On a late April afternoon in 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt stood on the White House lawn greeting a reception line of Hollywood stars. When each performer stepped up to shake her hand an aide announced their name. A middle-aged scholarly looking man lacking his outrageously large greasepaint mustache and his cigar stepped forward. “Mr. Groucho Marx,” the aide said. “I’m very happy to welcome you here, Mr. Marx.” “Are we late for dinner?” Groucho shot back. And Groucho was just warming up. After limber comedienne-dancer Charlotte Greenwood was introduced to Mrs. Roosevelt, the dancer showed the first lady her special high kick by swinging her leg over Mrs. Roosevelt’s head. Groucho leaned over to the President’s wife and said, “You could do that too, if you put your mind to it.” The Hollywood Victory Caravan had arrived in Washington D.C.!
After Pearl Harbor the Screen Actors Guild and the motion picture industry’s trade guilds formed the Hollywood Victory Committee: An organization committed to supporting American servicemen around the world. The committee created shows and touring troupes to appear at military bases and USO centers. Of course, Hollywood, being Hollywood, had to kick things off with a touring extravaganza: The Victory Caravan — a train carrying Hollywood’s top stars.
The stars on this coast to coast to coast jaunt were Desi Arnaz, Joan Bennett, Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Jerry Colonna, Bing Crosby, Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Charlotte Greenwood, Olivia De Haviland, Bob Hope, Francis Langford, Bert Lahr, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Groucho Marx, Frank McHugh, Ray Middleton, Pat O’Brien, Merle Oberon, Eleanor Powell, Rise Stevens, Spencer Tracy, and seven Hollywood starlets.
Also on board were the shows producer-director Mark Sandrich (director of many Astaire-Rogers movies) and famous motion picture musical director Alfred Newman. These two men put together the show’s special material including songs, dances, comedy bits, dramatic scenes, and an operatic aria. The material was written by Hollywood heavyweights Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, and Broadway legends George Kaufman and Moss Hart, with original music by Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, and Arthur Schwartz.
The stars boarded a special train at Union Station, Los Angeles and headed east for Washinton D.C. The Southern Pacific Railroad offered, free of charge, seven pullman cars with seperate berths for all the performers, a dinning car, and a lounge car with a fully stocked bar and a piano. Around the piano every night the performers rehearsed their acts and sang old songs to entertain each other. Groucho sang bits from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh wailed Irish songs, and, according to Groucho, you could also hear Bing Crosby the ” million-dollar crooner straining his voice to top the sound of the train and trying to outdo an obscure baritone who insisted he was Bob Hope.
The train reached Washington D.C. on April 29. After Mrs. Roosevelt’s White House lawn party, the troupe rehearsed at Constitution Hall. The next night they played the first show at the Loew’s Capitol theatre. All proceeds from this show and all the others went to the Army and Navy Relief Funds.
Of all the stars Laurel and Hardy had the easiest time, becuase they performed hilarious routines that they had honed to perfection over the years. At every show a huge ovation greeted Stan and Ollie’s theme music. Some of the other stars, however, acted in skits only recently created for the show. Bob hope was master of cermonies, holding the bits and acts together; a job he always did so well.
Pat O’Brien described the show: “Imagine on the same stage in one evening, Bert Lahr singing one of his great songs with Cary Grant acting as his stooge, Groucho Marx doing an insult routine, Charlotte Greenwood with her high kicks dance, Bing Crosby singing…, then trading ad-libs, funny ad-libs, with Bob Hope, Jim Cagney with a line of those pretty girls doing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ Laurel and Hardy doing one of their great routines. It was one of those occasions, those three weeks, that really in my lifetime deserved that much-overworked adjective ‘fabulous.’ It really was, nothing less. Fabulous.”
The show the following day in Boston set the routine for the rest of the tour: A motorcade to the theatre followed by the three hour show, ending with the stars circulating through the audience selling war bonds. The stars then returned to the train for midnight dinner and libations — and more libations — around the lounge car piano. Bert Lahr remembered, ” We hardly got any sleep. We had a doctor on the train who gave us sleeping pills to calm us down and Benzedrine to wake us up in the morning.”
The public reacted with exuberance. Screaming fans lined the parade routes of every city. One group of fans followed the stars to a Philadelphia restaurant and remained outside until Bob Hope leaned out a window and threw them biscuits from a basket; after he ran out of biscuits he threw out the basket.
One celebrity, however, often went unrecognized: Until later in his life Julius Marx never wore a mustache: Groucho’s distinctive movie mustache was all greasepaint. Yet, off the movie set, Marx’s acerbic wit and insults still flew from his unmustached mouth, often landing him in trouble. In Don’t Shoot It’s Only Me Bob Hope described an incident during the caravan’s stop in the nation’s capitol: ” Once when we were walking down a Washington street we passed a woman carrying an armload of bundles. Julius Marx gave her the usual Groucho leer and said, ‘ I see your doing your Christmas shoplifting early.’ He didn’t have the cigar and grease mustache. The lady obviously didn’t know who the hell he was and immediately took one of her bundles and started hitting him over the head.”
After the Boston show the train carried the intrepid troupe to Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, Dallas, and Houston. Following the Houston show, Hope and his radio program regulars, Jerry Colonna and Francis Langford, set out for further touring of military bases around the continental United States and Alaska. The Alaska tour was Hope’s first out-of-country trip for the USO; a tradition he continued for the next half-century.
The remaining stars continued on to the last show in San Francisco and then the final stop at Glendale, California. There Bert Lahr recalled seeing “Babe” Hardy standing on the platform ” trying to look away from his friends to hide his tears.” Hardy told everyone, “Don’t let’s lose this. Keep in touch.” Hardy always remembered the Victory Caravan as a highlight of his life. “They were special people doing something special. Such fun, the time of your life, and the icing on the cake was that we were all together for the sake of the boys in the service.”