Entertaining the Doughboys: Two Accounts of American Concert Parties ‘Over There’ During the First World War—Entertaining the American Army by James W. Evans & Gardner L. Harding and Trouping for the Troops by Margaret Mayo
Putting on a show for troops who marched under the ‘stars and bars’.
Concert parties performing for soldiers on campaign were unknown before the First World War, but British entertainment troupes, after much opposition from military authorities, eventually began performing for ‘the boys over there’ on the Western Front. By the time the American Army arrived in Europe in 1917 the volunteer services which supported troops in the field with everything from canteens to medical care were an established feature on the field of conflict. These invaluable people, often women, carried out their duties in very difficult circumstances with great courage and sometimes with great sacrifice. If the American Army was new to the battlefields of France then American performers needed no lessons in how to put on a show and fewer still in patriotism when it came to supporting their nation’s servicemen. Here are two fascinating accounts, published together in this good value edition, about how ‘showbusiness’ went to war to entertain the troops for the first time. These great troupers gave birth to the tradition of brave men and women from the United States that has been kept alive through the conflicts fought during the 20th century in European theatres, in deserts and steaming jungles right to the present day.
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There was a snicker, then a gale of laughter. Miss Woodfin hesitated, but her audience applauded uproariously, so she went on, thinking they were laughing with pleasure at the prospect before them. But the snickers and giggles kept breaking out, and at last, after the lesson was over. Miss Woodfin turned around and said to her accompanist, “Now tell me what the matter is.”
So they told her she had taught “Tickle Toe” to the Flat-Foot Camp.
Another “woman party” which upheld the banner of self-reliant womanhood was the little unit composed of Marian Dana, of Chicago, and Hazel Bartlett of St. Paul. They went over on an unwieldy old ship that hit the autumn seas heavy and hard and sprang a leak a few days out. For six days there was water on the lower decks, which finally reached a stable depth well above the ankles. The boys in the bunks below figured that heavy seas and decks awash would keep silk-stockinged entertainers up in their proper places in the passengers’ cabins, but these plucky Middle Western girls took off their shoes and stockings and went right down.
They went down every day, and with their feet covered with brine sang, “If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Then Goodbye Germany,” splashing about in the water to the tune of that rollicking chorus as if they did that sort of thing every day.
There sailed from New York in October, 1918, a group of four girls, “Just Girls”—Garda Kova, a classic and aesthetic dancer who undertook the management; Margaret Coleman, soprano soloist at St. Matthew’s, New York; Marguerite Stunner, singer and story-teller; and Diana Kasner, pianist. They landed in England, dividing their time between London and King Llynn. They then went to France and were in Paris when the Armistice was signed They entertained the Twenty-Sixth, Seventy-Seventh, and Eighty-First Divisions around Chaumont, then went to the Riviera and Marseilles, back to Paris, and to all the larger camps again. All this was in midwinter.
If a single group were to be selected for mention as typifying the spirit which sent the entertainers over dangerous seas and through sunless days in cheerless billets, none would be more surely representative than “Just Girls.” Their engagements were so continuous and so exactly met that the unit was finally destroyed by the illness of two of its members. Margaret Coleman returned to America, her health seriously impaired. The unit was later revived by Diana Kasner, with three new members, and it followed the Third Army to Coblenz and played three months in Germany.
Out of all the companies which remain, let us take a final glance at the unassuming but eventful record of one of the most tireless little units of all, “The Electric Sparks.” Headed by Harry Israel, its membership included Annie Abbott, the Georgia Magnet, who had a jujitsu act in which she guaranteed to lift or throw the largest sergeant in the audience (and invariably made good); Doris Thayer, a New England girl who did character singing and monologue and made the song “Oui, Oui, Marie” universally known throughout the American Army; and Gladys Sears, who did almost any kind of dialogue from Swedish to Italian, but fixed her principal attention on Irish songs, and rose to universal appreciation by the manner in which she rendered the classic lines of “Knox ’Em Down, McCluskey.”
“The Electric Sparks” went over on October 26, 1918, and Armistice Day found them the big feature on the bill at the gala performance at the Eagle Hut in London. They entered France by means of the much travelled Brest route, and for many weeks played the lonely towns in Brittany surrounding the great Brest embarkation camp. Here they put a new breath of life into the thousands who were chafing under the first disillusion of the long delay in getting transportation home. Brittany was primitive enough for any American quartered there, so “The Electric Sparks” soon become accustomed to playing on a dirt floor, in barns having no windows and with what the doughboys called “ventilated” roofs, to let the Brittany rain in. The pianos universally suffered from that richness of tone which the Brittany sea air and seven days of rain a week gave to mediocre instruments which were never tuned.
Their long spell of unremitting work took its usual toll. Miss Abbott was forced to remain at Brest to recover from an influenza-threatening cold, while Miss Thayer was operated upon at the same time for an eye affliction. This necessitated the regrouping of the company, but while in Paris Mr. Israel was fortunate enough to enlist in his company the services of Robert Woolley, a Y.M.C.A. Secretary from Schenectady, N. Y., who had come over in September as a religious worker and had been through the thick of the war as one of the best known vocalists and song leaders in the Battle of the Argonne.
The show had a lively final number composed of a medley of catchy song hits, working up to a climax in which the whole company, and the whole audience usually, joined in “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” At first Mr. Woolley was off the stage when this great number was put on, but one day he asked if he might not take part in it. So “The Electric Sparks” taught him some dance steps, lively ones but with due regard to his professional restraint, and at the next show Woolley appeared in the centre of the stage and danced his steps in the finale. The result was a crashing, smashing hit, and the show closed amid the stormiest doughboy approval they had yet seen.
Thus did the Church and stage cooperate to the profit and edification of the friendliest critic either of them ever had—the American doughboy. It was a partnership multiplied in many other sectors, in the give-and-take fraternity of the World War—and many a doughboy got a religious message from a loyal old stage veteran like Will Cressy, and learned what a good laugh really was after seeing Robert Woolley on an A. E. F. stage.