GI Jive': tapping to the '40s

It looks as if the "nostalgia craze" wasn't just a craze after all. No doubt about it, nostalgia has become a permanent fixture on the entertainment scene. And nostalgia for the 1940s -- notwithstanding Hitler, World War II, and other uncheery memories -- is among the most popular of all, as we are reminded by a new special called "GI Jive" (PBS, Saturday, March 15, check local listings for premiere and repeats).

Produced by New York's WNET as part of the "Festival '80" fund-raising drive, "GI Jive" is like a trip in a time machine. Even the hosts are nostalgic -- Van Johnson and June Allyson, together again after all these years. The setting is also suitable to the occasion: the Roseland Ballroom, which is awash in memories of its own. In "GI Jive," though, the music is of such a high order that the Roseland patrons mostly forego dancing, preferring to sit and listen and bask in the sounds from the past. It's pleasure to join them, via the TV tube.

The focus of the show is on contemporary material recorded at Roseland, featuring great '40s talents who have kept their talents alive into the '80s. Still, the best parts of "GI Jive" are filmed excerpts from the world War II era itself. We see the Andrew sisters doing one of their inimitable trios -- truly inimitable, though many have tried to duplicate their style. We see the Nicholas Brothers performing an acrobatic dance routine that looks practically unthinkable, but there it is just the same. We see popular movie stars doing benefit shows for lonely soldiers, and even Abbott and Costello racing through their "Who's on First" routine. Such memories are equally a treat for those who were there and those who have just heard about the '40s.

The contemporary acts are less predictable in terms of quality, but often fascinating nonetheless. Is maxene Andrews (of the famous sisters) hasn't kept all her former sparkle, Maxine Sullivan has -- and Miss Sullivan provides the high point of the entire three hours with her exhiliratingly effortless renditions of great old songs culminating in "Loch Lomond." Superior sounds also come from Connie Haines, who sang with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra during her heyday, and from Cab Calloway, who still does full justice to such classics as "Blues in the night," It Ain't Necessarily So," and "Minnie the Moocher."

For this viewer, there are a few disappointments in "GI jive." Roy Eldridge gets too little time, while Andy Russell gets too much. But these are matters of individual taste. If you happen to be a fan of Hildegarde! -- remember that coy exclamation point? -- or John Raitt (concentrating his efforts on "Oklahoma") or "Chattanooga Choo Choo" or "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" or "Ole Man River," this could be the show of the season for you. And where else can you see Bugs Bunny selling war bonds?

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