The following excerpt has been edited from a longer version, titled “Off-Off-Off-Broadway,” that is part of The Esopus Reader, a new collection of pieces from the annual publication Esopus, edited by founder Tod Lippy, featuring content from all creative disciplines presented in an unmediated format.
John Nutt: In 1969–70, the American military in Vietnam assembled a group of 11 soldiers, myself included, and one female civilian employee, to put together a production of the musical The Fantasticks. Traveling by truck, helicopter, and C-130 air transport, we entertained troops throughout the war zone. After the tour was over, we returned to our original military companies.
Rick Holen: While Army Special Services in Saigon brought over movie stars like John Wayne, Martha Raye, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Bob Hope staged an annual Christmas show, these appearances were only for the handful of rear areas where it was safe enough for them to appear. So the military decided to try something else: Assemble groups of trained GIs that could defend themselves if they needed to and yet use their musical, acting, and entertainment experience to take the war away from the men in the field for a couple of hours.
The first group of American soldiers to tour frontline areas was called the Black Patches. The unit was put together in 1966 by a group of career military officers and enlisted men. They performed mainly covers of popular music, although they were known for some off-color original tunes that lampooned various members of the office staff back in Saigon. The group not only played for the troops in the field, they also performed at many hospitals, where they felt they were needed the most. The Command Military Touring Shows really began with this group. A group of GIs from Special Services first put together a revue called The Maniactors, followed by a number of other small-scale musicals, from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to Stop the World—I Want to Get Off (and even some one-act plays, like Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape). All in all, 580 men and women took part in these CMTS productions.
Joe Mauro: Before I left for Vietnam, a friend had given me the number of someone to contact should I get to a phone. His name was Brad Arrington. Brad was a fixture in Saigon and was responsible for many of the military shows that were put together to entertain the troops in the field. I phoned Brad, and we became fast and close friends. In the course of our working together, I threw a lot of ideas out to him and never once did he say it couldn’t be done. My first undertaking was to stage a talent show in Saigon. We put out a notice through the army distribution network, and the guys arrived, all of them vying for a chance to get out and perform.
John Nutt: I was stationed in Saigon, working as a personnel clerk in an army intelligence unit housed in an old French compound near the edge of the city. One day not long after my arrival, my office phone rang. It was a call from a college friend working for a general at army headquarters in Long Binh who had responsibility for troop entertainment. He asked if I wanted to stage-manage a production of The Fantasticks.
Bob Sevra: The day after I landed in Saigon, I reported to 4th Psy Ops, not having any idea what my job would be, or where I might be going. The first sergeant told us new guys that some sort of inspector general was expected in the next day or two, and we rookies should just go back to the hotel we were assigned to and keep out of sight. While the others checked out the town and the bars, I found my way to Special Services, just to see if I might find something that would keep me out of the war.
Mauro: A fellow named Jay Kerr was assigned to the entertainment division of Special Services in Bien Hoa. He had known the late Clark Gesner, the creator of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and somehow he convinced him to give us the rights to produce it in Vietnam (this was its first staging outside of Off-Broadway, as far as I know). I played Schroeder, and we hit the trails, performing anywhere and everywhere.
Because of the success of the production, Brad and I had a conversation about staging The Fantasticks. There was a civilian female in the Special Services office with a voice that both of us thought was ideal for the female lead. We felt the show would be perfect because it didn’t rely on props and many of the other trappings of large productions.
Notices were sent out for auditions, and I quickly realized that we had a hell of a lot of creative talent going to waste in a country they shouldn’t have been in in the first place.
Holen: My theatre experience was rather limited compared with the rest of the cast. Many of them had majored in theatre or music performance in college—some even had MFA degrees. Most of us had been drafted right out of college, but we all had one thing in common: We hated the military and wanted nothing more than to live through the experience and get back to working in the theatre—and living in the world.
I had played a role in The Fantasticks in summer stock when I was on leave from the Air Force. Later that summer, on July 4, 1969, I left for Vietnam. One day I got lost in Saigon, which was very easy to do, and I passed by the Army Special Services Compound. There was a banner that read “Auditions for The Fantasticks.” I pulled my jeep over, and after chaining the steering wheel with a paddle lock—it wouldn’t have been there when I got back otherwise—I ran in and filled out a form and walked into the audition. It felt like a typical theatre audition you would find in New York.
Sevra: I had always been a singer and an actor. Years before, when I first heard a recording of The Fantasticks, it had been my dream to someday play the character of El Gallo. (Also, from the first time I saw her picture on the album cover and heard her sing, I fell in love with the Girl from the original show, Rita Gardner. As luck would have it, she was cast as my love interest in a musical at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., in 1973, and we’ve been together ever since.) As it turns out, the day I walked into Special Services, they were auditioning and casting for the touring production of The Fantasticks. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was told I’d gotten the part of El Gallo.
