Bringing All Americans Home: The National Christmas “Command Performance”

“Command Performance–formerly shortwaved to American armed forces overseas–is presented to the domestic audience for the first time tonight in Christmas Eve broadcasts heard all over Pittsburgh stations at 11 p.m. . . .” reported Vincent Johnson on the radio page of the December 24, 1942 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.[1]

“Command Performance,” a variety show, was the flagship program of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), a unique military unit established by the War Department on May 26, 1942. Based in Hollywood, AFRS existed “to educate, entertain, and inform servicemen (and eventually servicewomen) in the field” and build their morale via radio.[2] The service was to provide “overseas GIs with a sense of home, not only to dispel the feelings of loneliness or displacement, but to reinforce the values of the United States for which they were fighting.”[3]

Historian Tanja B. Spitzer, expert in transatlantic history and cultural diplomacy at the National World War II Museum, notes how AFRS as a. . .

sonic morale booster for the troops overseas was vital during the holidays, when the juxtaposition between holiday cheer and dangerous lived realities must have been even more palpable. In such time, radio programming . . . was used to connect and create a sense of community despite physical and psychic distance from home.[4]

To do its part to overcome this distance from home, “Command Performance” featured, as each show’s opening trumpeted, “the greatest entertainers in America as requested by you, the fighting men of the United States Armed Forces throughout the world.” Soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen mailed requests for Hollywood’s biggest stars to perform songs and sketches and those stars obliged the requests as commands. First launched by the War Department in March 1942, the Armed Forces Radio Service started producing the program in December of that same year. One of AFRS’s first “Command Performances” was the special global Christmas Eve broadcast previewed in the Post-Gazette.[5]

On December 24, 1942 at 11 p.m. Eastern War Time, this unique “Command Performance” went on-the-air coast-to-coast and around the world on “the radio networks and stations of the United Nations.” It was heard on CBS, NBC, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and the Blue Network. Pittsburgh listeners who read Post-Gazette’s preview could tune their dials to either WWSW, KDKA, WCAE, or KQV, four of the five stations in the newspaper’s radio listings. On the West Coast, the program was heard at 8 p.m. local time on KGO and KPO in San Francisco, KQW in San Jose, and KROW in Oakland.[6] It was heard in Canada on CBO in Ottawa and CKAC in Montreal.[7]

Recording of AFRS’s “Command Performance” broadcast on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1942. (Public Domain)

Ken Carpenter, a voice many Americans recognized as the announcer for the “Kraft Music Hall” starring Bing Crosby, gave a rousing opening to the special broadcast, declaring . . . 

For this one hour on Christmas Eve, a man and woman you call mom and dad become part of your show. For tonight, for the first time, over the four great networks and independent stations, the War Department of the United States of America presents “Command Performance.”

A family listening to the radio in Royal Oak, Michigan in December 1939. (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information)

Carpenter then handed-off to Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information, the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda agency, for an introductory message. Davis explained that American forces “all over the world” had been listening to “Command Performance” for “forty-odd weeks” but that “tonight, it serves as a link between them and us at home. We’re all hearing it, the whole American people,” he noted, “whether in the cities or on the farms or on ships at sea or in army camps or at the front.” Although 1942 was the second Christmas at war for the United States, it was the first holiday spent far from home for most of the millions of Americans fighting the war. Davis acknowledged these separations and offered a solution. “Because it is Christmas Eve, and a Christmas Eve when a good many American families can’t be together, as they used to be,” he said, “the War Department has invited us to come together–all of us–as listeners to this program.” Davis ended with a familiar reminder to the homefront listeners to do all they could to support the war effort and the fighting men and women overseas.

After Davis’s message, master of ceremonies Bob Hope presented a monologue heavy with jokes about homefront rationing and social changes. One wonders if Hope’s material purposely focused on homefront topics since ‘mom and dad’ were listening. His monologues on other “Command Performances” and AFRS programs usually included some jokes about military life. Regardless, Hope’s monologue obliquely set the theme of the show, which was the theme of most AFRS programs and an ideal theme for a Christmas broadcast: home.

Beyond Carpenter’s opening and Davis’s message, there was little further direct mention of the broadcast’s unique connection of battlefront with homefront. Before performing songs on “Command Performance” and other AFRS shows, many stars often sent greetings to the servicemen and women who had requested them. On this show, Ginny Simms begins her greetings with “love to [unintelligible name] in Hawaii and your mother in Massachusetts.” One wonders if they both heard this message?  In some playful banter with Bing Crosby before he sang, Bob Hope claims the program is “being heard by close to a billion people in 30 countries.”  At another point, Hope calls the show a “bridge between the A.E.F. and the U.S.A.”

