On the occasion of last month’s celebration of Veterans’ Day, I posted on Facebook a couple of pictures of my Dad in World War II, performing in Irving Berlin’s all soldier show, This is the Army. I’m going to use this blog today to expand a bit on that post, and to also tell you a story that was a staple of my childhood, that today has a different ending than it did when I was a kid. Let’s start at the beginning…
My Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia (so no…I’m not legitimately a third as I don’t have a middle name), was born on October 5th, 1910, on the lower east side of Manhattan. He was one of 13 kids in a typical big Italian family, and like many kids of his generation, never went to High School because he had to go out into the world and earn money to help support his family. My father was different from many folks in those days though, in that his chosen profession was to be an opera singer. (One of the questions I wished I’d asked my Dad when he was still with us was, “Why an Opera Singer?”) Jobs were hard enough to find, but finding a job as an opera singer was even harder.
From stories I heard growing up, like many performers, my Dad had many jobs that did not involve singing. From selling pretzels in the park to being a messenger for a Wall Street firm, to acting as “secretary” to his voice teacher, Madame Novelli, he did what he had to do! Long story short, that’s why he was very happy when he got to audition for, and then was offered a job in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the Germans and the Japanese were edging the world towards war and this would impact my father’s life in a very large way.
Sometime in that first year of being a member of the Met chorus, he got his draft notice! After years of struggling and scraping by while supporting his family, he was finally at the point where he had a regular job, and now the US Army was going to change all that. He went to his draft board, looking to get an extension so that he could at least complete the season before reporting for duty. Ultimately, they did give him that extension, so he finished out his first season at the Met, and then went off to the army. (If you read the blog post, My Dad and His Family then you know the whole Draft Board story, if not, here’s a link https://rnewadventures.com/2020/10/06/my-dad-and-his-family/)
After kicking around at Fort Dix for a couple of weeks, my Dad was sure that he’d be sent off to some area where his background and experience would have no use to him. That’s why he was very surprised to be assigned to Camp Upton, in Yaphank on Long Island, to audition for Irving Berlin and his all soldier show, “This is the Army.” He passed the audition and joined the cast that included Broadway actors, movie stars, musicians from famous orchestras, and one singer from the Metropolitan Opera! For most of my childhood we’d be watching a movie or TV show, and my Dad would point out one of his “army buddies” that he’d traveled the world with in the show.
After rehearsals, the show opened at New York’s Broadway Theater (the same theater that gave us Mikey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie) on July 4th of 1942, and was expected to run for 4 weeks. It was such a success that the run was extended several times, and eventually it ran to the end of September of that year. Since the show was loved by so many, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw it 3 times and wanted her husband the President to see it too, next up for the company was a National Tour, with all ticket sales going to Army Relief. Washington was their first stop with a special Presidential Matinee scheduled at Washington’s National Theater. The day after that performance, the entire company of This is the Army was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, where festivities lasted late into the night! Another story I’d heard when I was a kid! When the National Tour ended in February 1943,This is the Army had earned $2,000,000 for the Army Relief Fund.
The next stop for the TITA company was Hollywood. Warner Brothers had offered $250,000 for the film rights of the show, and like the profits from the National Tour, this was donated to the Army, and the entire company spent 6 months in Hollywood making the Warner Brothers movie, “This is the Army.” Although, for the purpose of the movie, a sub plot was added that enabled Warner Brothers to include movie stars like Ronald Reagan (the only one of the “stars” who was in the service as an Army Lieutenant), George Murphy, Alan Hale, Sr., and several others. The musical numbers from the show were still intact and the performers in those numbers were still the soldiers. A camp for the 359 members of the company was set up near the Warner Brothers lot (with heated tents built by the Warner Brothers Prop Department), and each day, the company would march from their camp to the movie studio. As well as shooting the movie, the singers, dancers, and musicians all participated in regular army drills, as befitting soldiers in the US Army.
The real reason for the making of the movie was to raise funds for Army Relief, and towards that end, it was an unqualified success. It earned $9,555,586.44, which Warner Brother’s donated to the Army Relief Fund.
After their American performances, the company was reduced to a cast of 150 men, including my Dad. Their next assignment was to be shipped off to England, and play around the country for 3 months, but prior to that, they returned to Camp Upton on Long Island to re-stage the show taking into account the reduced cast. On October 21st, the company sailed for Liverpool aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. After 10 days of very crowded conditions, sailing in the dangerous North Atlantic, their convoy reached its destination. This is the Army played in London for Royalty and for American and Allied troops, and then embarked on a tour around Great Britain. On February 6, 1944, they returned to London and performed for General Eisenhower. At this point the cast thought they had reached the end of the road, and the show would be disbanded, and they’d all be sent off to regular Army units. However, after seeing the show, General Eisenhower thought that it would be a great moral tool for his troops, and requested from Washington that the show play to Troops at the front.
General Eisenhower’s request was granted, and a week later the This is the Army Company sailed for Algiers. This was to be the the first stop on their tour that would take the company around the world, and not end till October of 1945 in Hawaii, almost 2 months after the September Japanese surrender! Rather than performing for Army Relief Drives or heads of states, now they would chase the front, and perform for the soldiers actually fighting the war! Some of the places they performed were regal, and some just a thrown together stage in the jungle, and their audiences were now groups of soldiers who had just come out of combat and who would be heading right back into it after the show.
