Tricking Nazis

How artists in a top-secret U.S. Army unit pulled the ultimate fast ones on Hitler

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4th Platoon, Company D was the first group of Ghost Army deceivers to go to work in Normandy. They arrived eight days after D-Day.

In 1943, the good guys in the Great War needed to start thinking outside-the-box if they were going to beat the Axis powers crawling over Europe and Asia.

Thus the creation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army,” a top secret U.S. Army special force of 1,100 men. Their mission: stage a bunch of fake but convincing maneuvers to fool the Germans into making bad decisions.

We’re talking about inflatable tanks and rubber weaponry here. Sound effects of gunfire. Flash canisters to mimic artillery. Elaborate stagings of entrenchments that, upon close inspection, were nothing more than collapsible props and P.A. systems. (P.A. systems with a 15-mile reach, yes—but still a giant speaker.) At a distance, however, these scenes appeared to be well-fortified American troops riled and focused for victory. They were distractions from real missions happening elsewhere; they were designed to spread wrong information and confound enemy plans.

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The Ghost Army’s trademark tool of visual illusion was the inflatable M4 Sherman tank. Fully inflated, it was 18’4” long, 8’3” wide, and 7’9 to the top of the turret. It took 20 minutes to inflate.

Often, soldiers in the Ghost Army were tasked to frequent local bars, order food and play “loose lips” to spread false information to spies or Axis informants.

And you know what? It worked.

The reason why such a far-fetched plot to deceive and dis-inform the enemy was so successful resides in the gut, grit, training and talent of the men who pulled off such believable illusions.

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Each halftrack, equipped for sonic deception, carried 800 pounds of audio equipment capable of playing a half hour show from a wire recorder and projecting the sounds as far as 15 miles.

Among those 1,100 soldiers were some of the greatest artists, lighting designers and sound designers trained in American university fine arts programs. Some of the 23rd would become the great marketing masterminds to steer the post-war boom. When America needed people who could break the tactical rulebooks and re-write the art of war, the government called on its most creative citizens. Notable operatives in the Ghost Army included fashion designer Bill Blass, painters Ellsworth Kelly and Art Singer, and photographer Art Kane.

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Two Ghost Army artists sketching inside a bombed out church in Trevieres in August 1944. At least half a dozen Ghost Army artists painted or sketched the badly damaged church.

The only military unit specifically dedicated only to deception, the Ghost Army served a singular, successful purpose in WWII. Their “traveling shows” of military might or of convoys deployed to front lines that didn’t exist threw the Germans off their game. The deceptions saved countless American lives.

The Ghost Army’s last and most successful performance, Operation Viersen, tricked Hitler’s army into thinking two divisions (some 40 thousand men; remember, there are only 1,100 men in the Ghost Army) were at a specific position on the Rhine River. When the Germans advanced on the illusion created by the Ghost Army, the real army of soldiers crossed several miles away, suffering almost no casualties or resistance.

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A hand-drawn map of Operation Viersen, taken from the US Army’s Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special troops, a document that was classified for many years.

To this day, there is no evidence that the Germans ever figured out a deception unit was operating against them.

The missions, by their nature, drew enemy fire though no one in the Ghost Army was ever issued a real weapon. What stood between these men and live rounds from German soldiers were set pieces—usually the cache of inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes. Not all of the soldiers in the Ghost Army survived. Many were wounded. Their status and missions remained classified until 1996 in case the same tactics needed to be deployed against the Russians during the Cold War.

In 2013, a documentary about the dramatic, dangerous stagecraft of the Ghost Army premiered on PBS in honor of Memorial Day.

For all of those who served, and for those who gave their lives, we honor you.

A Million Little Peaces

The performing arts and conflict resolution

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Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Emily Koch as Elphaba in Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If the folks at (TITLE) for Dummies® or the Idiot’s Guide™ to (THIS THING) ever wrote a how-to guide on building a better world, certainly there’d be a chapter or two on the performing arts.

