Prologue Magazine

Irving Berlin: This Is the Army

Summer 1996, Vol. 28, No. 2

By Laurence Bergreen

© 1996 by Laurence Bergreen

Irving Berlin in uniform In This Is the Army, Berlin recreated the role he had played in his World War I hit Yip! Yip! Yaphank. (NARA, 208-N-4115-FF)

By today's standards, some of this story will sound old-fashioned, if not racist or at least archaic, but keep in mind that it took place in a much different era, in a much different America, and belongs to its time and place.

It is a story about the biggest and best-known morale-boosting show of World War II--Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, which began life as a Broadway musical designed to raise money for the military. It then toured the nation, and later the world, and was eventually made into a movie, starring the handsome young Lt. Ronald Reagan. I discovered the story when I had the great luck to catch up with many of the soldiers who had belonged to the show's company when they converged on New York's Theater District to hold their fiftieth--and final--reunion. They had faithfully convened every five years, ever since the company disbanded at the end of the war, but now the men were getting too old and their numbers too small to justify any more gatherings. As you can imagine, it was a deeply moving experience for all, an opportunity to savor victory, but also an opportunity to bid a final farewell.

At the time, I was researching my biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer, and was eager to learn more about this important but forgotten episode in Berlin's career. So I talked to as many of the men as I could, and with tears in their eyes, they described their experiences in the wartime show and with Irving Berlin. They told me what he and his work had meant to them and how the experience of working with him had transformed their lives.

This is their story and Irving Berlin's story, the story of This Is the Army.

Irving Berlin was fifty-three when President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. By Tin Pan Alley standards, the songwriter hovered on the verge of extreme old age. Had he never written another film score, another Broadway show, another lyric, another note, his reputation as the leading popular American songwriter was secure. The list of his enduring creations included "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "God Bless America," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "All Alone," "Remember," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance." They defined the nation's musical language. Holiday Inn, the movie containing "White Christmas," would be released the following summer, and Berlin would be able to sit back and watch the money roll in.

Always the zealot when it came to work, Irving had a different notion of what he should be doing with himself at this juncture in his life. The prospect of war sent a shudder of dread through the American people, but it also created a thrill of excitement. Berlin the showman responded to that quickening of the national pulse. "Songs make history and history makes songs," he said. "It needed a French Revolution to make a 'Marseillaise' and the bombardment of Fort McHenry to give voice to 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'" The war simplified everything for him. Now he knew exactly what to do: restage the surprise hit of his youth, Yip! Yip! Yaphank. Previously, he had sung of personal dramas--romance and woes and funny little incidents--but now he struggled to give a voice to national and even international issues, to locate himself in history, and to make a place for himself in what publisher Henry Luce termed "The American Century."

To set the wheels in motion, Berlin called Gen. George Marshall in Washington to propose his new all-soldier show. General Marshall approved Berlin's plan to stage a new morale-boosting revue on Broadway, and the production was under way. Irving promptly decided to call it This Is the Army. And in case the army didn't like it, he had another title in reserve: This Is the Navy. Or the Air Corps. Whatever. But his heart was with the army.

Navy tribute
This Is the Army included tributes to all branches of the armed services. Here, the cast performs the navy finale during the revue's run at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. (NARA,111-SC-140525)

The next person to feel the force of Berlin's personality was Ezra Stone, whom the songwriter chose for the pivotal job of stage director. The twenty-four-year-old Stone was nationally known as the star of the radio program "The Aldrich Family," which had begun as a Broadway hit in 1938. When he met Berlin, Stone--a serious, heavyset man--was already in the army, engaged in morale work. Sensing leadership potential in Stone, the songwriter did his best to inspire him with a sense of mission.

Berlin anticipated composing the complete score for the revue at his customary breakneck pace: one month. And he planned to hold rehearsals at Camp Upton, New York, where he had overseen the creation of Yip! Yip! Yaphank a generation before. Once rehearsals began in the spring of 1942, Stone and Berlin were thrown together as weekday residents of Camp Upton. "On Sunday nights I would pick Berlin up at his house on the East Side," Stone said of the arrangement, "and we'd drive out together in my car. We'd spend the week at Upton and leave on Friday afternoon. So I was able to spend my weekends at home, and so was Berlin."