Command Performance broadcast with Jane Russell, Bob Hope and, in background, Major Meredith Willson conducting the AFRS band (c. 1944) (Public Domain)

Except for these instances, however, most of the program was simply popular entertainment familiar to military and civilian listeners alike. The Andrews Sisters performed “The Pennsylvania Polka,” Bing Crosby sang “Basin Street Blues,” and Ethel Waters performed “Dinah.” Ginny Simms and Dinah Shore favored the listening audience of lonely GIs and heartsick loved ones left behind with the sentimental “Saving Myself for Bill” and “(As Long As You’re Not In Love With Anyone Else) Why Don’t You Fall In Love With Me” respectively. Except for a performance of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” by Kay Kyser and his band, there was little overt “war” music. With a sketch and song, Jack Benny and Fred Allen “ended” their long-running mock feud.

Soldiers listen to a radio somewhere in the Pacific Theater (Public Domain)

Ironically, Christmas fare on the program was fairly limited. The one holiday song performed was a wild version of “Jingle Bells” by novelty band Spike Jones and the City Slickers. Red Skelton, Harriet Hilliard, Charles Laughton, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy performed Christmas-themed comedy sketches.

The theme of home returned at the end of the broadcast in another monologue from Bob Hope, this one quite serious and rather moving despite its sentimentalism. With strains of “Auld Lang Syne” softly playing under his voice, Hope delivered what amounted to a peroration for the program.

Well, men, this is Bob Hope, speaking from the U.S.A. You know, this is a land that not long ago had boundaries. An ocean on one side and an ocean on the other. Douglas furs and deep snow and good fishing to the north. Blue water and lilacs and hot weather and cotton fields to the south. You lived and worked inside those boundaries and thought it would always be that way. You worked at the shoe store in Peoria. Yet, tonight, you’re over there in England and North Africa. You fly hell out of your bomber and go through God-made storms of snow and rain and man-made storms of steel and fire and then you write home to this radio program and say, “Please do a song for me.” You were the clerk in the local grocery store, the young doctor starting out, the history teacher in Grand Rapids, the mechanic at the corner garage. Yet, tonight, you’re blacked out on a freighter or standing guard over your brother along a path in the jungle. You were the guy who’d never been outside Nevada. Yet, tonight, you’re at home in Fairbanks, New Delhi, and Chungking. But, well, that’s the way it goes these days. For the boundaries of land and water have vanished from all nations and in their place a single boundary of freedom is moving across the earth, as God meant it to be.  But because of guys like you, when we think of America, we still think of Douglas furs. Because you guys are like those Douglas furs. And you’re like the good fishing in the lakes and Coney Island and the cornfields and smokestacks. And you’re like the little towns with the red water towers, like Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and Highway 66. Because all those things are American. They were part of you when you left and they will still be part of you when you come back. The stuff that makes Americans and, brother, they don’t make better stuff anywhere in the world.

Embedded in Bob Hope’s closing and in this national Christmas “Command Performance” was an important message the U.S. government delivered quietly and obliquely to its citizens and its military. Listening at the same time to the same radio program, far away servicemen and women ought to feel at home in a world united in its fight for freedom while also feeling united with loved ones who were part of the same fight back home in America. Connected by radio, everyone listening, whether soldier or civilian, were actually home together. Home in a free America and a free world where you could be whoever you wished to be and could live wherever you wished to live. It was a home worth fighting for, whether you were fighting in Fairbanks, New Delhi, and Chungking or in those little towns with the red water towns.

The message was emphasized one final time as “the entire cast, the studio audience, and the nation” ended the “special Christmas Eve edition” by joining together for an anthem to home and a rarity on “Command Performance,” “The Star Spangled Banner.”



Citations

[1] Vincent Johnson, “Command Performance is Given,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 24, 1942.

[2] Matthew Seelinger,  “A Touch of Home: The Armed Forces Radio Service, 1942-1945,” On Point 19, no. 2 (2013): 39-40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26363324 (accessed December 22, 2020).

[3] Samuel Brylawski, “Armed Forces Radio Service: The Invisible Highway Abroad,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37, no. 3/4 (1980): 441-57, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29781871 (accessed December 22, 2020).

[4] Tanja B. Spitzer, “Christmas on the Air–Wartime Radio Programs Revisited,” National World War II Museum. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/christmas-wartime-radio-programs (accessed December 22, 2020).

[5] Seelinger; Brylawski.

[6] “Radio Highlights: Command Performance On Air Tonight,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, December 24, 1942.

[7] “Today’s Programs,” Ottawa Evening Citizen, December 24, 1942.