Sunday, 11 November 2018

Trouper for the Troops

It’s doubtful few people think that living in the jungles of Melanesia is the way to spend a summer. But some fighting forces during World War Two didn’t have much of a choice. That’s where the enemy was, and that’s where the military brass told them to go.

There were a few who did make the choice to go there, and into other danger spots around the world. They were entertainers, doing their part to help the morale, and maybe sanity, of the people in uniform.

Among them was Jack Benny, who arrived in New Guinea on July 14, 1944 with Carol Landis, Martha Tilton, Larry Adler and June Brunner. They were greeted on their arrival by Special Service Officer Captain Lanny Ross. Jack was no slacker during the war. He also toured Africa, Europe and the Middle East with a unit while the Allies’ battled together.

There were reporters as well. George Lait of the International News Service caught one of the Benny shows in New Guinea. He wrote in the August 2, 1944 edition of Variety, in part:
Benny is making all the jungle camps where it stops raining long enough for his hour-and-a-half show. Hospitals, outdoor stages, and the rear end of trucks serve the troupe, and each performance has been seen by audiences so huge and so enthusiastic that even the Shuberts would be satisfied.
Benny opens the rapid-fire vaudeville-type revue as m.c., and never was funnier, even when he had Rochester at his side instead of a couple of bushy-haired Papauan natives...
Then comes Landis—gorgeous in a revealing costume—and the GIs soon. She sings, tells gags alone and with Benny, and kids the boys who shout wisecracks from the audience. Her smash bit is a love scene with Benny, whose kiss is apparently so hot Carole faints, and is carried off-stage by a burly MP (his is the best job in the Army). There’s talk around, though, that Miss Landis swooned for an entirely different reason. Benny, it’s said, just loves onions... The flash finale is a rendition by the whole troupe (even Benny) singing Harold Rome’s “Hup Hup,” from “Stars & Gripes,” with scattered audience participation. It leaves the crowd satisfied and happy.
Benny’s comedy holds the show together and gives it a speedy pace which the old Palace could well envy. His monologs are filled with local gags, and uses bits of pidgin (native manner of speaking English) and draws howls with pitch-and-toss banter to the audience.
More touching, perhaps, is Robbin Coons’ Associated Press press column on the show. He published highlights of a letter from an American soldier who caught the Benny show. More on the letter in a moment. The earliest I can find this version is in one small paper’s editorial section of September 13, 1944. (The photo below came from the INS and is cropped).
Jack Benny Plays, Gags For Troops In Pacific
By Robbin Coons

HOLLYWOOD—Pvt. Woodrow Boone writes from the Pacific:
"Grabbed a chance to make one of Jack Benny's New Guinea appearances at the base hospital this afternoon. . . . We got there by 1:30 on a dusty truck. The hospital is a series of long sheds on a hilltop. There are very tall, slender trees on and beside the hill, reaching above the level of the outdoor theater. The walking and wheelchair cases were already there. . . . Jungle fighters, anxious for a two-hour furlough with folks from home. . . . A blue-and-gold streamlined bird flitted high in the branches and a white parrot flew by. . . . Our own brigade "swingphibian" orchestra marked time in prelude. . . . Three poker games were under way. We made conversation, admired the nurses, and waited. . . .
"Presently two jeeps and a command car drive up behind the theater. The crowd rises, sees no one, settles back. From the right side front row, I see behind the stage a heavy-set, grey-haired, brown-faced civilian in gunmetal tweeds, polo shirt, and red-striped necktie, and I know there'll be a show. Jack disappears into the special service shed for a few minutes; the band continues; we wait.
"Then very casually, swinging a curled swagger stick . . . walks out the greatest trouper of them all, Jack Benny. "Hi ya, fellas!" he says, and all, who can, rise and give him a loud welcome. We gather 'round. One hand reaches out to remember how a red necktie feels. Jack pulls out his shirttail zoot-fashion to let 'em see what that looks like too. One of my buddies from Ohio had said, 'I don't give a damn about seeing Jack Benny I just wanna see a civilian suit!'
"Jack ad libs, autographs my hat, tries it on and mugs for the audience . . . jokes with the orchestra members. . . . By that time the mike is fixed, and Jack takes the stage, more at home than ever. . . . "All the lusty GI jokes. . . . Then he introduces Martha Tilton. She sings; the crowd goes wild. She sings again and again. Blonde Carole Landis comes on in a summer frock that fits like it should in the right places. . . . There are Fred Allen jokes, Errol Flynn jokes, and Roosevelt jokes. . . . Carole asks Jack to pretend he's Robert Taylor, and they do a love scene.
"Jack wants to accompany Martha on his violin, but she won't let him. Larry Adler plays a dream of a Beethoven number on his harmonica. . . . More jokes, more songs. Jack begs to accompany Larry on his violin no soap. . . . I see appendectomy cases in the audience holding their sides and trying hard not to laugh. Pretty, petite pianist Jane Bruner almost steals the show with an ad lib about Jack's violin. Jack and Larry drift into a duet. . . .
"Then comes the finale. Five hard-working American artists together on the stage, bringing a touch of the good old U.S.A. to those of us who are far enough away to see what we're really fighting for the right to laugh, the right to enjoy life."
Reporter Coons wasn’t the first to publish this. It comes from A Private’s Journal, published in full in Billboard on August 26, 1944, with a dateline of Sunday, July 30th. Coons simply edited it for public use; after all, who outside the industry ever read Billboard then?

Some of the stuff Coons left out is worth quoting.
Pvt. “Hepcat” Swartz, the drummer, wears a perennial shaved-headed, cue-ball hair-do, and Jack wants to know what kind of hair tonic he uses. The piano-player, named Nolan, is from Waukeegan, and Jack says “I went to school with your father—or was it your grandfather?”
We ask about Rochester. “He had to take a summer job to pay expenses.” Dennis Day? “He left me to join the navy. “For 50 bucks a month?” some O.I. Joe asks. “That’s a damn sight more than I paid him.” ...
All the lusty G.I. jokes that start getting hairy-chested at the point of embarkation, and reach full-blown maturity in direct proportion to their nearness to the front line. . . . “I was surprised to find that very few of the South Pacific islands look like they did in the movies; I haven’t seen a single one that looked like I thought it would. In fact, there’s not a goddamn island in the Pacific that even slightly resembles a Hollywood set. The crowd roars.—“I had a slight touch of dysentery while we were in North Africa. I think you-all call it the G.I.S.”
Coons left off the end of Boone’s story, with its tribute to Jack Benny, who gave selflessly of himself to entertain the troops.
Some G.I’s who came to New Guinea didn’t get a chance to see you, Jack; some others who did may never go back to tell the folks at home about it, but none of us will ever forget you, trouper. You’re Will Rogers without his cowboy hat; you’re Mark Twain without his cynicism; in fact, if you’ll excuse the pun, Jack, you’re the 20th Century “Twain”—Unlimited!
Keep pitchin’, soldier!

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