It's the Greatest Radio Show You Never Heard!
In the early months of World War II, radio producer Louis G. Cowan was faced with a problem. Not long before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Cowan had joined the radio arm of the War Department's Special Services division, where his primary duties had been to produce radio-based propaganda for civilian audiences. Now, however, hundreds of thousands of newly enlisted soldiers were in desperate need of mainstream entertainment - in particular, the sort of radio shows they had enjoyed while they were civilians. In anticipation of the conflict to come, a "Buddy Disc" program had already been established to distribute recorded music and comedy programs to recreation centers and mess halls, but for troops stationed far away from home, there was a constant need for the sort of morale-building entertainment that radio could best provide.
Cowan considered the audience for such a show. As a result of the attack the previous December, in a short three months, hundreds of thousands of outraged American citizens had enlisted in the armed forces. Faced with the regimentation and training needed to turn a group of civilians into a strong fighting force, recruits and draftees alike had to quickly get used to taking commands from practically anyone in uniform - and clearly the men would appreciate the chance to issue a few commands themselves. And what if the commands could be issued to any of the top stars of radio, the stage, nightclubs, the recording industry, and motion pictures - a command to sing the songs they wanted, tell the jokes they wanted, and present pretty much anything else they wanted to hear? There was no doubt that that would raise morale.
And so "Command Performance" was born - a show that would be presented exclusively for service men and women, to their specifications, and based upon their "commands". The idea was simple yet brilliant, meeting the need that millions of service personnel had to feel special, recognized, and appreciated, as well as the desire of thousands of writers, performers, musicians, producers, and technicians to somehow contribute their own special talents to the war effort.
Cowman knew that the show would have a very small budget - in fact, it would likely have no budget at all - and so began by contacting the various show business unions. All quickly agreed to waive the union wage and conditional agreements of their members so long as the broadcasts were limited solely to military audiences. (With the exception of a single Christmas show, aired by all four radio networks in December of 1942, "Command Performance" would never be broadcast to or heard by civilian listeners.) Next, using his connections in the entertainment fields (and calling in a few favors), he arranged to use the New York studios and recording facilities of both the CBS and NBC radio networks to rehearse, stage, and record the shows for shortwave rebroadcast. Finally, though a combination of letter writing, phone calls, advertisements in Variety, and word of mouth, he announced to the entertainment world that he needed as many people as possible to contribute both their time and talents to make "Command Performance" the greatest radio series ever produced. Even though there were no paychecks to be had, knowing it was "for the boys", the stars responded in droves. Even George M. Cohan, long known for being very protective of his copyrights, allowed "Command Performance" to use his World War I anthem "Over There" as its theme song without charge.
The first show, performed at the Longacre Theater in New York on March 1, 1942, was hosted by Eddie Cantor and featured much of his radio show cast. The next week, on March 9th, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians hosted. Then, on March 13th, Kate Smith took the microphone, bringing Ed "Archie" Gardner along from "Duffy's Tavern" as well as comic lecturer Robert Benchley, "the king of the one-liners" Henny Youngman, and vocalist Barry Wood from "Your Hit Parade". Once the shows began to be sent out via shortwave from New York, the letters quickly began pouring in from servicemen worldwide. The first "commands" had come in verbally, but now Cowan and his production team had to cope with an onslaught of requests that arrived by the thousands on an almost daily basis. Some were fairly easy to fill - Would Dinah Shore sing "Blues in the Night"? Would Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy do a comedy routine? - but some were not only more difficult, but also more poignant. One lonely soldier wanted to hear the bark of his faithful dog back home, another wanted to hear the sound of the foghorns in San Francisco harbor, while a third wanted to hear the sound of the bluebirds outside his bedroom window in Indiana. "Command Performance" complied, sending recording engineers out to capture these simple but memorable sounds of home and later airing them on the show.
It wasn't long before "Command Performance" became THE radio show of the war years. Everyone who was anyone in show business wanted to make at least one appearance - and, to the relief of creator Louis Cowan and newly-appointed producer Vick Knight, they usually brought their writers along with them. Responding to an ever-increasing demand for movie stars, the show gradually moved from New York to Hollywood, occupying space at the Sunset Boulevard studios of CBS and NBC. And, in late 1943, it became the jewel in the crown of the Armed Forces Radio Service, a brand new division of the War Department that would exist solely to bring information, education, and information to military personnel throughout the world.
Heard today from the perspective of over sixty years, "Command Performance" remains great variety entertainment, filled to the brim with comedy and music. You can enjoy it solely as entertainment - the shows are frequently hilarious as well as tuneful - or consider it a virtual time capsule of "who was who" in show business during the war. Thanks to the "you tell us what you want to hear" nature of the show, listeners can always expect the unexpected; for example, on one show, hosted by Betty Grable, you'll hear Judy Canova, Robert Benchley, Mary Martin, The Music Maids and Hal, and Harry James and his Orchestra (before Harry married Betty), as well as Jack Benny and his entire radio cast: Don Wilson, Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. That's just ONE show - and a fairly typical one at that!