Much has been said on the value of elevating culture and artistic achievement as hallmarks of a civilized society (such as Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College after the death of great American poet Robert Frost). We’ve also come to understand the correlation between depriving people of the arts and higher rates of crime, lack of critical thinking skills and violence.

Mounting research proves that engagement in the performing arts improves children’s overall well-being. With the music, dance and theater, they get better cognitive abilities and higher-level emotional development plus experience with problem-solving, conquering fear, collaborating, effectively communicating and accessing creativity to imagine better outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, engagement with the performing arts allows children to develop a critical aspect of their humanity: empathy. And now we have the neuroscience to prove it.

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Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings because we can recognize our own—sort of an I-can-see-myself-in-you situation that breaks down the barriers of self and mistrust that often perpetuate never-ending conflicts.

The performing arts allow us to see things differently, to learn viewpoints of people who are different from us and to see ourselves reflected in the artist’s work, often to some revelatory effect. We learn a little something new about ourselves and our world either by watching in an audience or by performing in a show. These are all good things.

Human beings have four basic psychological-emotional needs: belonging, freedom, fun and a sense of inner power (like accomplishment and recognition). When those needs aren’t met, we experience inner conflict first, then we extend that outward—how far depends on our own emotional intelligence. Some of us are emotionally intelligent enough to resolve the inner conflict well; in the extreme, that inner conflict turns into some man taking over a country by murdering entire sects of other humans. Oh, what a place the world would be if we handled our disputes and conflicts with dance battles such as this:

As humans, our other great pull is to make sense of the world, of our inner worlds and the world happening around us. At its core, art is about the human spirit making meaning of the human experience.

Thus, the performing arts attend to our most powerful psychological and social needs, which makes the arts ideal for conflict resolution—or, at the very least, a non-threatening way to broach tough topics and uncomfortable truths. Music, dance and theater can be very safe avenues to confrontation, building empathy and creating the kinds of conversations that can turn conflict into an opportunity for a community to grow in a positive way.

Around the world, people turn to the performing arts to help them access the often easy-to-see, difficult-to-cross bridges between people on opposing sides of a conflict.

In the greater Boston area, a group of artists, educators, public service providers and academics created Violence Transformed, an initiative to respond to violence in the area, give a voice to victims of violence and try to find ways to prevent violence from happening in home, at school and in the community. Initially a one-time art exhibit, Violence Transformed has grown in the past ten years to become a multi-media event with workshops, exhibits and performances throughout the year. In Papua New Guinea, Seeds Theatre Group works to address the frightening amount of violence against women by engaging communities in theater. In 2014, the company collaborated with UNICEF Pacific for the #ENDviolence against women and children initiative with a music video that went viral. In Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective has been working since 1977 as a group utilizing the performing arts as a community resource to address and confront violence and empower residents of all genders to change their situations, especially in desperate neighborhoods in Kingston.

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We hosted a World Cafe discussion during the It Gets Better residency in March 2017.

Here at The Straz, we’ve collaborated with the It Gets Better Project to address violence against LGBTQ youth (read about our work in this article in the Florida Diversity Council newsletter) and supported veteran PTSD recovery through visual art and movement workshops.

As we move, socially, into more interaction with technology and social media than in actual conversations and person-to-person experiences, we see a growing national discussion about the need for activating empathy—even Forbes magazine published an article examining how lack of empathy damages the reputation and impact of business leaders. Empathy, the article notes, is the strongest skill in successful leadership performance.

From a performing arts perspective, what looks like a world in a million little pieces could be a world in a million little peaces:

“. . . Conflict simply exists as a natural part of life. It is what people in conflict do with the experience that determines whether it will be constructive or destructive.”
–from The Art in Peacemaking: A Guide to Integrating Conflict Resolution Education into Youth Arts Programs

Everything the Light Touches is His Kingdom

James Earl Jones receives the Lifetime Achievement in Theater recognition at the Tony Awards this year.

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In 1957, during his first week in New York as a wannabe actor, James Earl Jones saw these shows:

Night one: Tosca starring Leontyne Price
Night two: Swan Lake starring Margot Fontaine
Night three: Pal Joey
Night four: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

What a week, right?

