A 1949 program for a Marian Anderson recital
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    Auction Finds

    1942 program with Noble Sissle & Gypsy Rose Lee

    I wandered into a room at the auction house a week ago where guns were being sold. I had zero interest in any of the guns but was more curious about who would turn up. 

    Lots of guys and a sprinkling of women – and too many guns. As I stood at the back and half-listened to the bidding, I started flipping through some manuals and papers lying on a table. I came across a September 30, 1942, souvenir program for a benefit at Madison Square Garden for the Army Emergency Relief organization. 

    I recognized the name because I had written a blog post about Joe Louis’ 1942 fight against Abe Simon to raise money for the organization. It was founded to offer emergency financial assistance to soldiers and their families. 

    Front cover of 1942 souvenir program for Army Emergency Relief benefit.

    I glanced at the list of performers on the program, sounding each name silently in my head: 

    Ed Wynn 

    Andrew Sisters 

    Charles Laughton 

    Ethel Merman singing the theme song “We’re All In It,” written by two soldiers 

    “The Unknown Soldier” with Noble Sissle, His Band and his Company 

    Whoa. That one stopped me. Now that was a name I was not expecting to see on a program held in 1942. 

    A page noting performance by Noble Sissle and his orchestra from 1942 benefit for Army Emergency Relief.

    A musician and bandleader, Sissle is best known as the other half of the renowned musical team of Sissle and Blake. He and Eubie Blake first got together in vaudeville around 1915, billing themselves as the Dixie Duo. Unlike many other performers, they did not wear blackface; their only prop was Blake’s piano and Sissle’s voice. 

    After World War I, they joined another vaudeville duo Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles  in producing a musical comedy with an all-black cast. They wrote the music and lyrics for “Shuffle Along,” which premiered on Broadway in 1921 as the first play by African Americans. One of its hits songs was “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which would become the theme song for Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign. 

    Sissle and Blake separated in the mid-1920s, and Sissle spent some time in Europe with his own orchestra. When he returned to the United States, he organized another band, which toured here and abroad in the 1930s and 1940s. Clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with him on and off starting in the 1920s, and Lena Horne traveled with him in the late 1930s. In 1942, Sissle hired a clarinetist named Charlie Parker to play in his band. 

    Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle in an early photo.

    Sissle had first performed for soldiers as one himself. He was in James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Jazz Band (attached to the regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters), which performed for Allied troops in Europe during World War I. 

    During World War II, he was part of the USO Camp Show circuit. According to a mention in Billboard magazine in 1944, he produced four pieces for the USO shows: “Harlem on Parade,” “Sepia Swing Revue,” “Keep Shuffling” and “Hot from Harlem.” The magazine also noted that one of his most recent compositions was “The Unknown Soldier,” which I could find little information about on the web. 

    At the auction house, I continued to peruse the list of performers, which was a 1942 Who’s Who of actors, singers, comedians and other entertainers. I didn’t recognize the names of any other African Americans, though. 

    Ritz Brothers – Harry, Jimmy & Al (A comedy team. Never heard of them.) 

    The Rockettes (Who hasn’t heard of them.) 

    Joan Blondell 

    Kate Smith 

    Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and a band of 150, including police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers 

    A Hollywood Premiere, including Myrna Loy, Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Goddard, Lt. Burgess Meredith, Frederic March, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn and George Sanders. 

    Al Jolson 

    A page showing performance by Gypsy Rose Lee from 1942 benefit for Army Emergency Relief.

    What must have been the most hilarious performance was a strip tease by Gypsy Rose Lee “supported by a $1,000,000 chorus line” made up of Vincent Price, Jack Haley, Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman, George Jessel and 10 others. 

    She and her male chorus line performed “Heir to a G-String” in front of an audience of 20,000 people, according to the 2009 book “Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee” by Noralee Frankel. 

    Vincent Price stripping? Now that’s scary.

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