When Camp Crowder was officially turned over to the signal corps on Dec. 3, 1941, no one knew how swiftly the influx of draftees would change life in Southwest Missouri. Thousands of soldiers flooded the new base, attending classes and maintaining the base. Everything was in motion; it was nonstop as personnel were readied to be transferred out as soon as they were trained.
But life on base wasn't all class, marching and kitchen duty. The camp provided entertainment facilities for the thousands of troops by way of six movie theaters, a field house that could accommodate 4,000 spectators and, initially, two Army bands. Nearby Neosho and Joplin were available for off-base liberty with regular bus service to both towns. USO clubs in both towns offered a change of pace from life on the post.
While the USO is often remembered for its overseas camp shows, there were domestic shows conducted by USO performers at theaters on base. Those shows were supplemented by volunteer performances offered by performers connected to base personnel. Camp Crowder was no exception.
Audiences knew the stars, but production staff supplied the nuts and bolts of concerts, broadcasts, scripts and logistics. Those staffers, when drafted, were often selected to run entertainment programs on base. Their prewar connections remained strong and provided unofficial, alternate channels to engage entertainers for specific bases.
King of Swing visits
Camp Crowder had an appearance arranged this way. Lt. Monroe Shaff, of the 165th Signal Photo Company, had been, prior to his induction, an associate producer for the movie "The Powers Girl." The film starred George Murphy, Dennis Day, Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Production had finished except for Goodman's musical contributions.
In 1942, Shaff, described by the Globe as a "close personal friend of Goodman," knew that Goodman upon finishing recording was going to take the orchestra to New York City. Shaff contacted Goodman, asking him to bring the band to Camp Crowder for a stopover on the way across country. As there was new music for the movie, Shaff arranged for Goodman to perform selections from the movie in the concert. The plan was for the band to perform outdoors on a specially built stage on the post parade ground. It was billed in the Globe as an "open-air 'jive session.'"
The performance was a double billing with retired diplomat Hugh Grant, who gave a "state of the war" lecture before Goodman. However, cool weather forced the concert inside, disappointing the thousands who could not squeeze into the field house. Goodman arrived four hours late to Joplin from Kansas City. Special buses were hastily arranged to bring the band to Neosho just an hour before showtime.
When he arrived, the band played "The Powers Girl" tunes, the current Crowder favorite, "Jersey Bounce," and covered popular tunes. Goodman surprised servicemen at the climax "with an invitation to soldier musicians in the audience to come up and take part in a 'little jam session.' Nearly two dozen took advantage of the opportunity and cut loose to their heart's content on the band's instruments, with Goodman leading the aggregation. Many others were waiting their chance, but they could not be accommodated because of the late hour."
Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge
By 1945, entertainers touring bases was an organized program. Kay Kyser brought his staff and band to broadcast his "Kollege of Musical Knowledge," a weekly radio show, live on NBC from Crowder while on his national tour. Paul C. Phillips, formerly of Joplin and WMBH, was the program's producer and writer. Phillips produced both Kyser's and Frank Sinatra's shows for the armed forces.
Kyser had been giving shows to troops before Bob Hope. His variety show had music, musical quizzes and gags. One popular performer was the comedic trumpeter Merwyn Bogue, known as Ish Kabibble. "Ol' Perfesser" Kyser would dress in a long robe and a mortarboard to introduce the program with "C'mon chillun! Les' dance!" He would then quiz folks on musical topics. If the answer was incorrect, it was always, "That's right! You're wrong!"
On Feb. 21-22, Kyser and his "Kollege" gave three performances — a rehearsal before an audience in the afternoon, the live broadcast with an audience and then a performance the next day for the patients and staff of the regional hospital. More than 9,000 servicemen and -women attended the shows. Phillips told the Globe that Kyser had given more than 350 shows at camps, air bases and hospitals.
After the war, Crowder saw activity as the site where soldiers were mustered out of the service. In 1946, Ray Anthony, a bandleader and Gary Grant lookalike, gave a show with his all-veteran orchestra. He broke into professional music as a trumpet player in Glenn Miller's band. Anthony played with Miller's band for two years and appeared in the Glenn Miller movie "Sun Valley Serenade." Once the war started, he joined the U.S. Navy. He led a Navy band that earned the title, "the hottest band in the Pacific."
When they mustered out, he organized his old bandmates into the Ray Anthony Orchestra. Anthony was well known in the area because he had a regular musical program in 1946 on both the MBS and CBS networks. Joplin's WMBH and KSWM (later KODE) both carried his program.
He gave a concert and dance at Crowder's field house on April 23. The crowd of soldiers was expected to be very large. Special arrangements were made for almost 500 GSO girls from the area to attend the dance. Anthony was a national sensation. A few years later, he started a dance craze by writing and recording "The Bunny Hop."
While Camp Crowder was in rural Southwest Missouri, entertainers kept it in tune with the nation's popular music.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.