Drag shows and the American military

Sailors-Dancing-on-DeckAs the picture to my left shows, there is nothing new in the American military about men in what used to be an all-male, or predominantly-male, society still trying to resurrect a simulacrum of their civilian life.  Two musicals that emerged during and immediately after World War II make heavy use of men in drag.  The one with which most people are familiar is Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which revolved around sailors in the South Pacific during WWII.

Most people remember South Pacific for two reasons:  it’s principled stand against racism and the gooey hit song “Some Enchanted Evening.”  I doubt many think of the scene in which Ray Walston dresses himself up in a coconut shell bra for the amusement of his fellow sailors and Marines (starting at 3:02):

Irving Berlin made even greater use of drag performances in “This Is The Army,” the Broadway-style review he created for the Army. It’s all-male, all-Army cast toured throughout the European theater in the thick of the war, bring a great deal of pleasure to the troops.

Because it was a Broadway-style review, Berlin of course had to write parts for women. And because there were no women to be had, every female part was a drag part. I can’t find any discrete clips but the entire movie is below, with the drag scenes at 58:00, 1:08, 1:12, and 1:28.

As best as I can tell, regardless of whether individual performers and audience members were getting a homoerotic thrill from the drag performance, the purpose behind these WWII shows was entirely heterosexual: it was to fill the gap the troops felt in their lives because of the women they left behind.

That was then. This is now:

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Since the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, U.S. military bases have hosted a gay marriage ceremonies and a potluck gatherings. But on Saturday, servicemembers here may have been the first to take to the stage and perform as drag queens on a military installation in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender troops.

Drag queens and drag kings, to be precise.

Six servicemembers — gay, lesbian and straight — donned heavy makeup to dance and lip sync songs such as “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” for a raucous capacity crowd at the Rocker NCO Club at Kadena Air Base. The event was a fundraiser for the recently formed Okinawa chapter of OutServe-SLDN, which is the largest nonprofit advocate for the military’s LGBT community.

[snip]

But an initial 200 tickets were plucked up almost immediately, so they issued another 200.

“We ended up selling 400 tickets in 10 days,” she said.

Amid the unexpected success, OutServe carefully avoided any mention of politics, but its variety show comes at a pivotal time for gay civil rights in the United States, with many states passing laws dealing with marriage or debating individual liberties.

It is also a sign of the times within the military; just a few years ago, gay and lesbian drag performances on a military base would have been unthinkable and potentially a cause for dismissal from the service.

The repeals of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as the Defense of Marriage Act — the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages — have allowed gays and lesbians in the military to be open with their sexuality for the first time.

The historic shift appears to be mostly accepted and embraced throughout the ranks despite warnings the DADT repeal could harm order and good discipline.

On Saturday night, the Rocker club was packed for performances by servicemembers using stage names such as Chocolate Sunrise – a crowd favorite — and Artemis Faux. The event’s sole lesbian performer took the drag king name Manny Nuff.

I think Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein would be surprised.

I leave to your personal beliefs whether this is a change for the better or not, insofar as American military health is concerned. I just note that the military’s focus has changed a lot in the last seventy or so years.

Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” — a joyous walk through almost a century of music at home and abroad

My recent post about the best flash mob ever reminded me of a post I did in 2009 about Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” a song that lives on and on, around the world. Today seems like a good day to expand upon that post.

Irving Berlin composed “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in 1929. Although he wrote it about blacks in Harlem who dressed up for a night on the town, the American public first saw it in 1930, when Harry Richman sang it with arch “high class” inflections while plump chorines bounced and trotted woodenly behind him:

Fred Astaire also recorded the song in 1930, and his staccato presentation put a lasting imprint on people’s perceptions of the song:

In 1937, Clark Gable, as part of his delightful turn as a two-bit vaudeville player, turned in a wonderfully camp and charming version of the same song. Indeed, this is my favorite version of the song:

By 1946, Fred Astaire once again was “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” this time on film, as opposed to just a sound recording:

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the divine Ella Fitzgerald brought her particular brand of music to the song:

In the mid-1970s, Michael Jackson — Michael Jackson! — along with his brothers tackled the song (it starts at about the 1:20 marks):

Also in the 1970s, there was a delightful version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Sadly, I can’t track down any video of that segment.

The 1980s saw Taco’s somewhat boring, and very creepy, un-PC version (complete with black-face performers). As I recall, it was a surprise hit.

