Causes and Controversies
Entertainers in the twentieth century have been involved in a wide range of causes that on occasion have led to clashes and controversies. Popular performers such as Bob Hope have taken the lead in raising money to support the war effort and risked their lives entertaining troops at the front lines. There has been a long-standing tradition of political expression in music, theater, and dance. During the 1960s, entertainers on opposite ends of the political spectrum stepped beyond the traditional performing stage to enter more directly into the political fray, often at the risk of alienating their fans.
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Entertaining the Troops
Bob Hope’s best audiences were servicemen and women stationed far from home at military bases in the U.S. and abroad. Beginning in May 1941 and continuing for nearly fifty years, Hope brought his variety show to military camps and war zones to entertain troops with song, dance, comedy, attractive women, and people in the news. He discovered early on that audiences appreciated jokes about their locale and local elite. The strategy worked especially well when he teased soldiers about their bases and skewered their officers. Hope believed he gained more from the experience than he gave. “I hate war with all my guts,” Hope told a crowd in 1971, “but I admire the guys with guts enough to fight them when they have to be fought.”
Believe me when I say that laughter up at the front lines is a very precious thing—precious to those grand guys who are giving and taking the awful business that goes on there. . . . There’s a lump the size of Grant’s Tomb in your throat when they come up to you and shake your hand and mumble “Thanks.” Imagine those guys thanking me! Look what they’re doin’ for me. And for you.
—Bob Hope, 1944
Songs have suffused the political scene throughout the course of American history. From anti-slavery songbooks compiled by fugitive slaves in the early nineteenth century to collaborative videos of recording superstars performing for famine relief in the late twentieth century, songs have helped accomplish goals of great social importance. Political campaigns have employed songs to create an aura around candidates. The Civil Rights Movement used songs to bind people together in a commitment to a better future. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected in 1962. “They give people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” Wars have produced both pro- and anti-war songs that have served as rival anthems during divisive times.
Songs are the statement of a people. You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than any other way, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations.
—John Steinbeck, 1940
Satire in Song and Dance
National Director of the Federal Theatre Project Hallie Flanagan called for theater to respond to current events. Social satire developed as the most important genre of the musical theater during the 1930s as anxieties stemming from the Great Depression found their voice. George and Ira Gershwin wrote music and lyrics for the satiric political musicals Of Thee I Sing (1931), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and its darker sequel, Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933). Satire was found in revues, including the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, in which Bob Hope appeared in a sketch satirizing government spending and Fanny Brice lampooned the “radical” dance movement. Hope starred that year in the political farce Red, Hot & Blue! that satirized Supreme Court rulings against the New Deal. The period’s most controversial satire, The Cradle Will Rock, a product of the pro-union and anti-fascist Popular Front coalition, challenged the middle class to join labor in confronting the capitalist class.
In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all forces, the theatre must grow up.
—Hallie Flanagan, 1935
A Climate of Fear
The entertainment industries suffered greatly during the Cold War from pressure to purge their ranks of communists, former communists, and those who had endorsed causes that communists also supported. As a result of hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors were imprisoned and hundreds more in the industry were blacklisted. Radio and television networks succumbed to intimidation from advertisers and civic organizations during a period in which China went communist, the Soviets tested an atomic bomb, the Korean War broke out, and a Soviet spy ring was exposed. The period became identified with the term “McCarthysim,” as the televised hearings of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy nourished a climate of fear and intimidation throughout the United States.
But Eisenhower isn’t really worried about Russia using the atomic bomb. He’s got an ace up his sleeve. . . . One false move and he’ll drop Senator McCarthy on Moscow.
—Bob Hope, 1953
Government Support for the Arts
Although George Washington believed that “excellence” in the arts required “public encouragements,” federal support for the arts remained unrealized until the twentieth century. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt established arts projects to employ artists, writers, actors, and even vaudeville performers to entertain the public. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing the National Cultural Center and an advisory committee on the arts, initiatives that eventually resulted in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. After President Kennedy invited arts luminaries to his inauguration gala to foster an atmosphere of “collaboration between government and the arts,” the artistic community responded enthusiastically.
I’d like to see a special comedy channel created on TV where all these great clowns . . . could do their stuff. I think the Government should subsidize them. . . . We spend so much money on stupid things, why not entertain the public?
—Bob Hope, 1973
The Embrace of Arts and Politics
What columnists Arthur and Barbara Gelb described as the Kennedy administration’s “extraordinary liaison between politics and art” can be attributed in large part to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. During her husband’s first year in office, Mrs. Kennedy had a permanent stage installed in the White House and hosted performances by the Metropolitan Opera, a Shakespeare troupe, and cellist Pablo Casals. According to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, “It was important to demonstrate that the White House could be an influence in encouraging public acceptance of the arts.” During the Kennedy years, artists who had been silenced in the McCarthy period, as Shirley MacLaine recalled, “came out into the real world again and began to fight against the politics of exclusion.” As the Vietnam War escalated, performers chose sides in an increasingly divided country, polarized by politics and culture.
Politics that are void of the insight of art—its compassion, humor and laughter—are doomed to sterility and abstractions.
—Shirley MacLaine, 1972
Polarization in the 1960s
In November 1969, when Bob Hope asked the nation’s elected leaders to join him in celebrating a week of national unity no matter their political persuasion, one mayor, signing on, identified the period as “a time of crisis, greater today perhaps than since the Civil War.” The war in Vietnam, the counterculture, black power, and women’s liberation left the nation polarized between those who passionately protested the status quo and others who eagerly adopted the phrase popularized by President Nixon—“the silent majority”—to identify their adherence to traditional norms, mores, and values. Celebrities hoping to use their fame to publicize causes took on the roles of spokesperson and leader on each side of the divide as the worlds of politics and entertainment increasingly became interwoven.
I think humor is very significant in our American society today because, if there’s anything this country needs, it’s a few laughs. We certainly have the straight lines today, and the more dramatic side of our history, and I believe anything that can bring the people a little release is very, very important.
—Bob Hope, 1967