- The Beginning and War Years
Special Services was designed to improve the morale and well-being of Soldiers and family members with recreational entertainment opportunities - opportunities they would sacrifice while serving far from home. Special Services operated with specially trained and talented troops; uniformed civilian Recreation Staff; Soldiers' family members; and local performers.
Special Services opened their first Recreational Officer School at Fort Meade, Maryland on 1 April 1942.
Significantly, Special Services was one of the few U.S. Army units to be integrated during World War II.
With World War II raging, the US Army was concerned for the morale and welfare of soldiers fighting far from home. With their well-being in mind, the US Army commissioned Special Services to provide a wide range of music and theater programming to meet the recreational needs of soldiers serving around the world.
Special Services programs built on the long tradition of "Soldiers entertaining Soldiers" dating back to Civil War camp shows and WW I shows created by a young soldier named Irving Berlin. An interesting example of Special Services' innovative programming, and of historical note, was the "Blue Print Special."
To meet its mission and mandate, Special Services began creating Broadway-style musicals in the form of "Blue Print Specials." These were "do-it-yourself" show packages - complete with scripts, music, and how-to guides for putting on a show. The packages came with step-by-step instructions on building scenery and making costumes out of material used for Army uniforms. They served as blueprints for soldiers to create their own entertainment on the battle field with stories based on life in the military.
To create these packaged musicals, Special Services enlisted the talents of Army Air Force Serviceman, Frank Loesser (later one of the most important Broadway musical composers) and the famed dancer and choreographer, José Limón.
These "Blue Print Specials", lost since WW II, were recently rediscovered and a version staged in New York in January 2017. It starred Tony Award-nominees, Laura Osnes and Will Swenson, with a cast made up of current and former military member performers.
(Please note: Despite comments in this video, the closure of US Army Europe Entertainment did not occur. US Army and Air Force community theaters continue to operate in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.)
- After WW II
After WW II
Margaret E. (Skippy) Lynn (April 28, 1924 – June 11, 2002) is considered the founder of what is now the modern US Army Entertainment program. In 1945, she was chosen by Peggy Wood and Paul Green to be among the first civilian "actress technicians" employed by the U.S. government to work with troops overseas following World War II.
In 1962, Lynn helped found and then, for two decades directed, what was then called the Army Music and Theater Program. In 1976, The Washington Post named the program "the largest producing organization of music and theater in the world." At that time, it staged more than 25,000 performances annually with a global audience of more than 2.5 million people.
Lynn designed, established and coordinated Army Music and Theater programs at Army posts worldwide. Under Lynn's ambitious inspiration, dedicated music rehearsal facilities, proscenium stages, "black box" theatre studios and dinner theatres were established in unused army movie houses, barracks and other surplus facilities, where colonels, corporals, and civilians created theatre together. Each facility also included a full selection of musical instruments and equipment for soldiers to checkout for free.
Under her guidance, over 200 full-time civilian Entertainment directors operated Music and Theater Centers on military bases around the world. Not content with makeshift "soldier shows," her directors produced themed variety bills, Broadway musicals, comedy, serious drama, and occasionally Shakespeare.
At that time, there so many Music and Theaters Centers, the annual Tournament of Plays (today's TOPPPERs) required two qualifying competitions for District and Region shows before the European finals.
As well as continuing "soldiers entertaining soldiers" programs, Lynn began stressing the benefits of including Soldiers' wives and children in the Music and Theater Program. She also saw great benefit in involving local, national civilians from the area. The participation of families and foreign civilians is still vital in lessening the social isolation of American military members working far from home. It is also important in developing host nation relations and cultural exchange.
Lynn also established numerous workshops, showcases, worldwide competitions and scholarships to discover and encourage talented members of the military and their families. This tradition continues today.
(A more extensive biography of Lynn and her impact on Army Entertainment is below.)
Throughout the years, many well-known performers were part of the Army Entertainment program including Burt Lancaster, Carl Reiner, Leonard Nimoy, Clint Eastwood, Dick Van Dyke, Jack Paar, Sterling Holloway, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Gorshin.