In terms of content, "Command Performance" is hardly what we would today call politically correct. After all, the year is 1942 and the United States has entered a war which, at that point, it was not at all sure that it would win. As in all wars, the initial goal of any government is to continuously vilify the enemy and "Command Performance" certainly makes it a point to regularly call a spade a spade - or, in this case, "japs", "nips", "krauts", and whatever other anti-Axis slurs the writers can come up with. Likewise, despite the increasing presence of WAVEs, WACs, and other female-based branches of the services, the U. S. military was still overwhelming male, meaning that the scripts are generally aimed directly at an audience of men desperately in need of morale-building entertainment. But don't presume that, for all this, "Command Performance" was ever salacious or off-color; the closest the series ever came to being controversial was the freedom to include the occasional "damn" or "hell" into a script. Considering they were being performed for an all-GI audience, in fact, you'd expect the shows to be a little more adult - but, instead, they maintain a rather sweet yet hip homeyness that constantly reminded listeners of the lives they left behind when they went to war - and the lives they wanted to return to when that war was over.
Despite being prerecorded for shortwave rebroadcast, "Command Performance" was not immune from the often delightful hazards of live radio. In the first years of the show, the production team didn't have the time, ability, or inclination to edit the programs to make them 100% perfect; truly, unless the microphone fell over or the scripts fell to the floor, the show always went on. As a result, today we can enjoy such mishaps as a slightly inebriated Frank Morgan losing his place in a routine with his "Maxwell House Coffee Time" cohort John Conte and hilariously trying to get back on track while the audience howls. Likewise, since movie star participants often came to the recording sessions at the last minute, we get the chance to hear a willing but unrehearsed Gary Cooper read baseball predictions for the upcoming season as if it was the first time he had ever seen the script - which was indeed most likely the case.
Occasional mishaps aside, "Command Performance" was never amateur night at the microphone, nor was it ever a thrown-together camp show. The performers, musicians, technicians, writers, and announcers were all top-notch professionals and, despite donating their services for the benefit of the armed forces, all insisted on the same level of performance before the "Command Performance" microphones as they would have for a high salaried nightclub or theater appearance or on their own radio shows. By radio or mainstream recording standards, in fact, the musical numbers are often astoundingly good, with vocalists like Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, and Frances Langford singing with the full orchestras from the Paramount, RKO, or 20th Century-Fox motion picture studios. As for the comedy, though some wartime references are a bit dated, overall the jokes stand up remarkably well and some of the featured bits - Jack Benny performing a violin duet with Jascha Heifetz, for instance - are true classics.
Episodes of "Command Performance" have been in the hands of collectors for years, with most of the shows originating from the worn and damaged vinyl discs on which the series was later distributed. Many a radio show enthusiast has been impressed by the content of the shows, but disappointed by the poor fidelity of the existing copies. Both die-hard collectors and casual listeners alike will be thrilled with the crisp and sparkling fidelity of the shows in this ten-hour collection from Radio Archives. Transferred directly from both network lacquers and vinyl masters, these twenty shows literally sound as if they were recorded yesterday rather than nearly seventy years ago. If you've heard any these shows before in tape or MP3 versions - and especially if you ever heard them via shortwave when you were in the service - you'll be amazed by the quality. Listen to them with a set of earbuds or headphones and you'll be even more impressed; it's not like you're in the audience for the shows, it's like you've got a private seat in the control room. Really, they're just that good.
So take a trip back in time with "Command Performance" - a time when America was fighting another war in far off lands, when brave men and women risked their lives for our freedom, and when show business answered the call to entertain them. It's a entertaining journey and also one that reminds us just how much we owe to those people who literally fought to save the world during World War II. We know its a trip you'll want to take time and time again.