In addition, in 1988, The Mighty Diamonds did a reggae version:

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” made an appearance in the 1990s, as the theme music for Nintendo’s Super Hunchback:

Rufus Wainwright, a millennial heart-throb did a version sometime after 2000. If only he could carry a tune…. I recommend no more than 10 seconds of this one. I include it just to show how eternal Irving Berlin is:

More recently, Club des Belugas, a cutting edge NuJazz group in Germany, fired up Puttin’ on the Ritz a few years ago with a remix of Fred Astaire’s 1946 version:

The endlessly cool Herb Alpert did a version last year:

2013 was a good year for “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” since Robbie Williams recorded it too, with the original 1929 lyrics:

And then, of course, there’s the “best flash mob ever” version, from Moscow, in 2012, with love:

How does one account for the enduring, world-wide popularity of this 85-year-old song? I think my teenage son put it best. After watching the flash mob, he turned to me and said, “You know, Mom, that’s a really catchy tune.”

Best flash mob ever!

You always read that something is the “best flash mob ever,” and many really do seem to live up to that billing.  Orchestras play beautiful music, dancers swirl across the floor, and people break into song as if they’re living in a 1930s Hollywood musical.

This particular flash mob, however, is truly the best one ever.  Not only is the performance delightful on its own terms, but its context raises it to amazing new heights of flash mob-ness.

To enjoy it fully, think about these facts before you start watching:

Irving BerlinIn 1893, five-year-old Israel Isidore Beilin and his family arrived in New York, having escaped the terrible anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. After surviving (and, indeed, thriving in) a childhood of extreme poverty in New York’s Lower East Side, he grew up to become Irving Berlin, one of the most successful songwriters of all time.  He was also a man who never lost his sense of gratitude for the wonders of his adopted country, a sentiment he expressed perfectly in “God Bless America.” He wrote other songs celebrating American life, everything from Easter, to white Christmases, to the wonders of New Yorkers “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (written in 1929, right before the Roaring 20s came to a whimpering end).

Soviet May Day paradeIn 1917, the Soviets took over Russia, and settled in for a seventy year totalitarian run. America was the enemy and American culture a dangerous weapon that had to be banned from the Soviet Union at all costs.

And then, in February 2012, a young couple got married on a cold day in Moscow and their friends put on a most amazing show for them. Enjoy the show, and don’t forget the history as you watch it.

Why can’t we fight to the finish this time, so we’ll never have to do it again?

A friend sent me a link to an editorial bemoaning the fact that, by abruptly pulling out from Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, the Obama administration is ensuring that we’re leaving a job undone — something that invariably means one has to do it again.  If history is going to keep repeating itself, why can’t we just repeat the good parts?

World War I ended with a definitive American victory, but a dangerous, un-managed peace, one that pretty much made World War II inevitable.  By 1942, my favorite songwriter, Irving Berlin, pretty much summed up the WWII mindset, which was “do it right this time.”

[Verse:]
‘Twas not so long ago we sailed to meet the foe
And thought our fighting days were done
We thought ’twas over then but now we’re in again
To win the war that wasn’t won

[Refrain:]
This time, we will all make certain
That this time is the last time

This time, we will not say “Curtain”
Till we ring it down in their own home town

For this time, we are out to finish
The job we started then

Clean it up for all time this time
So we won’t have to do it again

Dressed up to win
We’re dressed up to win
Dressed up for victory
We are just beginning
And we won’t stop winning
Till the world is free

[Coda:]
We’ll fight to the finish this time
And we’ll never have to do it again

Trust old Irving to hit the nail on the head. And, in fact, that’s what the Allies did.  First, they destroyed entirely the totalitarian states in Germany, Japan and Italy.  Then, in those regions over which they had control (as to those the Soviets held), the Americans carefully rebuilt the nations into democratic allies.  It was a tough, long-haul job, but it prevented post-war massacres and ensured that (so far) we haven’t had to “do it again” with Germany, Italy or Japan.

Clearly, we’re a whole lot dumber now than we were in the mid-20th century. In 1991 we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq (which is one of the reasons I’ve never liked Colin Powell, whom I’ve always blamed, fairly or not, for being the architect of that foolish retreat). Now, with Obama’s help, we’re doing it all over again, only worse. Does any nation get a third chance to remedy its chronic stupidity? I doubt we will, especially because Obama is also choosing to repeat the disarmament mistakes of the 20s and 30s. Ain’t those fancy Ivy League educations grand? They go in smart and come out stupid.

