Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Elsie Janis, Doughboy Entertainer


In our monthly newsletter the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, we have been running a monthly contest asking readers to identify a World War I veteran.  This month's entry was Broadway performer Elsie Janis. She spent six months touring the Western Front after America entered the war entertaining the troops. 


In a typical show Elsie would perform her standards and then invite some of the Doughboys on stage with her for a duet. The shows concluded with a group sing-along. The boys loved it all. She became known as the "Sweetheart of the AEF." Her shows became the model for the USO shows of the Second World War.


Less known about Elsie is that after the war she maintained her commitment to the fighting men. Charles Dillingham agreed to produce "Elsie Janis and Her Gang", a revue she created for out-of-work veterans, some of whom she had entertained during the war. Even though most of America didn't want to hear about the war anymore, "Her Gang" was a big success. She wrote about her wartime experiences in The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces and recreated them in a 1926 Vitaphone musical short, "Behind the Lines". She recorded the song “It’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” making it her signature piece and helping popularize the tune in America.

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Is the 1926 musical "Behind the Lines" available anywhere?

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  2. This Vitaphone short and others are included in The Jazz Singer in both the DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both sets are readily available from Amazon and other vendors.

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  3. A soldier from my home town met Elsie Janis in Dullens in late July/early August -- and she presented him and his friends a bottle of rum as they formed a "Last Man's Club." Special woman, wonderful fun as a singer. We have a CD of her songs....

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  4. WHL Watson, the author of 'Adventure of a Despatch Rider' (1915, republished 2017 in 'Two Wheels to War') was an Oxford undergraduate in 1914, and he records that, in the febrile atmosphere just before the declaration of war, he and a student friend abandoned their studies at the British Museum on a hot July afternoon and instead went to see a performance by Elsie Janis.

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