1942: 'This Is the Army' visited the White House; one cast member now returns

FDR invited the all-military cast of Irving Berlin’s hit to the White House 70 years ago and Private Seymour Greene returned to celebrate. Photo: Seymour Greene played the trombone as the Ferre sisters sang "God Bless America" Photo: Louise Van Gilder-Martin

WASHINGTON, October 16, 2012 — “Another day at the White House,” quipped 92-year-old Seymour Greene. “I was just here 70 years ago.”

It was, in fact, 70 years to the day that Private Greene, along with 365 cast members of the World War II show, “This Is the Army,” visited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor for a few hours of “chat and chow.”

On this last Tuesday, October 9, 2012, a group of eight individuals escorted Seymour Greene in a return to the White House. Mr. Greene is the last surviving member of that historic musical, which raised more than $12 million WWII dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Irving Berlin’s “This Is the Army” virtually launched that fine organization, which still provides for men and women in the armed forces of today. 

In the White House last week, Mr. Greene said he felt privileged to represent all of those wonderful cast members who gave so much and who are no longer with us.

This Is the Army poster

One such person was Pfc. Clifford Ferre whose daughters Marcie Ferre Handrich and Brynn Ferre Wagner brought memories and memorabilia to this honored occasion. It was Ms. Handrich who spearheaded the events that led to a White House tour, a National Theatre tour, and a Proclamation by Mayor Vincent C. Gray designating October 9, 2012, as Army Emergency Relief Day in the District of Columbia.

It all began this past July when Marcie Handrich walked into the guest room of her Frederick, Maryland, home and paused before the framed photo of her father’s invitation to the FDR White House.

Usually, when looking at artifacts of her father’s WWII days, Marcie felt a mixture of sadness and pride. This time, however, she felt a surge of excitement. For she noted the date: October 9, 1942. In just a couple of months it would be 70 years exactly. She immediately knew she could not let the 70th anniversary of this historic day go by unrecognized. 

Beginning an internet search, she quickly discovered a story by this writer, which was filed on July 4th in The Washington Times Communities, about the 70-year anniversary of “This Is the Army’s” Broadway debut. In the story, she read of my friend Seymour Greene of Silver Spring, Maryland, a musician in that show’s band.

She thought how wonderful it would be if she could arrange a White House tour on that very same date, October 9, of her father’s White House visit. From that moment, events flowed like a carefully crafted Hollywood script.

Marcie contacted me on August 9 to thank me for my story and to find out how she might get in touch with Mr. Greene. He was, after all, the living link between the two dates, a bridge between the two events.   

When she talked with him on the phone, she was delighted at how energized he became at the prospect of honoring his former Army cast members. She was thrilled to learn that Seymour remembered her father, “a handsome man and good dancer.”

Marcie then contacted her Maryland Congressman, Roscoe G. Bartlett. With her letter of request she enclosed documentation such as a photo of her father’s White House invitation; the link to my 4th of July story; information about Seymour Greene and his willingness to participate; a report of the monetary benefit the show provided for the fledgling Army Emergency Relief Fund; and the show’s boost to the morale of Army personnel in posts throughout the world. 

Congressman Bartlett immediately agreed to help. In fact, he volunteered to participate, knowing that White House approval of such requests is more likely to be granted for a member-led tour. 

Greene signed the wall at the National Theatre  Photo: Louise Van Gilder-Martin

The Congressman then wrote a letter to the White House not only to confirm the tour’s approval, but also to urge the President Obama’s participation on this occasion. Noteworthy is the fact that the show included 25 African American cast members, making it the only unit to be integrated during WWII. Despite offers of separate quarters, the men refused to be divided along racial lines at any time during their travels around the globe.    

Accompanying Seymour Greene through the White House this past week were Congressman Bartlett and his wife, Ellen; Marcie Handrich and her husband Chip Handrich; Brynn Wagner, who flew in from California to participate in this special event; Louise Van Gilder-Martin of Frederick, a friend of the Ferre daughters, who served as photographer for the occasion; Colonel Guy Shields, Chief of Communications and Public Affairs for the Army Emergency Relief; and yours truly, Vance Garnett of The Washington Times Communities.

After their White House tour, the National Theatre’s Corporate Administrator John Loomis welcomed our group. The show had played this D.C. theater after its1942 Broadway run. President Roosevelt and the First Lady had watched the wonderful revue from a box seat. After that performance, the invitations to the White House for the following night were presented to each cast member.   

At the theater, one of Seymour’s daughters, Laurie Dorfman, and her husband Joel, joined the group for the theater tour, as did Lisa Lyons Wright, press secretary for Congressman Bartlett. 

Mr. Loomis invited Mr. Greene to add his signature to the star dressing room’s wall of fame. The vital Seymour Greene autographed the wall along side signatures of such luminaries as Helen Hayes and Julie Harris. He added, “This Is the Army, 1942,” marking the oldest show represented on that wall. 

On stage, Barbara A. Pittman of the Veterans Executive Office of the D. C. Mayor, presented Seymour Greene and the Ferre daughters, Marcie and Brynn, with copies of the Proclamation. 

Then, taking his trombone out of its case, Mr. Greene began playing a medley of songs from the Army’s celebrated show. He also sang the humorous showstopper which Irving Berlin himself had performed, “Oh. How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning.” 

A quiet then fell over the theater stage, however, as the Ferre sisters stood side by side behind Seymour Greene and sang, as he played, the song which the legendary Kate Smith had sung in the filmed version of the show: “God Bless America.” 

This moving and touching moment capped a day, which will live on in the hearts of those who shared in the beauty and joy of this October 9 commemoration of “This Is the Army” and its all-military cast.    

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.” 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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