Thursday, May 5, 2011

From The Editor: "Hello, Dolly!" in Vietnam, 6-13 October 1965

On 17 October 1965, Clark wrote in his diary, "We have firefights pretty close to Saigon.  In fact, an officer who I sent up to Bien Hoa Air Base last week to supervise airplane arrangements for the show 'Hello, Dolly!' was involved in a running gunfight most of the way back to Saigon with snipers at night.  Am sure Major [Orvil C. "Bud"] Metheny did not much care for it, but all my people understand the need for certain risks."

In addition to military movements associated with tactical operations and the logistical buildup of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, MACV Movements Branch also arranged the airlift of a Broadway musical troupe from Saigon to Bien Hoa and Nha Trang.  Below is video footage of a performance of "Hello, Dolly!" in Vietnam, and a LIFE Magazine account of the performances in October 1965.


LIFE Magazine, 22 October 1965

Cover:  Mary Martin, “Hello Dolly” at Nha Trang, South Vietnam.

“’Hello, Dolly!---and Hellish Ambush,” page 32.

AT BIEN HOA.  In a hanger at the huge airbase an audience of Americans and Vietnamese, seated on sandbags, applauds Mary Martin as she makes her entrance into a swirl of singing chefs and dancing waiters.

    “An incongruous note of cheer brought in by a remarkable trouper, the ambush of a company of US soldiers by the Viet Cong---that was Vietnam last week.  The cover of this issue shows Mary Martin taking her bows at Nha Trang airbase during her tour with Hello, Dolly!  At that same moment, during an operation 200 miles away against a Viet Cong bastion called the ‘Iron Triangle,’ the soldiers walked into a trap and were badly mauled.  They were part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, at whose base Mary and the Dolly troupe had given their opening show.  These performances of the musical had a profound effect on both cast and audience.  So moved was Miss Martin---who was nicknamed ‘Foxhole Mary’ by her fellow players---that she couldn’t trust herself to speak to the soldiers at the end of one show.  Instead she simply began singing the refrain:  “Hello, fellows, it’s so nice to be right here with you.’

Shana Alexander, “Broadway Show In A Theater of War,” page 30.

“Airlifting Mary Martin and the seventy-three members of her Hello, Dolly! troupe around the steaming jungle combat zones of South Vietnam last week at the very height of the war there raised all manner of exotic problems for the show folks, and, I fear, a lot worse ones for the military.  I went along too because although I have spent a lot of time around show business, I had certainly never visited a war.  Nor until I saw it happen had I ever dreamed that the two enterprises could co-exist, the smaller show trouping around inside the bigger one, kicking up its high heels, packing and unpacking its crates of petticoats and painted scenery, while in the rice paddies all around it artillery rumbled and flights of armed helicopters hovered just above the proscenium.  Often as Dolly sashayed her feathers and plumes around the sweltering, make-believe, crimson-and-gold interior of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, she could watch real MEDEVAC rescue helicopters land their wounded and swiftly take off again right behind her audience’s heads.

“By the time the week ended my admiration for all hands was vast, but I was particularly impressed by the unfailing grace with which the military handled a project that, however noble in intent, must surely have disrupted the war.  My own strictly personal problem during that mad, mad week as the choppers whirred and rattled, the Dollies capered, the delicate Vietnamese stared, and the servicemen roared with such force that curtain calls sounded like jet takeoffs, was somehow to convince myself that all the strange things happening here were not themselves part of a musical comedy, but actually part of a war.

Cast members of "Hello, Dolly!" at Nha Trang, South Vietnam, 9 October 1965.

“The Barnum and Bailey notion that a full-fledged Broadway musical could even be plopped into the middle of a combat zone, and then trundled around it by armed convoy, could not, I felt sure, have possibly originated in the military mind.  Indeed, I learned, the scheme hatched in the oriental brain of producer David Merrick when he heard the Russians had abruptly canceled out the Moscow portion of a State Department-sponsored Dolly tour just as his company was opening in Tokyo.  It occurred to the stranded producer that another master showman, Lyndon Johnson, might like to book Hello, Dolly! into South Vietnam.  According to Merrick, when he telephoned his offer to the White House the occupant said, ‘Oh yes, that’s the show that has my song in it.’  And the new arrangements were made.