More recently, 2012 Tony Award for Best Lead Actress, Nina Arianda, was a family member participant in the Army Entertainment program in Heidelberg, Germany.
- US Army Entertainment in Europe
US Army Entertainment in Europe:
In 1950, Seventh Army Special Services was established in Europe to care for the morale, welfare and recreation of US Soldiers stationed there. Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, Special Services was a lively center of entertainment, sending out soldier variety shows featuring singers like Private Vito Farinola (Vic Damone), Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Frank Gorshin, and the newly formed Rhythm Aces.
With encouragement from Lt. General Manton Eddy, General Charles Bolte and, particularly General Anthony McAuliffe, Seventh Army Special Services decided the American occupation army should also present a more serious side of American culture.
A Seventh Army Symphony was formed, conducted by Corporal Samuel Adler, and concert soloists, like pianist Amo Cappelli and violinist Peter Schaffer were featured. A Seventh Army String Quartet and other chamber music combinations gave frequent concerts across occupied Europe to great acclaim.
A legitimate theatre unit was established and included director Adrian Hall and actor Philip Bosco. This unit was operated by uniformed civilian staff in the music and theater centers Lynn and Army Entertainment had created throughout Europe.
In 1952, Seventh Army Special Services decided to produce an original Broadway-size musical comedy to tour US military bases in Europe as well as civilian theatres.
Private William Perry, a composer serving in Berlin, was transferred to Stuttgart and given carte blanche to draw on creative personnel and performers wherever they might be stationed. Perry's long-time collaborator, lyricist William S. Wheeling, then serving in the Air Force, joined the team as did choreographer and Broadway tap dance star, Robert Scheerer. Private Johnny Gilbert, who already had established a prominent singing career, was brought in to play the lead.
In the spring of 1953, Xanadu, the story of Marco Polo's epic but entertaining journey to the court of Kublai Khan, premiered and was warmly received. The first extended tour included performances in Vienna, Austria; Trieste, Italy; and throughout Germany - often in famous opera houses. A number of the songs became immediately popular through broadcasts on the Armed Forces Network. Later, the show toured Great Britain and other parts of Europe, and the show was still being performed five years later.
After leaving the service, members of the original company went on to have successful careers in show business. William Perry received Tony nominations for his 1986 musical, Wind in the Willows, starring Nathan Lane, and his television productions for PBS have received both Emmy and Peabody awards. Robert Scheerer resumed his Broadway career as second lead to Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend and later became an important film and television director and was nominated three times for Emmy awards. Virginia Boyle, who played the female lead in Xanadu, established a career as a country and western singer and songwriter. Johnny Gilbert became the host or announcer of numerous popular television game shows, and his voice is still heard every night saying, "This … is … Jeopardy!" (He is fourth from the left on the front row in the picture above.)
During the 1960s, the Army Entertainment program produced several important theatrical premieres.
In 1961, The US Army Roadside Theater, Heidelberg, presented the European premiere of Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s beloved musical, The King & I. The Roadside Theater (with the help of the US Embassy, Bonn; and the US State Department) was granted rights to present the first stage production of this musical in Europe. After a successful 11 show run at the Roadside Theater, the company was invited by the US Embassy in Bonn to perform at the Städtische Bühne in Heidelberg.
Also in the 1960s, The Roadside Theater presented the European premiere of Lerner and Lowes’, My Fair Lady. The original costume designers from the Broadway production created the costumes for the Roadside Theater show. Many of those costumes are still used today for Army Entertainment productions in Europe.
Also of note, the first amateur American production of the musical, Les Misérables, was produced at the Roadside Theater in 2001.
(The Roadside Theater was closed in 2013 when the US Army left its historic headquarters based in Heidelberg.)
The History of U.S. Army Entertainment
For over 70 years, U.S. Army Entertainment has offered U.S. Service Members, Civilians and their Families opportunities to participate in and enjoy high-quality music and theater programs while serving overseas.