70 years ago today, the United Services Organization (U.S.O.) established its Camp Shows division. (Note that this was over two months before Pearl Harbor. It was already pretty clear where events were headed). Vaudeville had already died nearly a decade earlier. Its biggest stars now worked in films and or in radio; of the thousands of other performers, those who hadn’t prematurely retired were now hanging on by their thumbs. While it’s become well-known history that stars like Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Martha Raye, and practically everybody else began entertaining troops in our theatres of war in WWII, it’s probably lesser known that the U.S.O. employed countless out-of-work former vaudevillians: singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, magicians, etc etc etc. By 1944, the U.S.O. had over 3,000 “clubs”, making it by far the largest vaudeville circuit that had ever existed.
For entertainers it was an artificial reprieve. Many of the vaudevillians who’d managed to hang on through the 1930s were finally forced to retire once the U.S.O. initially disbanded following World War Two. One of vaudeville’s countless “second deaths”.
Now, I’m the first to agree that the U.S.O. had a much more important mission than keeping a bunch of vaudevillians employed, and that was lightening up the lives of the troops, who have to do jobs and see things that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine. The U.S.O. is still doing that very same job right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hats off to them today!
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.