Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Comfort For the Troops

No doubt Jack Benny’s writers threw away ideas for scripts that just didn’t work. We’ve had to do the same thing with our Benny Christmas post.

At first, we wanted to write something about Christmas With Jack Benny, an industrial film Jack made for Roy Grandey Productions in the early ‘60s for the Salvation Army Winter Fund. But I can’t find out anything about it, so that idea was out.

Next, we came across a story in the New York Herald Tribune that Jack was about to be on the very first bill of the Keith Albee Theatre in Flatbush, Queens, on Christmas Day 1928. After digging and a lot of confusion, I found ads for the bill and a story on its opening in the Brooklyn Daily Star of the following day. Jack was mentioned nowhere. It appears he wasn’t on the bill after all. I did find stories and box ads about Jack playing Proctor’s 58th Street (newly rebuilt) the week before and the Hippodrome on 6th Avenue the week after (Billboard’s reviewer sniffed that critics had probably memorised Benny’s act as they had seen it so many times). So that idea was out, too.

Instead, we’ll bring you a couple of related wire service Christmas stories from 1950 that only indirectly involve Jack Benny. Even today, many people enjoy listening to Jack’s old radio shows. But imagine that you’re several thousand miles away from home in a war zone. Wouldn’t you like some kind of reminder of home? This story is from December 24th. There is no byline.
Radio Stars Join to Give Troopers Special Package as Christmas Gift
HOLLYWOOD—(U.P.)—It will be a merrier Christmas for American fighting men throughout the world when Armed Forces Radio Service sends out its special short-waved Christmas package. Christmas carols and the familiar voices of Bing Crosby and Jane Russell will form a backdrop of home for GIs behind the booming guns in Korea and the lonely outposts of Europe.
AFRS has recorded more than 44 hours of the best radio programs of the year, along with special yuletide features, to beam their way tomorrow and Monday. Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Bob Hope and uncounted glamor girls will sing and cut up for the service men.
GIs also will hear the Los Angeles Rams-Cleveland Brown championship professional football game Christmas Day, the day after it is played. “A real present for the boys,” said an AFRS spokesman. “Football is our most popular program.”
Fighting men have their choice of religious services, sports, music and command performances by the favorite stars of screen and radio—even grand opera. Soldiers and sailors from Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York will hear friends and celebrities from their own home towns.
Hospitalized veterans will be the only persons in this country to hear the program, the most extensive ever arranged for radio.
The role of Santa Claus is filled by AFRS, a combined operation of all branches of the military. Col. William M. Wright, Jr., commands the Hollywood center, which services 68 far-flung stations from Pusan, Korea, to North Africa.
Included in the show business Christmas special will be such stars as Ann Blythe, Jeanne Crain, Pat O'Brien and MacDonald Carey.
Home front and world-wide news will keep GIs on all fronts abreast of the yuletide festivities at home.
AFRS, deluged by mail from men overseas clamoring for their favorite programs, gets the cooperation of radio networks and motion picture studios in producing its year-round shows.
Without that cooperation AFRS would be forced out of business. The cost of talent alone would be astronomical.
Private stations and networks also give AFRS the right to transcribe and re-broadcast many of their commercial programs, entirely free of charge.
The military radio went into operation shortly after Pearl Harbor and is headquartered in a two-story building in Hollywood.
As soon as its Christmas show is out of the way, it will go to work on a New Year's Day “present” for its listeners—broadcasts of the Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange bowl football games.
The following story appeared in newspapers the next day. The war correspondent who filed this report was later killed in a riot; beaten to death while on his way to cover a bus strike in Singapore on May 12, 1955. Communists were blamed.
It's Quiet Christmas Eve Up in Foxholes
By GENE SYMONDS

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF SEOUL, Dec. 24.—(UP)—It's a quiet Christmas Eve up here in the foxholes—quiet and frightening and bitter cold.
There are no Christmas trees, no presents, no laughing friends shouting, "Merry Christmas," no tousled-haired kids to creep down stairs before dawn to see what Santa Claus brought them. Christmas Eve here is a machine gun sitting on the edge of your foxhole with the bolt back ready to go. It's a pale, full moon casting grotesque shadow among the fierce, rugged mountain peaks around you. It's your buddy crouching in the bottom of a freezing dugout with a blanket around his shoulders to smoke a cigarette.
COLD, CALM NIGHT
It might have been a night like this in Bethlehem 1,950 years ago when Christ was born—the night clear, cold, calm.
Out there, across those mountain peaks a few miles away, are the Communists. They have been building up a long time and tonight would be a nice time for them to strike.
Back from the front a short way in command tents and dugouts there are small fires, some companionship and perhaps a bottle or two that someone managed to hold on to. The talk, what there is of it, is all of home: “I wonder what the folks will be doing tonight?” and “I wonder what Mary got the kids for Christmas?” and “I hope to hell I am home for Christmas next year.”
SOME RADIOS
Some of the tents have radios and we can listen to Christmas programs from the Armed Forces Radio station in Seoul. It helps a little hearing familiar voices like Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy; yes, it helps a little, but not much.
There's a thin layer of snow on everything and you can feel the ground tighten up as it freezes solid after a brief period of relatively warm weather. In Seoul there will be a midnight mass for United Nations troops but there will be no midnight services for Koreans, because of the curfew. Those Koreans who have managed to hang on to their radios will listen along with the soldiers to services broadcast from Tokyo.
Driving back from the front the cold bites deeper into your flesh and you feel sorry for the lonely MP's guarding bridges and roads. Some of them are permitted to have fires if they are far enough back from the front. They spend Christmas Eve trying to keep warm.
There are not many refugees on the roads tonight. They have stopped wherever they could for the night in homes still standing after two successive waves of fighting, in barns and in stables.
It is not unlikely that a Korean babe will be born along the road in some shabby building this Christmas Eve, 1950, in Korea.
Soldiers in Korea got to see Jack Benny in person. He had wanted to go in 1950 after Al Jolson performed for soldiers there but was advised by his doctor not to (Variety, Dec. 6, 1950). He finally went in July the following year (with Frank Remley and Errol Flynn) but the tour was cut short as Jack physically couldn’t deal with the grind in the oppressive war zone. That didn’t stop him from entertaining for the men and women who served their country. Louella Parsons reported in her column that Benny and Ann Blyth spent Christmas Day 1951 in Beaumont, Texas putting on a show for wounded vets, and then taking the show to army bases in New Mexico.

Jack Benny gave much of his time to help others, even on Christmas. Even if he couldn’t be there in person.

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