‘On the Home Front: Nov. ’44’ honors veterans in a unique way

Above: WCU faculty and staff rehearse for "On the Home Front."

Above: WCU faculty and staff rehearse for “On the Home Front.”

The Fine and Performing Arts Center at Western Carolina University will be transformed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, into a live radio studio very similar to one used by CBS radio station KNX in Hollywood 65 years ago to broadcast the most popular Armed Forces Radio show to GIs during World War II: “Command Performance, USA!”

“Command Performance” was a weekly variety style radio show that featured music, comedy and the most popular radio and movie stars in Hollywood. The show was named “Command Performance” because each week thousands of GIs sent in postcards requesting songs and personal appearances by entertainers. In addition to responding to requests for songs and top radio and movie stars, “Command Performance” often fulfilled the requests of a GI to hear something from home, like the shouts of a hot dog vendor at Yankee Stadium.

“Folks attending the Nov. 11 show in the Fine and Performing Arts Center are going to experience a live broadcast just like ‘Command Performance’ was done 65 years ago,” said Don Connelly, head of the communication department at WCU. Connelly researched the original shows for nearly two years in writing the WCU production “On the Home Front: Nov. ’44.”

“The show will include the comedy, requests from GIs and the music just like the original,” he said.

The star of the show, according to Connelly, is the music, which played such a big role in people’s lives during the war years. Bruce Frazier, WCU’s Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music, is the show’s musical director. In addition to selecting the music for the show, Frazier will direct the 15 music faculty members performing as the Home Front Radio Orchestra.

Photo from the personal war-time scrapbook of Lt. Vern Carstensen, 5th Army Mobile Radio Station, depicting a GI operating a homemade field radio built to listen to broadcasts like the one being re-created at WCU. (Photo courtesy of James Carstensen )

Photo from the personal war-time scrapbook of Lt. Vern Carstensen, 5th Army Mobile Radio Station, depicting a GI operating a homemade field radio built to listen to broadcasts like the one being re-created at WCU. (Photo courtesy of James Carstensen )

“Music has always been a main part of entertaining the troops, and this show is full of 1940s favorites,” said Frazier. “The music is a jolt of nostalgia with some famous dance music, swing in particular. It is great to see the spirit and enthusiasm of our music faculty as they lend their talents to the project to honor veterans.”

Steve Carlisle, the show’s director and associate dean of the Honors College, said re-creating one of these broadcasts is such a unique way to honor veterans for their service. “All our hearts are in this show,” said Carlisle. “It’s with great respect and humility that we attempt to bring a little of the past forward as we honor those who have served and those that continue to serve our country’s needs. The audience will get to experience a show that was never heard by civilians during World War II.”

Armed Forces Radio was the link to back home, to good times and to family. “There is a photo I can’t get out of my head,” said Connelly. “It is of a group of GIs who look like they have been to hell and back. The men are eating chow from their mess kits, and they’re all focused on a radio that is sitting on the hood of a jeep. They are all smiling. That is what ‘Command Performance’ and Armed Forces Radio was all about, and that is the quality I’ve tried to capture in the show.”

Theater-goers can enjoy a special historical display in the lobby of the Fine and Performing Arts Center prior to the performance. History department interns and students working under Richard Starnes, head of the department, have prepared displays that focus on Western North Carolina and the impact of the war on this region.

The cast includes Aaron D’Innocenzi from Clear Channel Communications, Asheville; Melody Huddleston, administrative assistant from the department of stage and screen; Terry Nienhuis, retired professor of English with a number of years of acting for stage, television and film; and Carlisle and Connelly.

“Command Performance” was broadcast overseas on shortwave radio, and recordings of the show were sent to all of the Allied nations and to the mobile Army radio stations that followed the troops.

WCU’s production will begin at 7:30 p.m. with live preshow entertainment from the Home Front Radio Orchestra with “The Hit Parade” of 1944. No one will be admitted after 7:30 p.m. because the show will be broadcast live by WWNC.

Tickets for the one-night-only public performance are $5, with proceeds benefiting departmental scholarship funds. Advanced tickets are highly recommended as last year’s presentation of “The War of the Worlds” was sold out. For ticket information, contact the Fine and Performing Arts Center box office at (828) 227-2479.

Above: Students in uniform were common sights at Western Carolina during World War II. (Photo from WCU’s Special Collections at Hunter Library)

Above: Students in uniform were common sights at Western Carolina during World War II. (Photo from WCU’s Special Collections at Hunter Library)