Nutt: When I approached the rehearsal hall, I was greeted by the sound of a piano and the lyrics, “Try to remember the kind of September…” booming down a small alley in a humble neighborhood of Saigon. I met some of the performers and in short order was informed that my budget was $50 and a jeep. The vehicle was necessary, I was told, because I was going to have to steal practically everything I needed.
Holen: I expected we would rehearse for a couple of weeks and then perform the musical in Saigon for two or three weekends—that would be it. Little did I know that I would be transferred from the Air Force to the Army’s 1st Log Command for two and a half months and tour all over Vietnam for three shows a day, putting myself into countless situations where I ran the risk of getting my ass shot off.
Nutt: Our troupe consisted of eight performers, a musical director/pianist, a stage manager (that was me), a prop man, and, most amazingly, a piano tuner who not only tuned but also rebuilt many of the pianos we used. Later I found out that a number of the military commanders had requested that our troupe perform for them in order to get their pianos tuned!
Holen: Vietnam was carved up into military zones. IV Corps was in the South, and I Corps was up near the DMZ on the northern border of Vietnam. We often had to fly from one location to the other because there were no roads between bases. We would wind up stuck for hours on some remote flight line, waiting for a cargo plane to pick us up to fly to another performance.
Sometimes we would fly in choppers, and often I would look down into the jungle and see little green tracer rounds coming up at us. The chopper door gunners would just laugh at them, like they were bumblebees. We didn’t think it was so funny. We knew we were being watched from the tree lines wherever we landed. Even in Saigon, I would see people following us as we walked around the city. There were rumors that any VC or North Vietnamese Army soldier who killed an entertainer would get a $1,500 bounty. I don’t know if that was true or not, but it was a little unnerving.
Nutt: The places we performed tended to be unusual. In one location, we set up the stage in a boxing ring. Everything was going well until the electric piano our musician was using started to receive radio communications from B-52 pilots flying overhead. The musician turned off the power to the piano and the performers sang a cappella after that. Another time, we set up in a large movie theatre and several hundred mud-covered Marines walked in carrying weapons. As soon as the music started, almost all of them rushed out in a kind of stampede—apparently, they had expected a movie. A few soldiers remained, though—they moved up to the front and watched the whole show.
Holen: One time we were performing for a transportation unit at a service club at Long Binh. There were about 200 troops watching the performance. Right in the middle of the second act, I heard the sound of something rolling across the floor. Looking down, I saw that a green pineapple grenade had rolled upstage. My first instinct was to jump on it to save the rest of the cast. But then I noticed that there was no smoke coming out of the top of it—it was a fake. The soldier who threw the grenade was sitting with his feet resting on the stage. One of the cast members, who had attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and was trained as a comedian, picked up the fake grenade, broke character, and asked the soldier, “Do you want to be in show business?” The guy answered, “No!” The actor responded, “Then get your boots off the stage!”
We played every hospital and aid station in Vietnam. At one hospital we performed for a large number of very badly wounded troops. A majority of the audience sitting closest to the stage were soldiers who could not be transported to a navy hospital ship or to a stateside hospital. Some were burn patients; others were still in their bed with tubes attached. A number of them were in wheelchairs. We knew this was a big event for them, so we set up and did our show with as much energy and professionalism as we could muster. During the show, one of the fellows in a wheelchair turned gray, and his head just fell forward. A nurse rushed to him, put a towel over his head, and wheeled him out. I am pretty certain he had just died.
Sevra: As far as the tour itself, my memories are faded at best. I do remember feeling a bit apprehensive as to how this very delicate, innocent show would go over with a bunch of grunts, just out of the field and looking for booze and hookers and dope. In a few places, it took the audience a while to figure out what it was they were seeing. But in almost every case, they’d slowly warm to it, and by the end, they’d be cheering. I’ll never forget one guy. He was a great big old first sergeant who could have snapped me in half like a toothpick, and he nervously, almost reluctantly, came up to me after a show and said, “Man, I ain’t never seen no thee-ay-ter before. That…that…that was good!” I think that was one of the best reviews I’ve ever gotten, and certainly one I’ll always remember.
Nutt: Personally, I thought the choice of material was kind of odd, but at the same time, many people really liked it. I think for the audiences, the show provided a complete break with reality. Everyone wanted to get back to “the world” and away from Vietnam, and for a few hours, the play had that effect.
Holen: The GIs seemed to be transported to another plane of existence during the performances. The play lasted only about an hour and a half, but for that short period of time, we felt that we could put at least a temporary stop to the death and devastation, the boredom and total terror of war. The audiences would sometimes give us a standing ovation for five minutes. That is the magic of theatre.
Mauro: For both the performers and the audiences, these shows were like an oasis in the desert. It was truly gratifying to be able to get GIs out of a combat situation by putting them in a show for a month or two. And I know the troops who saw the shows viewed them as a welcome relief from the absurd world that all of us had been thrown into at that time. Everyone could relax, unwind, and get lost in the moment. I wonder, too, if these performances didn’t help all of us to stay focused on our ultimate goal: getting out of that hellhole in one piece—and with all our marbles.