This remarkable itinerary was put together by his father, the actor Robert Earl Jones, who wanted to give his son a taste of la crème de la crème on stage at the time (and probably of all time).

By night five, James Earl Jones, an unknown actor adrift with thousands of other unknown actors vying for a spot on Broadway, knew, one day, he would be in the glow of the warm stage lights.

One year later, he was. Jones landed the role of Edward in the FDR bio-play Sunrise at Campobello.

We feel safe assuming Jones did not know his career would land him the indelible distinction of being the voice of both the worst and best of fatherhood. And, really, who among us hears James Earl Jones speak and doesn’t automatically think, “[heavy breathing] I am your father” and/or “Look, Simba . . . everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

(Editors’ note for the benefit of diehard Star Wars fans who will surely mention this in the comments if we don’t: The classic line from Star Wars is often misremembered as “Luke, I am your father,” as even Jones’ mentions in the clip below, though the line is “No, I am your father,” as you can hear in the excerpt from the film.)

Jones, who continued to work the stage in New York after Sunrise at Campobello for the next decade, emerged as a man who would carve his place on the monument of Great Actors with his mind-blowing work as a heavyweight boxing champ named Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968. In Clive Barnes’ review, he noted that as he was leaving the theater, Jones was “receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history.”

Jones won his first Tony, in 1969, for that role. His acting prowess and newfound fame steered his career straight to Sesame Street, where, also in 1969, he was the very first celebrity guest. As for another Tony, his work in the original production of August Wilson’s Fences (the role recently revived by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film) earned him his second award in 1987.

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The Great White Hope also won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jones reprised his role in the film adaptation and received an Academy Award nomination.

In between, there was a little $7,000 gig voicing a character for George Lucas’ intergalactic war movie. What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader? And what would Darth Vader be without James Earl Jones? (Rick Moranis in Spaceballs — if you don’t believe us, watch this short clip of David Prowse, who played Vader, saying the dialogue in that giant, plastic helmet-mask).

Jones, who stuttered, spent eight years of his childhood in relative silence, speaking to the animals on their farm in Michigan but avoiding talking to other human beings. Encouraged by his English teacher to recite poetry in front of his high school class as a means of overcoming the stutter, Jones eventually gained mastery. The last public return of the stutter popped up during a performance of Sunrise at Campobello when he stuck over the “M” in “Mrs. Roosevelt,” though Jones says the stutter remains, even now, at 86, which is notably ironic considering Jones’ fame emanates partly from his deep, clear, bass voice.

Try saying “This is CNN” without hearing Jones. It’s impossible. His voice is that powerful. In a little-known anecdote, Jones, who is by nature a merry jokester, used to pretend to be Darth Vader on his CB radio on long car trips. When he realized the truckers were genuinely getting scared, he quit. Best to use one’s powers for good, especially when you’re James Earl Jones. As evidence of his ability to still have fun and use his powers for good, he teamed up with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) in a series of Sprint commercials where the two former Stanley Kubrick actors performed texts and Facebook messages dramatically, on a bare stage and in tuxedos:

Congratulations, Mr. Jones, on your sixty years of valuable, funny, unforgettable and powerful work in the performing arts.

Want to see James Earl Jones receive his award? Then mark your calendars: The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Traveling Family Road Show

The fascinating story of Clark Transfer

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

In 1948, Henry Fonda gave up a Hollywood contract to star in a Broadway play about sailors in the South Pacific. That play, Mister Rogers, won the Tony® for best play that year. One year later, it garnered another place in theater history: it was the very first Broadway show to launch a national tour via the highway.

The same trucking company that hauled Mister Rogers loads in the majority of the touring shows at The Straz today. In fact, Clark Transfer has been bringing shows to our stages since we opened our doors.

Not only that, but Clark Transfer invented the idea of taking Broadway shows on the road. In no small way, this humble, family-owned trucking company revolutionized the entire performing arts industry in the United States.