I’m an armchair warrior (aka a chicken hawk) and I’m disgusted and frustrated. I can only imagine how the troops — the ones who sweated and bled — feel as they watch their Commander in Chief dismantling all of their good work.

Just Because Music — Official Air Force Song

In the days leading up to Fleet Week, it’s very usual to see military jets swoop across the sky.  If I’m lucky, standing at the bus stop can be a perfect location to view some nice formation flying.  It’s June, however, and we’re a long way from Fleet Week — which is why it was a bit peculiar to see a jet roar above my house. Do any of you have any guesses as to why I saw that jet go by?

Of course, having seen this unexpected jet, the Air Force Song — “off we go, into the wild blue yonder….” — got lodged in my head.  I’m going to try to exorcise it by passing it on to all of you:

Also, “just because,” my favorite Irving Berlin Air Force (or, as it was then, Army Air Corps) song:

A charming ditty

Work calls (sigh) so blogging will have to wait.  (Article contributions, anyone?)  So that this morning isn’t a big empty space, I thought I’d toss in here one of Irving Berlin’s more charming lyrics.  It’s from The Gay Divorcee, and is known to Berlin, Astaire & Rogers devotees, but not to many others.  I hope you appreciate, as I do, the wonderful internal rhymes and imaginative, humorous images:

The Piccolino

By the Adriatic waters Venetian sons and daughters
Are strumming a new tune upon their guitars.
It was written by a Latin, a gondolier who sat in
His home out in Brooklyn and gazed at the stars.
He sent his melody across the sea to Italy,
And we know they wrote some words to fit that catchy bit
And christened it the Piccolino.
And we know that it’s the reason why
Ev’ryone this season is strumming and humming a new melody.
Come to the Casino and hear them play the Piccolino.
Dance with your bambino to the strains of the catchy Piccolino.
Drink your glass of Vino, and when you’ve had your plate of Scallopino,
Make them play the Piccolino, the catchy Piccolino.
And dance to the strains of that new melody, the Piccolino.

Eternal Irving Berlin *UPDATED*

I caught Taco on satellite radio, performing his own weird version of Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz.  I thought I’d do a little collection of videos showing that song playing out over the decades.

Here’s Harry Richman, for whom Berlin wrote the song, performing it in 1930, in one of the earliest musical films.  It’s primitive, but still fun to watch, if for no other reason than as a blast back into time.  (I love the plump chorines.)

Although Berlin wrote the song for Richman, in 1930 Fred Astaire also recorded it, with his staccato presentation putting a lasting imprint on the song:

In 1937, Clark Gable, in his delightful turn as a two bit vaudeville player, turned in a wonderfully camp and charming version of the same song.  Indeed, this is my favorite version of the song:

By 1946, Fred Astaire once again was “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” this time on film, as opposed to just a sound recording:

In the mid-1970s, Michael Jackson — Michael Jackson! — along with his brothers tackled the song (at about 1:00 minute in):

The 1980s saw Taco’s somewhat boring (and very creepy and un-PC) version:

Recently, even people with no discernible talent have recorded this classic.  Here’s Rufus Wainwright, who appears incapable of carrying a tune.  I recommend no more than 10 seconds of this one.  I include it just to show how eternal Irving Berlin is:

UPDATE:  Rockdalian reminded me of yet another “classic” version, this from Young Frankenstein:

News you can use — from the New York Times

Occasionally, the New York Times surprises me and prints genuinely useful information, such as this tidbit:

It was the highest-grossing film of 1943, but “This Is the Army” has never been available on home video in an authorized edition. But now Warner Home Video has managed to clear the rights to this rousing propaganda musical, which features a score by Irving Berlin, a cast that includes two future California politicians — George Murphy and Ronald Reagan — as father and son, and gorgeous, three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Bert Glennon and Sol Polito.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was based on a touring stage production, featuring actual soldiers (some 350 appear in the movie), that was conceived by Berlin as a money-raiser for the Army Emergency Fund. After you’ve seen Kate Smith belt out “God Bless America” and heard the tiny Berlin warble his way through “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” you’ll be ready to write a check yourself.

Warner’s has packaged “This Is the Army” with two other wartime revues, David Butler’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and Delmer Daves’s “Hollywood Canteen,” in a superbly produced boxed set. Also included is a new documentary, “Warner at War,” which traces the studio’s bold interventionist policy, beginning with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in 1939. (Warner Home Video, $39.98, not rated)

Hurrah!  I know what I want for Christmas/Hannukah.