As you well know, LUPEC will celebrate lady veterans of all stripes at the LUPEC Boston “USO Show” on November 21, a 1940s themed cocktail party and retro-variety show. Before the USO even existed, there was trailblazing entertainer Elsie Janis “the sweetheart of the A.E.F.”, for whom we raise a in this week’s Dig column. Elsie Janis was a lifetime performer: she debuted on the stage at age 2, and made a name for herself in the vaudeville circuit as child star “Little Elsie”. As an adult, Janis became a headline act on Broadway and in London, and spent her later years working as a screenwriter, songwriter, and actor in Hollywood.
Elsie Janis’s self-proclaimed “high point” came when she took her song and dance comedy show on the road to entertain American troops during World War I. Janis’ involvement with the war effort began in 1914, when she began incorporating patriotic songs into her vaudeville act, and using her shows as a stateside recruiting tool. After the US entered into the war, Janis traveled to France to entertain troops on the front lines.
A New York Times article published on June 17, 1918 describes the effect she had on the troops:
And at last…a locomotive trundled in out of the night, in its cab a pair of proud and grinning engineers, on its cowcatcher, Elsie Janis.
A moment later and the engine was near enough to the stage for her to clear the space at a single jump and there she was, with her black velvet tam pushed back on her tossing hair, with her eyes alight and her hands uplifted, her whole voice thrown into the question which is the beginning and end of morale, which is the most important question in the army:
‘Are we downhearted?’
You can only faintly imagine the thunderous ‘No’ with which the train shed echoed till the peaceful French households in the neighborhood wondered what those epatants Americans would be up to next. And it is the whole point of Elsie Janis…that whatever the spirit of the boys before her coming they really meant that “No” with all there was in them, that any who might have been just a little downhearted before felt better about it after seeing and hearing her.
Performing as the “Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Forces ” was indeed the role of a lifetime. Janis remained committed to the fighting men she entertained after the war, and even created a revue featuring some of the out of work soldiers she’d entertained, called
Elsie Janis and Her Gang which hit the stage in the fall of 1919. Critics predicted that no one would want to hear about the war after it ended, but Janis considered the show a success. Janis also wrote a memoir of her experiences entertaining the troops which was published in 1919, titled The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces.
The period after the war was tough on Janis, as fewer and fewer people wanted to hear about the war and her work entertaining troops in Europe, a period that she considered “her high point.” As she later wrote in her autobiography, “[T]he war was my high spot and I think there is only one real peak in each life!”
But, as the New York Times argued, the positive impact Janis and performers like her had on the troops could not be overlooked:
When she leads a leather-lunged regiment in the strains of “God Save Kaiser Bill” the future of that uneasy monarch really seems more insecure than it did, and it is not fanciful to say that more than one company has marched off to its first night in the trenches with brighter eyes, squarer shoulders, and a more gallant swing because, at the very threshold of safety, this lanky and lovely lady from Columbus, Ohio, waved and sang and cheered them on their way.”
We’ll drink to that!
THE ATTA BOY COCKTAIL
2 oz gin
1/2 oz dry vermouth
2 dashes grenadine
Stir in mixing glass with ice & strain into a chilled cocktail glass.