The USO-Camp shows that sent celebrities and movie stars to provide professional but passive entertainment for the troops at locations in the United States and around the world are a well-known civilian institution used by the Armed Services to build morale among the troops during World War II.
Less well-known today are the vast repertoire of amateur Soldier Shows developed by the Special Services Division of the American Service Forces (A.S.F.) to enable servicemen to create their own entertainment and to perform for their fellow soldiers. These shows were made by soldiers for soldiers.
The material they contained was similar to what was in the USO-Camp shows, and in the beginning was even published by USO-Camp Shows, Inc. They included short plays and abridged versions of longer, more popular plays; comic sketches and songs that could be mixed and matched according to local tastes and talents; and non-theatrical entertainments such as games and quizzes.
Often the Soldier Shows included copyrighted material. The owners would generously release the rights to this material as long as it was performed only for members of the Armed Forces and only for the duration of the war, however long that might be; the full rights would then revert to the owners after the war was over.
The most elaborate of the Soldier Shows were the "Blueprint Specials." In February 1943 Brigadier General Joseph W. Byron, Director of the Special Service Division of the American Service Forces, had just returned from a 100,000 mile tour of Army installations around the world and noticed that although the USO shows were a popular and inspirational form of entertainment for the troops, the celebrities and other professional entertainers could not cover the vast territory quickly enough, and their shows were becoming increasingly impractical—even dangerous—to stage in overseas combat situations. As a result, the G.I.s were finding themselves at times with no entertainment at all.
The solution to this dilemma was to provide a pre-packaged, foolproof show based on the troops own experiences and which could be sent to Army installations all over the world—a complete set of materials, including a script; scenery and costumes designs, with instructions for making them out of salvage materials; original music that could be played by any musical ensemble from a solo piano to a full-sized orchestra. The soldiers could then assemble and stage these shows for themselves and each other, regardless of their experience, talents, or resources. Frank Loesser's brother Arthur described it with a homey metaphor in his article "My Brother Frank," published in the journal Notes in March, 1950:
A sort of theatrical patent packaged pie-mix, they included scripts, designs for scenery, instrumental parts, all pre-cooked and provided with simple directions for serving.
In his autobiography, Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans—who was in charge of a U.S. Army Entertainment unit in the central Pacific—expressed a preference for GI entertainers over professionals that many other soldiers shared. Big-name stars often lacked rapport with servicemen, prefering to spend time with higher-ranking officers and barely staying long enough to get to know anybody. The professionals had little connection with the show beyond putting in a performance, whereas the soldiers built and painted scenery, sewed costumes, and worked closely with fellow soldiers that they saw every day and knew intimately.
Commentator Bob Stuart McKnight expressed the same sentiment in his article "Original Army Shows" published in the journal Theatre Arts in July 1943:
To soldiers, a show written by their buddies takes on a much deeper meaning than the artistic or entertainment value of the show itself. It is their show, written for them, produced for them, and applauded by them. It’s a wonderful feeling to sing a song that your pal in the next barracks has written especially for you and your buddies. It’s a personal thing, not something that’s come to you third hand. It’s a personal thing because the chances are that it concerns a subject which only the soldiers know about. In other words, it ‘belongs,’ whereas similar material from the ‘outside’ is, at best, a good imitation.
Most of the sketch material for these shows was written at the Entertainment Section of Special Services in offices that had been set up in the heart of the theater district in Manhattan. Music was provided by the Music Subsection there. A setup was developed in the New York branch of Special Services whereby a group of ex-show people worked together as a legit production unit to develop the shows in much the same way musicals were typically developed on Broadway.
Everything about these shows is designed to make them as adaptable as possible:
In all of the Blueprint Specials, as in the Soldier Shows in general, there is an attempt to inspire a sense of camaraderie by poking gentle fun at the mutual suffering through government bureaucracy and uncomfortable living conditions. Next to no attention is paid to the difficult moral and ethical choices or the constant threat of injury and death faced by soldiers, nor is there much attempt to deal with issues such as racism and sexism (although the latter will be touched on somewhat in P.F.C. Mary Brown, and the unpublished play Watch Harvey would have presumably dealt with similar concerns among Black soldiers).
These resources can provide further insight into the U.S. Army blueprint specials and other soldier shows:
Brooks, Amy. "I'm Doin' It for Defense": Messages of American Popular Song to Women During World War II. Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati, 2013.
Caldwell-O'Keefe, Jennifer Riley. Whose Nation Is It Anyway?: Performing "GI American" through World War II Soldier Shows. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2011.
History Detectives Special Investigations. "Blueprint Special." PBS video, 17:27. September 14, 2008.
Loesser, Arthur. “My Brother Frank.” Notes 7, no. 2 (1950): 217–39.
Loesser, Susan. A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 2000.
Mann, Martin Arthur. The Musicals of Frank Loesser. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1985.
Matson, Lowell. “Theatre for the Armed Forces in World War II.” Educational Theatre Journal 6, no. 1 (1954): 1–11.
Pulwers, Jack Edward. The Information and Education Programs of the Armed Forces: An Administrative and Social History, 1940-1945. Thesis (Ph. D.), Catholic University of America, 1983.
Riis, Thomas L. Frank Loesser. Yale University Press, 2015.
U.S. Army. The Army Entertainment Program: A Brief History of Army Entertainment (Music and Theatre) History during the 20th Century from World War II. Prepared by Mary Alice Hodgson, Entertainment Program Manager, Department of the Army, March 1992.
Wertheim, Albert. Staging the War: American Drama and World War II. Indiana University Press, 2004.
Wertheim, Albert. "The Dramatic Art of Uncle Sam: The Government, Drama, and World War II." American Drama 13, no. 1 (2004): 86–119.