I’ve been listening to a documentary about this presented by John Barrowman on BBC Radio 4.
In May 1941, ex-Sergeant Irving Berlin, then 53, was on tour at Camp Upton, his old Army base in Yaphank, New York during World War I. There he spoke with the commanding officers, including Capt. A.H. Rankin of Special Services, about restaging his original 1917 Army play, Yip! Yip! Yaphank.
As Laurence Bergreen notes:
“To set the wheels in motion, Berlin called Gen. George Marshall in Washington to propose his new all-soldier show. General Marshall approved Berlin's plan to stage a new morale-boosting revue on Broadway, and the production was under way.”
Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, who was 15 when she was at the opening-night performance of "This is the Army" on Broadway, remembered that when her father, who normally shunned the spotlight, appeared in the second act in soldier's garb to sing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," he was greeted with a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes.
This was put on to boost morale for the war effort, but it did more than that.
Berlin was granted the chance to add African Americans into this play, which he was not allowed to do in Yip, Yip Yaphank. This would not be unconventional for Berlin, but it would be for the United States Army—no whites and African Americans would appear on stage simultaneously.
This was deliberate on his part. He wanted the show to reflect the whole army, not just part of it. As Bergreen notes:
“This extraordinary gesture derived not so much from Berlin's social beliefs as from his show business background and savvy. In the show business milieu, blacks had long been stars, popular with both African-American and white audiences. By integrating the revue, Berlin was simply importing the conventions with which he was familiar into the army.”
“However, he was not blind to appearances; he knew his gesture would at the least be progressive, and probably controversial. But he believed the armed forces were the great leveller in American society. In his youth, he had seen the Great War reduce barriers separating Jewish, German, Irish, and Italian ethnic groups in the United States. Yet blacks had been excluded from this quiet revolution; even in Yip! Yip! Yaphank, the black numbers had been performed by whites in blackface in the manner of a minstrel show.”
Berlin also in insisted on donating the proceeds of the sheet music sales to the army, a move which upset his financial manager Saul Bornstein who could not believe that such a lucrative source of revenue could simply be handed away.
After Broadway, and a special production for Roosevelt in Washington, the musical production went on a national tour. The national tour of the revue ended in San Francisco on February 13, 1943. By that time, it had earned $2 million for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
A movie was made, and earned $9,555,586.44--a sum that Jack Warner had agreed a trifle reluctantly, donated to Army Emergency Relief.
Then came the foreign tour. The plan, at first, was for the company to play throughout England for three months, after which This Is the Army would be disbanded for good.
It began in London, when it continued at the Palladium, despite on one occasion a possible bomb on the roof, and despite the air raid sirens and blitz. These were, after all, soldiers, and they stayed. So did the audience. After London the revue toured the provinces--Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast--and returned to London to perform for General Eisenhower on February 6, 1944.
Thanks to Berlin complaining to General Eisenhower about the plans to disband, Eisenhower wrote to General Marshall proposing that This Is the Army play to soldiers on all fronts in the field of combat.
They went to North Africa, Italy, Rome, Egypt, Iran, New Guinea. This was a punishing schedule, and Bergreen notes:
“Few theatrical troupes have suffered as many hardships as did the company of This Is the Army, but the beleaguered soldier-actors prevailed through a combination of ingenuity and enthusiasm. Part of the credit belonged to the men themselves, by now welded into a band with a fanatical devotion to their cause, a fanaticism required to survive, and part belonged to Berlin himself, whose indomitable will had made the worldwide tour possible.”
“The overcrowding aboard decrepit ships, inferior food, isolation, constant danger, and lack of women had all subjected the members of the company to an unusual degree of stress. Without Berlin's example of persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the company would have quickly disintegrated. With it, however, they could be resourceful and tenacious, even when their surroundings mocked their efforts, battered their health, and reduced the show from a Broadway smash to theatre of the absurd.”
And the prejudices returned in that arena. As Anderson recalled: “In the Pacific, they tried to separate the black guys from the rest of the outfit. We had to produce a paper that said, 'General Marshall gives us orders to travel together.' And they listened to us because they didn't want us to go back to General Marshall. So we were not segregated in living quarters, or in eating, or working.”
As Seymour Greene, trombone player recalled when 93: He everyone in the show felt so strongly about it, that if they arrived at a camp, station or city that was segregated, and the African-American cast members were told they would have to sleep and eat separately, the whole cast and crew would join the African-American Soldiers in the “colored” barracks. -
Forgotten now, one thing that struck me with the BBC Radio 4 archive, and those recalling memories from those days, was the amount of racial prejudice. It was clear that Irving Berlin wanted not only to reflect the mix of races in the musical, but to go some way towards breaking down those barriers.
It could only do so much. Onstage, the numbers were racially separated, but backstage, the company lived and worked as a team, regardless of race. Black and white soldiers lived together, worked together, and travelled together–meaning that they all stayed in the same hotels and boarding houses as they travelled around the country.
As Max Wilk, the oldest surviving member of the company explained in a PBS documentary, the show was the first instance of black and white integration in the armed forces. Private Max Wilk served as the advance man for the company, arranging lodging and booking theatres in places where African-Americans were not welcome, and frequently having to produce a “By order of the Secretary of War” letter to secure blocks of rooms for the entire company in the same facility.
Prejudice runs deep, and in Jersey, there is still, I suspect, a submerged degree of xenophobia against the more recent immigrants. Perhaps we need a musical review to bring together and celebrated the different cultures and diversity in our own Island.