The building in which they worked was called, simply, "T-11." It was an old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks; at one end there was a large common room with a stone fireplace. "That's where Berlin wanted his special piano," Stone said. "It was right next to the latrine, which had a hot water tank that Berlin loved to lean against to warm his back. As he was doing this one night, he said that he could easily be a Bowery bum and let his beard grow. He hadn't shaved that morning, and he was in that kind of mood."

So far, Berlin's choice of personnel relied heavily on professional entertainers. He displayed real daring, however, in his decision to include black performers in the unit. At the time, the armed forces were segregated, and as a result of Berlin's insistence, the This Is the Army unit became the only integrated company in uniform. This extraordinary gesture derived not so much from Berlin's social beliefs as from his show business background and savvy. In the show business milieu, blacks had long been stars, popular with both African-American and white audiences. By integrating the revue, Berlin was simply importing the conventions with which he was familiar into the army. However, he was not blind to appearances; he knew his gesture would at the least be progressive, and probably controversial. But he believed the armed forces was the great leveler in American society. In his youth, he had seen the Great War reduce barriers separating Jewish, German, Irish, and Italian ethnic groups in the United States. Yet blacks had been excluded from this quiet revolution; even in Yip! Yip! Yaphank, the black numbers had been performed by whites in blackface in the manner of a minstrel show.

Eventually, black and white members of This Is the Army lived and worked together. His advanced ideas on how his men should live notwithstanding, Berlin clung to outdated conventions concerning the material he wanted the black actors to perform. Initially, he expected the first half hour of This Is the Army to recreate a minstrel show, which was the way he had kicked off Yip! Yip! Yaphank--110 men sitting on bleachers, and everyone in blackface. Ezra Stone, the director, was indignant. "Mr. Berlin," he said, "I know the heritage of the minstrel show. Those days are gone. People don't do that anymore."

"No, no, that's nonsense," the songwriter replied.

After considerable discussion, Stone adopted another approach to convince Berlin to skip the minstrel segment: "How can we have 110 guys in blackface and then get them out of blackface for the rest of the show?" Berlin hesitated. Stone's argument gave him a way of backing down while saving face.

To give This Is the Army the contemporary feel that Stone wanted, the songwriter devised a new song for his black soldiers, something, he declared, "with a real Harlem beat." At first, Stone and the others had no idea what he meant by all this talk of Harlem. All they knew was that when they were trying to get some sleep in "T-11," Berlin would plunk away at the piano, night after night. One endless night he played the melody for "Puttin' on the Ritz"--his ode to high-fashion blacks strutting along Lenox Avenue--over and over again, and gradually the song evolved into something new: a different melody with the same tempo.

When reveille sounded, he announced to the groggy men, "I finally got the number for the colored guys--'That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.'" Turning to a bleary-eyed Ezra Stone, he said, "I want you to call Helmy Kresa." Stone pulled the phone into the hall and held the receiver as the songwriter played and, in his way, sang to Helmy on the other end. Stone was astonished by the procedure, and he realized with a shock that Irving Berlin could neither read nor write music.

Rehearsing 'Well-Dressed Man'
Members of the This Is the Army unit rehearse "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." The cast was the only integrated World War II company in the armed forces.
(NARA, 111-SC-140528)

By the end of April, Berlin had completed most of the This Is the Army's rousing score. Although the songwriter had no official rank in the army and was technically a civilian, he trembled before senior officers as though he were an enlisted man. Berlin's anxiety over confronting military authority soared when Gen. Irving J. Phillipson notified Berlin that he wanted to hear the show. "What if they don't like it?" the songwriter kept asking before the audition. "What if they decide not to go forward?" The audition took place on Governor's Island in New York harbor, and immediately afterward, Berlin received word of approval. End of crisis.

This Is the Army, Part 2
This Is the Army, Part 3
This Is the Army, Part 4

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.