WASHINGTON, July 4, 2012 — For too many people the 4th of July is just another day at the beach.
However, 70 Years ago today, marked the first 4th of July of WWII. In New York City, Irving Berlin’s “This Is the Army” opened. Billed to run four weeks as a fundraiser for the Army Emergency Relief Fund, it was extended four weeks and then four more.
All 350-cast members of this inspiring show were members of the United States Army. The musical included 19 Irving Berlin songs: “God Bless America,” “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones,” and “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” The composer himself sang a humorous military ditty called, “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning.”
This week, I was once again privileged to talk with my old pal Seymour Greene, 92, who shared his memories of his three and half years traveling across America and around the world with the show. For troops it was a powerful morale booster. For all Americans it was an inspiration.
After receiving his draft notice, musician Seymour Greene completed his basic training at Fort Dix and then received orders to pack his bags, grab his trombone and report to Camp Upton, Long Island where he met America’s premier songwriter, Irving Berlin and learned of his upcoming show, “This Is the Army.” Seymour joined the cast and participated in every performance from its July 4th, 1942, opening to its October 1945 closing. “The full distance,” as Seymour calls it.
Hollywood’s Lieutenant Ronald Reagan had a lead role as a song-and-dance man with George Murphy playing his father, even though he was only nine years older. Others included Joan Leslie, Frances Langford, and the incomparable Kate Smith who delivered her signature song, “God Bless America.”
In addition to its all-military cast, the show claimed another distinction: it was the only integrated military unit with a cast of 25 black soldiers. The group insisted that it not be divided along racial lines and top military brass honored that request without objection. “I think our outfit set a fine example,” Green states, his pride still showing after all these years.
Following its original 12 weeks in New York, the Army transported the show to the National Theatre in Washington. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had enjoyed the show on three separate occasions in New York and she eagerly wanted her husband to see it. Two of those shows stand out in Seymour’s mind: the show “for GIs only” and the one that President Roosevelt watched from a box seat. Prior to the opening curtain that night, First Lt. Reagan stepped center stage and said, “You know who is out there tonight? Our Boss, the President.”
“After that performance,” Seymour told me with evident excitement, “the cast was invited to the White House for a midnight breakfast. There, in the White House, the First Lady sat with us at the table and chatted for a couple of hours.”
After Washington, the cast traveled across America to St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. Then Hollywood called. Warner Bros. wanted to produce a movie of the show. The cast traveled by train to Hollywood and met Jack Warner, head of the studio, and the director Michael Curtiz, who had recently completed “Casablanca,’ which would later win the Oscar as Best Picture for 1943.
Before filming began, Warner Bros. built the troops a regular military camp with tents, an orderly room and medical facility. Seymour sometimes stayed “off campus,” however, and hitchhiked to the studio in the early morning. In uniform, he had no problem getting rides. One morning, he recalls with a smile, he was picked up and driven to the studio by an attractive woman who looked familiar. It was Ingrid Bergman. (“Of all the roadsides in all the towns in all the world, she has to drive up to mine.”)
Seymour laughs, recalling that when Irving Berlin sang his one solo, a cameraman muttered, “You know, if the guy who wrote that song heard this guy singing it, he’d roll over in his grave.” Mr. Berlin enjoyed telling that story.
“This Is the Army” would win an Oscar for Best Musical Score for 1943. (The movie is in public domain and can be seen on www.youtube.com.)
The Washington, D.C. premiere of the movie took place at Warner’s Earle Theater at 13th and E streets on August 12, 1943.
Seymour is readily observable in the opening scene as the camera pans a patriotic rally. It then closes in on a stage where a woman is singing a rousing song. Immediately to her right sits Seymour Greene enthusiastically sliding his trombone. [See video at end of this story.]
After Hollywood, the cast transferred back East, was cut to half the size and shipped overseas to do the show.
They played the famous London Palladium, and the Royal Family visited backstage to welcome the cast. Seymour says, “I remember I got the impression that King George VI had some kind of speech impediment because his wife did most of the talking. The two teenage daughters,” he adds, “were poised and pleasant.”
In Liverpool, the Red Cross Clubs hosted the cast members but at two clubs: the White club and the “Negro” club. “And of course,” Seymour says matter-of-factly, “we refused to be split up; we were a team, a unit. So the whole outfit bunked in the Negro Red Cross Club, as it was then called.”
Seymour reminisced also about performances in Naples, Algiers, Okinawa, Guam, Iwo Jima, and other hot spots in the Pacific. Although the exact amount of the money raised for the Army Emergency Relief Fund is not known, it totaled well in excess of $12 million.
Sharing WWII memories of Seymour Greene, who recalled the brave men and women who filled their parts so gallantly, ignites a renewed sense of patriotism. On this 4th of July, we give thanks to all our troops on this 70th anniversary. And we are thankful for Irving Berlin’s morale-boosting, inspirational show, “This Is the Army.”
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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