Sunday, 12 January 2014

Entertaining in the Korean War Zone

Bob Hope wasn’t the only star who travelled around the world entertaining troops, though he’s probably the first person you think of when the subject comes up. For example, Jack Benny toured during World War Two (including a stop in the oppressive summer heat in Iraq). He also made a jaunt to Korea during the conflict there.

To the right, you see a picture dated June 26, 1951 of the Benny troupe. You should recognise at least one other face. In the far right of the photo is the formerly swashbuckling Errol Flynn, who died eight years later not too many blocks from where Jack’s wife, Mary Livingstone, grew up in Vancouver’s West End. To the far left is someone well-known to Benny fans—guitarist Frank Remley. Also in the photo are Benay Venuta, Marjorie Reynolds, tap dancer Dolores Gay, mentalist Harry Kahne and pianist June Bruner, who had been with Benny on a U.S.O. tour of the South Pacific during World War Two. The group returned home August 6th. He was cheery about the experience when he talked to the Associated Press’ Hollywood reporter about the jaunt. The column appeared in newspapers on August 10, 1951.

Hollywood, Aug. 10 (AP)—"The morale of our men in Korea is terrific," reports Jack Benny, returned this week from entertaining troops in the front lines.
"They know what they're fighting for," added the fiddle-hacking comedian. "Naturally, they want peace. But they want the right kind of peace, and they're willing to continue fighting until they get it.
"The one thing that nearly every one of them asks is: 'Do the people back home know there's a war on?' I told them, 'You're darned right they do.'"
In his six weeks absence from Hollywood, Benny figures he traveled between 25,000 and 30,000 miles with his entertainment troupe. They played before troops and wounded veterans in Hawaii, Japan, Okinawa and throughout Korea. It was a thorough job. Virtually every possible audience of U. S. soldiers in the Orient was reached, with one exception. That was a group at Pusan who could not be reached because of bad landing conditions for aircraft.
"It was the toughest tour I ever made," said Benny, who made five world-wide journeys to entertain troops in World War II. "But also it was the most satisfying. I think we did the best job possible. Not only did we reach every audience we could, but we gave all the time possible to the other things that are important—posing for pictures with the GIs, signing autographs, talking and eating with the boys.
"The food was good wherever we went," said Benny. "But the living and traveling conditions were tougher than anywhere I had been, including North Africa. Much of the time I was living in a dirt-floor tent close to the front lines.
"We had to use every kind of transportation, from light aircraft to helicopter to jeep. The reason is because Korea is so mountainous. The boys have a gag over there that if Korea were flattened out, it would be as big as Texas."
Benny commented that his audiences were highly appreciative of the entertainment. They howled at any reference to Benny's alleged stinginess, such as: "That Tokyo is a fast town; I was there just a few days ago and 50 yen went just like that." As for his violin playing, "you'd think I was Heifetz."
Wherever he went, army bands would strike up "Love in Bloom." A navy base in Japan was filled with signs reading "Waukegan City Limits." As in the last war, there were occasional "Welcome Fred Allen" banners.
"There was only one audience from which we didn't get the laughs we usually got," he recalled. "They were a bunch of fellows who had to go out the next morning and take a hill which we could see from where we were. They were naturally uneasy, not because they were scared but because of the feeling that they might get hit with the peace possibly near."
Benny is urging other stars to enlist for entertainment in Korea. "It is the greatest audience in the world," he said.
"But it's a funny thing—they want good entertainment or none at all. They get fairly late movies and they like them if the pictures are good. If they're bad, the boys will walk out in the middle."
I asked Jack what gag got his biggest laugh.
"It was usually a local joke," he replied. "The best one was when I'd tell them I was going to retire and be a movie producer: "I can see it now—Jack Benny presents Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in 'The Road to Taegu'."

The United Press published a bit of a different take on the tour the following month. Jack admitted he was a little worn out by the whole experience. It wasn’t like he was 39; he was 57 years old. But he didn’t take it easy, either. He appeared in living rooms weekly for more than a dozen more years and performed benefit concerts and other charity events. He was beginning a movie comeback at the time of his death in 1974. But when the next war rolled around in Vietnam, Benny left the entertaining to others. One of them was Bob Hope. Ol’ Ski Nose wasn’t quite exhausted yet.

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