17 January: Entertaining letters from home

Bing Crosby at an AFRS microphone, a frequent guest on Mail Call and Command Performance. (Photo: American Forces Network.)

Bing Crosby at an AFRS microphone, a frequent guest on Mail Call and Command Performance. (Photo: American Forces Network.)

Invaluable as it has been to American forces during World War II, the Armed Forces Radio Service essentially launched with Mail Call in 1942, the AFRS’s first in-house production. By the time of tonight’s broadcast, the show’s format will have shifted to something more of a conventional variety format along the line of the better-remembered Command Performance—with one twist.

The early Mail Call included a feature known as “What’s Going On at Home,” offering assorted light home front news. Apparently, and this is difficult to verify by listening since the surviving broadcasts begin with November 1942, the response was tepid enough that the production team shifted it to the variety format.

The twist has been that most of the show lineups were based upon requests from American servicemen in the European and Pacific theaters. Combined with the broadcasts transmitting from facilities in those theaters and being heard by listeners other than fighting troops and the performers who have appeared on Mail Call and Command Performance and other AFRS-originated programs have become international celebrities.

Such American performers as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Jim and Marian Jordan (in character as Fibber McGee and Molly), Bob Burns, Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Frances Langford, Lionel Barrymore, George Jessel, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks, of course), Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Tallulah Bankhead, Garry Moore, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, June Allyson, Dorothy Lamour, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, and Frank Sinatra—many of whom are already American radio mainstays as well—have found their international profiles enhanced by appearances on Mail Call and Command Performance.

And, many of those working behind the scenes of the shows have done the same jobs as civilians—including the AFRS’s commandant himself, Co. Thomas H.A. Lewis, who’d been the vice president of the Hollywood-oriented Young & Rubicam advertising agency. To sweeten the pots, the AFRS has hired announcers well familiar for their work in commercial network radio, including Mail Call announcers Ken Carpenter (The Great Gildersleeve and others) and Harry Von Zell (Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight and Hour of Smiles, others) plus Jack Benny’s lifelong announcer Don Wilson.


Mail Call: Double Indemnity; or, “Thank You, Harry Von So Forth, For That So-So Introduction” (Armed Forces Radio Service, 1945)

Gloria DeHaven (singing “I’m In The Mood For Love”); a jazz trio of Gene Krupa, Charlie Ventura, and Teddy Napoleon (playing a remarkable “Stompin’ at the Savoy”); tenor Lauritz Melchior; and, Ida Lupino, Robert Benchley, and Groucho Marx making mischief with Double Indemnity.

Host: Bing Crosby. Announcer: Harry Von Zell.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Great Gildersleeve: Women’s Club Speaker (NBC, 1943)
The Whistler: The Thief (CBS, 1943)
The Judy Canova Show: Promises, Promises (NBC, 1948)
Let George Do It: The Payoff is Murder (Mutual-Don Lee, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Cuts Down the Old Jesse James Tree (NBC, 1950)
Dragnet: The Big Juvenile Division (NBC, 1952)
Our Miss Brooks: Selling the House Next Door (CBS, 1954)

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