#3 Hostess Kate Smith
With Barry Wood, Ed "Archie" Gardner, John Brown, Robert Benchley, Henny Youngman, Ted Collins, and announcer Ted Husing
Recorded Friday, March 13, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#4 Host Fred Allen
with Kenny Baker, Henny Youngman, John Kieran, Portland Hoffa, Gladys Swarthout, Madeleine Carroll, Al Goodman and his Orchestra, and announcer Harry Von Zell
Recorded Wednesday, March 18 or Sunday, March 22, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#5 Host George Jessel
with Joan Edwards, Carmen Miranda, Tallulah Bankhead, Connie Boswell, Oscar Levant, Don Dunphy, Bill Corum, Joe Louis, Abe Simon, Mark Warnow and his Orchestra, and announcer Jimmy Wallington
Recorded Sunday, March 29, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#7 Hostess Gene Tierney
with Betty Hutton, Gary Cooper, Sara Berner, Joe Forte, Arthur Q. Bryan, The Andrews Sisters, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Ginny Simms, Bob Burns, Ray Noble and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Sunday, April 12, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#8 Host Clifton Fadiman
With Phil Baker, Harry McNaughton, Benay Venuta, Bill Stern, John Ringling North, The Golden Gate Quartet, Walter O'Keefe, Dinah Shore, Paul Lavalle and his Orchestra featuring Henry Owens, Clyde Riddick, Bill Johnson, Thad Wilson, and Conrad Frederick, and announcer Andre Baruch
Recorded Thursday, April 16, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#9 Hostess Shirley Temple
with Martha Tilton, Six Hits and a Miss, Frank Graham, Frank Nelson, Bill Wright, Herb Vigran, Fanny Brice and Hanley Stafford, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Sunday, April 19, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#10 Host Pat O'Brien
with Maxie Rosenbloom, The Merry Macs, Frank Morgan, John Conte, Frances Langford, Six Hits and a Miss, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Abe Reynolds, Joe Forte, Alan Foster, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra, Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Thursday, April 23, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#12 Hostess Betty Grable
with Judy Canova, Robert Benchley, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Bill Wright, Dave Roberts, Mary Martin, The Music Maids and Hal, Clem McCarthy, Harry James and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Thursday, May 7, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#14 Host George Raft
with Deanna Durbin, Meade Lux Lewis, Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee, Blanche Stewart and Elvia Allman as "Brenda and Cobina", The Sportsmen Quartet, Joe Forte, Bill Wright, Eddie Paul and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Monday, May 18, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#15 Hostess Marlene Dietrich
From the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters at the Carter Hotel, Cleveland, Ohio, with Eddie Peabody, Al Jolson, Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou, Kenny Baker, Mitzi Green, Charles Swink, Bob Moonan, Johnny Augustine and his Orchestra, and announcer Jimmy Wallington
Recorded Wednesday, May 13, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#16 Host Mickey Rooney
with Betty Hutton, Bob Burns, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll as "Amos 'n' Andy", Betty Jane Rhodes, Bert Gordon as "The Mad Russian", Harry Von Zell, Joe Forte, Harry James and his Orchestra, Bill Artzt and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Tuesday, June 2, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#17 Host Don Ameche
with Bing Crosby, The Merry Macs, Max Baer, Carole Landis, George Givot, The Music Maids and Hal, John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Thursday, June 11, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#18 Host William Powell
with Martha Tilton, Judy Garland, Gene Autry, The Melody Ranch Boys and Nora Lou, Joe Forte, George Jessel, Mel Blanc, Blanche Stewart and Elvia Allman as "Brenda and Cobina", Lou Bring and his Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Thursday, June 18, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#46 Host Robert Taylor
with The King Sisters, Joan Davis, Nelson Eddy, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck as "Lum and Abner", Helen Forrest, Harry James and his Orchestra, Meredith Willson conducting the Special Services Division Orchestra, and announcer Ken Carpenter.
Recorded Wednesday, January 6, 1943 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#21 Host Bob Hope
with Lena Horne, Shaw and Lee, Ginny Simms, Rosalind Russell, Edith Evanson, Edward Marr, Les Brown and his Orchestra, Victor Young conducting the Paramount Studios Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Tuesday, July 7, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#22 Host Edward Arnold
with Ethel Waters, Richard Haydn, Jascha Heifetz and Jack Benny, musicians Reginald Beane, Laura Vaughns, Ella Lashley, Emanual Bey, Constantine Bakaleinikoff conducing the RKO Studio Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Tuesday, July 14, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#23 Host Pat O'Brien
with Frances Langford, Harold Peary as "The Great Gildersleeve" with Lillian Randolph and Walter Tetley, Blanche Stewart and Elvia Allman as "Brenda and Cobina", Dick Powell, Alfred Newman conducting the Twentieth Century-Fox Studio Orchestra, and announcer Paul Douglas
Recorded Tuesday, July 21, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#24 Host Cary Grant
with Judy Garland, Shirley Ross, Billy Gilbert, Pinto Colvig, Jack Mather, Billy Bletcher, Ruth Hussey, Woody Herman and his Orchestra, Walter Scharf conducting the Republic Studios Orchestra, and announcer Don Wilson
Recorded Friday, July 24 or Tuesday, July 28, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#25 Host Clark Gable
with Cass Daley, Jerry Colonna, Carmen Miranda, Bette Davis, Dinah Shore, Count Basie and his Orchestra, Nat Finston conducting the MGM Studio Orchestra, and announcer Don Wilson
Recorded Tuesday, August 4, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services
#26 Host Walter Pidgeon
with The Mills Brothers,
Marlene Dietrich, Mary Martin, Barbara Jo Allen as "Vera Vague", The Merry Macs, Johnny Weissmuller, The Max Terr Chorus, Leo Forbestein conducting the Warner Brothers Studio Orchestra, and announcer Don Wilson
Recorded Tuesday, August 11, 1942 - 30:00 - War Department, Special Services