Calling up star troops for service overseas

USO: The organization is busy rounding up the famous and not-so-famous to entertain military personnel.

September 29, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Yes to Aerosmith. Yes to Jamie Foxx and Chris Rock. Yes, certainly, to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. No to the female Elvis impersonator. No, probably, to the circus acts. And no to the kind gentleman from the Midwest who told Jim Pearcy on the phone, "I'm old and retired, but I'll do a little show."

Everyone can't help, but the thought does count.

Pearcy, entertainment director of the USO, must feel like he's heading the William Morris agency the past two weeks. He and his staff have fielded hundreds of calls, faxes and e-mails since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 60-year-old agency, United Service Organizations, has been overwhelmed by celebrities and mostly non-celebrities wanting to volunteer their talents to entertain the troops - wherever they may serve overseas in the nation's war on terrorism.

"I just wish we knew where," says Pearcy at USO's world headquarters in Washington.

Nearly 120 USO centers operate around the world and serve more than 5 million military personnel and their families each year. In the past several years, the USO has staged about 250 shows worldwide in countries such as Bosnia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Korea and Somalia. The world's largest USO lounge opened last year at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Created in 1941, the organization's first fund-raising chairman was Prescott Bush, the president's grandfather. Providing "a home away from home," the USO still conjures images of Bob Hope and the Andrew Sisters entertaining troops during World War II. Marilyn Monroe went to Korea. During the Vietnam War, again Bob Hope joked with troops, as the Gold Diggers danced. During the Persian Gulf War, Jay Leno visited servicemen and women at 20 remote sites.

Big names are a fraction of those who are answering the call. The USO's Erica McClanahan says they've received calls from magicians, tap dancers, circus acts (lions and tigers, but no bearded ladies, she says), fireworks companies, Elvis impersonators, Opryland-like acts and seemingly every local band. One wonders whether the mime community has stepped up, too.

"No mimes, but I'm sure they'll be coming," McClanahan says. "Everyone is coming out of the woodwork."

A group representing Broadway theater owners called from New York to offer its help. A Native American dance company wants to volunteer. Last week, McClanahan and Pearcy found themselves backstage at the Nissan Pavilion face to face with Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the rest of Aerosmith. They couldn't have been nicer or more eager to perform at some place and time for the troops, Pearcy says.

Past USO volunteers include Randy Travis, Loretta Lynn, Billy Joel, Steve Martin and the late NFL great, Walter Payton. The organization hopes the Washington Wizard's newest player, Michael Jordan, will make an overseas appearance. (Jordan's mother once appeared at a USO show.) For the 22nd year, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have enlisted. They were among the first to call. "They are fearless," Pearcy says.

The USO is a nonprofit organization, so performers don't receive talent fees. In the past, an entertainer's lagging career might have been boosted by the good press associated with volunteering for the USO, Pearcy says. But the acts who have called this month don't have publicity or loss of income on their minds.

"The great thing is no one has even mentioned the press," he says. "And because this happened on American soil, people don't care what it costs."

This has also been a time at the USO to hear from old friends. Actor Tony Curtis called Thursday about wanting to visit the Pentagon. Nancy Sinatra, a veteran USO entertainer, called the other day to offer her services. What does one say to Nancy Sinatra after all these years?

"Those boots are still made for walking," Pearcy says.

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