“About two weeks later, now under military orders, the Dolly company left Tokyo in a drab, windowless troop transport.   As we prepared to let down in Saigon, our escorting officer advised us that our arrival had been preceded by the most massive security precautions ever undertaken in that city, and that we would now make a ‘speed penetration landing to avoid picking up any small-arms fire.’  But even tilting down fast, it was difficult for me to view the whole tour as anything but an episode in a musical comedy.  When we landed, the door was yanked open, and out of the streaming tropical downpour on the field leaped a tanned, handsome general to plant a dashing kiss on Mary Martin’s cheek.  At the same time, a flock of exquisite girls in graceful floor-length gowns and white gloves appeared out of the rain and started entwining fresh flower garlands around everybody’s neck.  A bit corny perhaps, but a socko opening number, and many that followed were equally operatic.  Where else but in a theater could one see flowing-haired girls singing “Hello, Dolly!’ to chopper pilots on headsets as they hover low over a bright green jungle?  Where else see an impeccable oriental dignitary, Premier Ky, elegant in a starched white uniform, startled by an impulsive smooch from Miss Mary Martin of Weatherford, Texas?  Another light-opera classic was the gala reception at the US Embassy.  A string trio played, fans whirled, potted plants swayed and suddenly ‘’Some enchanted evening’ boomed across the crowded room in a rich, schmaltzy baritone.  We looked and the handsome soloist turned out to be Ambassador Lodge himself.  Topping off all the rest, there was even a real moment at Nha Trang Air Base when, after much behind-the-scenes wire pulling, we all watched a recently wounded rifleman unexpectedly reunited with his girlfriend, a dancer in the troupe.  As the young couple embraced, everybody choked up, and Mary even ad-libbed a perfect curtain line, ‘Dolly Levi is a matchmaker, after all.’

“As the week wore on, the two different worlds of the Army and Broadway became intertwined in ways that might have startled the Pentagon but seemed jauntily appropriate in the field.  Sometimes the Air Force borrowed Dolly microphones to dispatch pilots on urgent missions.  At a press briefing it was solemnly announced, amid the rest of the battle news, that at 1600 hours Mary Martin would plant a tree.  There were bits of low comedy, as when a sergeant serving as an amateur stagehand accidentally folded up a little dancer in a scenery flat, and a marvelous State Department man kept asking, if this was Hello, Dolly! where was Louis Armstrong?  Shortly before curtain time at Bien Hoa, General Westmoreland explained to David Merrick that he would have to leave the performance early in order to fly to Hong Kong to greet Congressman [Mendel] Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.  ‘I quite understand, General,’ said the producer.  ‘You must deal with your angels just as I must deal with mine.’

“Despite all the high spirits, I continued to wonder whether all the problems and perils could be justified by the throat-stopping roars the show did evoke.  I was inclined to think not, at least not in that particularly harrowing week of war.  There are over 140,000 Americans in Vietnam, and I doubt that more than 12,000 were able to see the show.  But from a long-range point of view I think that President Johnson’s instinct for showmanship has again served him well.  The Dolly tour taught the military a little about show business, which cannot hurt, and may even result in attracting more small entertainment units to Vietnam, where they are very much needed.  But it did even more for the civilians involved in the operation.  A doctor took a couple of Dolly girls and me on a helicopter hop to a tented hospital.  Another chopper landed behind us and when the girls saw a stretcher being lifted from it, they were suddenly scared about going into the tent.  ‘What should we say to them?’ they asked the doctor.  ‘Don’t worry,’ he answered, and when we got inside there were eight bandaged, sweating soldiers lying unconscious on the cots.

“The week was like an introduction long overdue, a Hello, Vietnam.

No comments:

Post a Comment