TITA Posters, The Original Cast Album, and pictures of Irving Berlin
After 2 weeks performing in North Africa, they sailed for Naples, Italy. In Naples they were billeted in the partially destroyed palace of Victor Emmanuel, and that’s where the story of The Box starts. This was not my father’s first visit to Naples. Back in the 30s, he had sailed from New York to Naples with his voice teacher Madame Novelli. Madame Novelli was originally from Naples, and they stayed with her family for several months while visiting . Among the members of the family was a young man about my Dad’s age, and the two of them became fast friends. Turn the clock ahead to 1944 and the American liberation of Naples. As soon as the “This is the Army” company got to Naples, my Dad looked for his old friends and found them living at the same address he’d visited as a young man. The war years had not been kind to his Italian friends, and my father did all he could to get them food and other supplies that they’d been without for years. One of the benefits of this was that my Dad got to eat with the family, and had home cooked Italian meals for the first time in several years. From my Dad’s stories, simple ingredients like SPAM in the right Italian hands could be turned into gourmet food, so this Italian kid from New York truly enjoyed his meals with his Italian friends!
The royal palace in Naples had been German headquarters in the city, and as such was a favorite target of the allied bombings. My Father would tell stories of sleeping in incredibly opulent surroundings with bomb blasted holes in the roof. The doors at the palace were about 10 feet tall and decorated with intricately carved and painted 4 inch by 10 inch panels. In a typical GI move, my Father pried one of these panels off the door as a souvenir. He told his friend about this and even took it with him to dinner one night to show the family. His friend said that he knew a wood carver and how would my father like it if he could get him to carve a box to match the panel, and use the panel as the lid? My Father liked that idea, and a plan was hatched. About a week later at dinner, his friend showed him the box. The wood carver had done an excellent job of matching the lid, and the carving was exquisite. All that was left was to paint the box to match the lid, and my father’s souvenir would be completed. He left them that night and promised to be back for dinner in 2 nights, and in turn, he was promised that the box would be ready for him to take. As they say, best laid plans.
On the afternoon of the second day, the “This is the Army” company was ordered to load their trucks and be ready to leave Naples within 45 minutes. The Allied forces were continuing up the Italian boot and their show was needed closer to the front lines to entertain the troops. There was no time to get to his friend’s house and no way to tell them what was happening, so that was the last of his stay in Naples, and of the carved box.
That happened in 1944 and was but a brief episode in all the escapades of the This is the Army troop, as they continued through Europe and eventually island hopped in the Pacific theater too.
So now turn the clock forward to the summer of 1971. I’ve just graduated from college and we’ve planned a 4 week trip through Europe. It starts at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany where we picked up a new Ford Capri. We traveled through Germany, Switzerland and down one side of the Italian boot and up the other side. I very distinctly remember the day we got to Naples. After getting situated in the hotel room, my Dad went down to the lobby and found a phone book. He looked up the last name of his friend’s family and found a listing at the exact same address they’d lived at when he first met them in the 1930s. My Father placed a call and when a young lady answered, he explained who he was and asked for his friend by name. She said that he was looking for her Grandfather and that she’d get him. In a few minutes his friend, who he hadn’t seen or talked to in over 25 years, came to the phone. He couldn’t believe that this voice from his past was on the phone and was in Naples. One of the first thing he said to my Dad that day was, “Frank…I’ve got your box!”
That happened 50 years ago this past July, and was the culmination of a story I’d heard my Father tell all my life. Now his story of “The Box,” the souvenir that got away, had a new, and almost impossible to believe ending! My Dad died in 1983, but I must admit that I have continued to tell the story, and I guess keep him and his “This is the Army” stories alive. My Father was a great story teller, and after growing up on so many of these stories, and then finally seeing the movie, I’ve always felt very connected to this time in my Father’s life.
Oh…and the box? Well, for many years it resided on my Mother’s coffee table in her living room in Bayside, as it had since we returned from Europe in 1971, and it completed its trip started in 1944! When my Mom died in 2011, the box moved to our dining room hutch in our Mineola home. When Susie and I moved to Ocean City permanently, and cleaned out the Mineola house, our youngest son (Kenny…the performer and spiritual heir to my Mom and Dad’s profession) asked if he could have the box. It’s traveled around the country with him and his husband Chris, and now lives in their St. Petersburg, Florida living room. I hope it will always have a place of honor in our family, as a reminder of one of our family’s member of the Greatest Generation.
This is the Army was my Dad’s life for over three and a half years, and was how he fought the Second World War. My Dad made friends and had experiences that he talked about for the rest of his life. As well as entertaining thousands during the war, and making millions of dollars for Army Relief, This is the Army was America’s first integrated company in uniform! Up until I finally saw the movie at the Museum of Modern Art in the 70s, all I had were those stories of my Dad’s of this period of his life. Believe me, I heard lots of “This is the Army” stories growing up, but none of them was any more prominent that the story of “The Box!” His stories of This is the Army continued to be told for the rest of his life, especially every 5 years when the alumni of the company would get together for a reunion. Reunions my Dad relished going to until his death. Sadly, most of the folks that my Dad spent these years with are gone, and the reunions just a memory for those of us who heard our Dads talk about This is the Army.
Thanks Dad for your service!
One of the great sources that I had for filling in some of the TITA details was Alan Anderson’s book, “The Songwriter Goes to War.”
Here’s an excerpt from that book detailing a story my father often told about TITA in Italy – Click on the book cover below to open the passage…
Another excellent source for this period in Irving Berlin’s life, is a series of articles from the National Archives and Prologue Magazine. If you’d like to read more about this period of American History, here’s a link to the first part of the series on This is the Army.
If you’d like to see the whole scene that the picture at the beginning of this blog is taken from, here’s a link https://youtu.be/G5xKrNeqqGY
If you’d like to see the whole movie, through the magic of the Internet, here’s a link to Irving Berlin’s, This is the Army https://youtu.be/1RYHowaXdFY