Command Performance Radio Entertains the Troops

Photo of Bing Crosby and Jimmy Cagney performing Command Performance on stage August 30, 1942
Bing Crosby and Jimmy Cagney on Command Performance (August 30, 1942)

A few Sundays ago, a young and unknown radio producer sat down to a telephone in the War Department in Washington and called Leopold Stokowski, in New York. "Mr. Stokowski," he said, "I want you and your orchestra to appear on my radio program two weeks from today." Stokowski -- who won't lift a baton for less than $4,000 -- gasped. But before he could hang up, Glenn Wheaton, radio producer for Uncle Sam, explained.

"We want you to appear on Command Performance. Command Performance isn't heard in the United States. It's Uncle Sam's show for men in the armed forces serving abroad. They ask for what they want. We give it to them. We've had a bunch of requests for classical music and we'd like you to answer those requests."

"Tell me where you want me to be and when. I'll be there." It was as simple as that. By V-mail, letters and cables, requests pour into Washington from American lads serving from Alaska to the Antipodes.

The letters, themselves, provide a magnificent collection of Americana, a cross-section of the soul of America, and a wistful study in nostalgia. Good, bad, or indifferent, these men on foreign soil ask only for the America they left behind.

Command Performance is a remarkably well-produced show. There are no corny pep talks. The Army feels that fellows out in Guadalcanal and Africa know why they're there. Neither are there commercial announcements on these shows. Nearest thing to a commercial runs about like this:

"Just tear off the top of a Stuka or Zero and write us what you want on the show: We'll give it to you." And the boys have done just that. One bomber squadron stationed in England has a working arrangement with Judy Garland. She'll sing a song for them in return for each Nazi plane they shoot down. To date, Garland owes the boys two songs. A request that the world's best and worst violinists do a program together found Jascha Heifetz and Jack Benny working as a team. Brenda and Cobina brought the rubber shortage on the home front close to the boys by describing how the girls are retreading their girdles. Perhaps the most unusual request was from a sailor at Pearl Harbor. "Would Carol Landis step up to the microphone "and just sigh -- that's all?" She would and did.

Command Performances were once the prerogative of royalty. Now every soldier's a king, his command an order of the day.

The Radio Branch originated Command Performance nearly a year ago. The shows are broadcast 36 times weekly by shortwave beamed at different parts of the world and at different hours so that wherever American soldiers are on duty overseas, it will reach them during their waking hours. Having proved its power as a morale builder, on December 15, it was transferred to the Army's Special Service Division, in charge of welfare and entertainment of U. S. Troops -- with Wheaton remaining as its guiding genius.

Chief of the Radio Branch is chocky, active, sandy-haired Lt. Col. E. M. Kirby. Kirby operates from a half-finished office cluttered with uncovered telephone cables in the Army's new and fantastic Pentagon Building in Arlington. He is a red-tape-cutter; and few men know their way around in radio better than he. For years, he directed the National Association of Broadcasters, knows problems of broadcasting and programming intimately. Before Pearl Harbor -- when only ostriches and those who were blind and would not hear failed to perceive the war clouds then brewing -- Kirby went to the Army as a civilian dollar-a-year man to direct the then-new Radio Branch. After Pearl Harbor, he was commissioned and has been doing a terrific job.

Command Performance was born of a sports broadcast the Radio Branch cooked up. Boys in the field wanted to know how the baseball games were going, and Kirby arranged to broadcast the games by shortwave.

But the boys in far places then began to write in and ask why -- if they could have the sports broadcasts -- couldn't they have the good entertainment shows being broadcast in America? Kirby knew that the entertainers of America were more than willing to do their part. So were the radio stations. The result was Command Performance. Presented by a commercial sponsor, Command Performance would have a weekly talent cost of not less than $50,000. For Uncle Sam, there are no charges.

From Tune In, March 1943