit (1942), which brought smaller touring companies to perform at Army and Navy installations;
- The Hospital Circuit (1944), which visited wards and auditoriums at U.S. military hospitals (and included the Hospital Sketching Program); and
- The Foxhole or Overseas Circuit, known as the Foxhole Circuit (and, sometimes, the cow pasture circuit), which went as close to the front lines as possible.
“Immediately, 5 people, mixed, male and female – with star if possible. Accordionist essential. Tropical climate, 6 months.”
This was a typical requisition from the Army to USO Camp Shows, Inc. Quick to respond, on Nov. 1, 1941, Mitzi Mayfair, Chico Marx, Ray Bolger, Laurel and Hardy, and John Garfield flew aboard “The Flying Showboat” for a 13,000-mile circuit to entertain troops. Al Jolson and Joe E. Brown went to Alaska. Other units were sent to Panama, Bermuda, Iceland, Newfoundland, Great Britain and Australia.
In 1942, Bob Hope, on his first overseas tour, went to Europe with Frances Langford, Tony Romano and Jack Pepper. At the end of the year, Camp Show units toured the South Pacific and the Middle East. In the spring of 1943, 199 overseas units brought a touch of home to troops. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy toured Newfoundland. Jack Benny and Larry Adler entertained in the Middle East, and Joe E. Lewis and Ray Bolger went to the Pacific. Judith Anderson took Shakespeare to Hawaii and later toured the Pacific. Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne did a production in the European Theatre. To solve the problem of scenery, units used drops that were folded into suitcases and supports that were easily dismantled. Moss Hart took “The Man Who Came to Dinner” to the Pacific. “Over 21” was presented on Cape Gloucester on a 12x12 stage lit entirely with flashlights. “Ten Little Indians” toured Italy for 10 months. The “Oklahoma” company performed in the Pacific.
In the spring of 1944, Camp Show performers toured the tent cities on the fields and beaches bordering the English Channel. On July 28th, eight Camp Show units with 43 men and women landed on Utah Beach, just 48 days after the DDay invasion. Plywood was laid atop a 30-ton ammunition carrier, and a public address system was set up for a show. The next day, entertainers went as close to the front as they could get. Units also were bringing up the curtain in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Such stars as James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Spike Jones and his orchestra, and many others went to the European Theatre. George Raft, John Garfield, Jascha Heifetz, Nelson Eddy and Jack Haley were among the many celebrities who traveled to North Africa.
Those stationed in the China-Burma-India theatre saw Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard, Lily Pons, Andre Kostelanetz, Jack Benny, Carole Landis, Larry Adler, Ann Sheridan, Judith Anderson, Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna, Frances Langford, Betty Hutton and Olivia de Havilland. Other stars involved with USO Camp Shows included Ann Sheridan, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Dinah Shore, Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Carol Lombard and Walt Disney. Private First Class Mickey Rooney performed for small groups of men across Germany. Before the war was over, Martha Raye had entertained soldiers in every theatre of war where American troops were stationed.
A concert unit that included Frederick Jagel, Robert Weede, Polyna Stoska, Isaac Stern and Alex Zakin landed in amphibious ducks, and 10,000 GIs saw their performances in New Guinea. Jascha Heifetz performed in a bombed-out German theater, and Ann Moray walked the wards of a hospital in Anzio singing to recovering troops. A subdivision of the concert unit included ballet. The sports world also turned out in support of the troops. Wrestler Nick Munday was in France and Belgium, and Ruth Aarons played table tennis with GIs in Normandy. Frank Frisch, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Gomez, Leo Durocher, Mel Ott and others from the baseball world visited troops. Boxers Jack Sharkey and Mickey Walker toured the European Theatre. Shortly after VJ-Day, Leo Durocher went with Danny Kaye to Japan.
The Sketch Artists program, which visited hospitals stateside and overseas, involved some 170 leading illustrators and portrait painters, drawing 30,000 portraits of wounded service men.
Following V-E Day, the Army asked for 100 Camp Show units in the European Theatre. Eleven musicals, 20 plays, 10 concert units and 59 variety units were rushed over, supplementing 26 hospitals units. Stars included Sonja Henie, Amos & Andy, “Information Please” with John Kieran, Jack Benny, Ingrid Bergman, The Andrew Sisters, Bob Hope, Allan Jones, Betty Hutton and many, many others. Another demand was made after V-J Day, and 86 additional units were dispatched to the Pacific.
The entertainers often faced the same dangers as the troops they were sent to entertain. While historical records differ on the actual figures, a number of Camp Show performers were killed, seriously wounded or injured during their service as “Soldiers in Greasepaint.” Glenn Miller, a major and head of the Army Air Corps Band, was killed in a plane crash en route to France. Musical theatre star Tamara Dreisen was killed in a plane crash near Lisbon in 1943. Singer Jane Froman was severely injured in the same crash.
Touring Camp Shows were discontinued in 1947 but were revived in 1951 with the approach of the Korean War. Some 126 entertainment units put on more than 5,400 shows in Korea. Stars included Jennifer Jones, Jack Benny, Errol Flynn, Danny Kaye, Robert Merrill, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Maxwell, Paul Douglas, Jan Sterling and Al Jolson. Jolson, who was warned not to make the trip by his doctor, died soon after he returned to the United States. Such stars as Paul Douglas, Ray Milland, Molly Picon, Walter Pidgeon, Jan Sterling and Keenan Wynn also went on tour. Celebrity units drawn from the USO Hollywood Coordinating Committee brought 866 performances to Korea. Among other stars were Rory Calhoun, Piper Laurie, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney and Frances Langford. Stateside visits included such stars as Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Colonna, Bob Hope and Anita Bryant.
In 1957, USO Camp Shows, Inc. was dissolved. The USO assumed all responsibility for managing the entertainment needs of service members around the world – a tradition that continues today.
Note: This fact sheet is based on available USO historical records. It is not intended to include the names of all celebrities who participated in USO Camp Shows. Jan 2006.