Dressed in his camouflage Army fatigues, Staff Sgt. Scott Rager doesn't look like your ordinary theatergoer. But ordinary it's fast becoming, as the troops at ground zero take a well-earned break to see the troupes on Broadway.
"How about one of those hats," says Sergeant Rager, with some 30 other soldiers and sailors outside "Chicago," as actresses hand out caps emblazoned with the musical's name.
Yes, it's time to entertain those who are serving America. It's a tradition that goes back to World War II days, when Bob Hope would take beautiful showgirls such as Rita Hayworth to bring a little cheer to men in combat.
Since last week, Broadway's business association has been offering soldiers the quintessential New York night on the town - dinner and a show. Next month, the United Service Organizations - known to almost every GI as the USO - is planning a tour with Mr. Hope's successor, Wayne Newton, and a slew of young celebrities.
The entertainers will sing, dance - maybe even with a fortunate GI invited onstage - and crack jokes. Almost all will sign autographs, and some will show up at mess halls to hearten those who can't make it to the show. Most important, they bring what the USO calls "a touch of home" to soldiers thousands of miles away from family.
"We take the troops what they want to see and what they are used to," says Bernie Rone, a USO producer.
Since Sept. 11, the USO has been flooded with phone calls from celebrities - reportedly including Dave Matthews, Aerosmith, Chris Rock, and Halle Berry - who want to get in on the act. For a recent trip to Korea, the USO signed up the Grammy-winning rap artist Coolio, Jessica Biel from the TV show "7th Heaven," and Zach Bryan of "Home Improvement." Later this year, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders will embark on their second tour.
There is no question that the soldiers can use the diversion - even those who are walking the streets of Manhattan. That's the case for Rager, whose National Guard unit has been in New York for two weeks. He says it's been a very emotional time, "being in the red zone, seeing the things that go on there."
In fact, the outing is the first time many have had a night off. "It's a nice change of pace from being out in the zone and working late nights," says Capt. Steve Dunn of the same guard unit.
Over the next five Tuesday nights, shows such as "The Music Man," "42nd Street," and "The Phantom of the Opera" will provide up to 30 seats apiece for the armed services.
The thespians hope that watching the show will help the soldiers unwind. "We'll steal them away for a couple of hours and hopefully take them someplace else for a while," says Michelle DeJean of "Chicago." "We're there to tap-dance and sing and bring a little delight to their faces," adds Meredith Patterson, one of the stars of the musical "42nd Street."
That's what President Roosevelt had in mind in 1941 when he wrote six civilian agencies, such as the YMCA, and asked them to handle the on-leave recreation of the rapidly growing armed forces. At its peak in 1944, the USO had over 3,000 clubs where soldiers, sailors, and airmen
could dance, see movies, or write letters.
The USO tours have attracted names such as Marilyn Monroe, who entertained the troops in Korea, and Joey Heatherton, who was onstage for the troops in Vietnam. For 34 years, Hope visited military bases every December. He almost always sang his theme song "Thanks for the Memories," which has become a part of American culture.
Hope retired from his USO activities in 1991, and Mr. Newton became chairman of the USO's Celebrity Circle. To try to round up talent, Newton, best known as "Mr. Las Vegas," has put together a group of celebrity advisers, such as Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, and Sherry Lansing.
Since Sept. 11, entertainers have tried to help any way they could. The Sept. 21 telethon, "America: A Tribute to Heroes," has raised more than $150 million, and has been followed by a number of other benefit performances. Many stars have visited ground zero to try to give the rescue-and-recovery workers a pat on the back. Performers in New York musicals have volunteered to sing at funerals.
And Broadway wanted to join in the USO tradition. "Now," says Ms. DeJean, "we're doing our own little Bob Hope show."