And it all started with the Spanish Flu.

After World War I, a global influenza pandemic laid waste to one-fifth of the world’s population in two years, killing 675,000 Americans (10 times the number who died in the war) and more than four times the number of people who died during the Black Plague. It was an awful time, and no city in the U.S. was hit worse than Philadelphia, which lost 28% of its population during 1918-1919. There were bodies everywhere, and if you owned a few trucks, there was work.

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Louis (Whitey) Molitch and his wife Sylvia. Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

So the family story goes that Jim Clark happened to own a few trucks, and the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Louis “Whitey” Molitch, happened to need a job. The two men met amid these gruesome circumstances, formed a friendship, and ten years later formed Highway Express Lines, a high-integrity, family-owned and operated Philadelphia-based trucking company that would become Clark Transfer. Jim bought the business, and Whitey rolled up his sleeves to help make it a success.

“My father was Jim Clark’s right hand,” says Norma Deull, the current president of Clark Transfer and Whitey Molitch’s daughter. “I grew up with Jim. He bought me my first car.”

The men had their roles in the business, and Jim eventually became a power player in Philadelphia politics while Whitey focused on the logistics of their enterprise. In the beginning, the company mostly hauled movie prints, magazines and newspapers. But, Whitey was that particular brand of post-war entrepreneur who had a vision of what trucking could do as more and more highways filled the national landscape.

However, he faced two formidable obstacles: the federal government and the way things had always been done.

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) controlled what materials went on trucks and trains and who was allowed to cart them from state to state. The ICC allowed only trains to transport Broadway shows, with trucks getting the sets, costumes and equipment from the station to the local theater. Even more impenetrable than government regulation was the Old Boy theatrical network of Broadway producers who did not believe they could make any money by mounting New York shows in places like Omaha.

However, Whitey had a vision. He’d seen small town America, he’d seen big city life: he knew he was on to something. “He went to the ICC,” Norma says, “with the idea that theatrical material could be moved by trucks. It was not easy convincing them, and he had to go many times. But, they gave him the rights in the United States to truck shows anywhere except within a 50 mile radius of NYC. He invented the industry. I can say that without a doubt.”

Whitey figured out who to know and how to get in with the Old Boys network in New York, and his impressive chutzpah and acumen eventually convinced the Broadway producers to take a chance on touring their shows around the country.

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

“He had to convince that Old Boy network to do something different than they’d ever done before,” says Jonathan Deull, Norma’s son and Whitey’s grandson, who earned his company chops loading and unloading trucks as his first job while still in high school, and along with his brother, Charlie Deull, now serves as Clark’s executive vice president. “I grew up in New York, and I remember that my grandfather would come every week to the city – schmoozing, deal-making, persuading and twisting arms of producers to be able to do this. He made remarkable changes.”

The transportation changes revolutionized show business, ushering in a new era of industry, opportunity and profit for an unprecedented number of people. If Broadway shows could be trucked for touring performances, so could ballet, opera, rock and roll . . . anything. Regions and mid-sized towns built state-of-the-art performing arts centers to accommodate the scale of Broadway shows. Performers and technicians had an entirely new field of work opportunities. As Ralph Hoffman, the noted ballet dancer and stage manager of Washington National Ballet, said: “culture and live entertainment to your doorstep, wherever you live . . . it was Clark Transfer that really made [it] possible.” When Jim died, Whitey bought the business, ever seeking to find better ways to do what Clark Transfer does best: getting the show on the road.

“And doing what you say you’re going to do,” says Norma.

“And don’t be late,” Jonathan adds.

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Four of the trucks that brought The Book of Mormon to Tampa in 2015.

Following in Whitey’s footsteps, Norma saw another family-based opportunity for Clark Transfer, but one for the modern age: dealing with the climate-change consequences of the carbon emissions produced by millions of miles per year of show-touring in diesel trucks.  In the 1980s, Jonathan’s wife, Sheryl Sturges, had been a pioneer in developing the idea of carbon offsets, and in 2007 Charlie took the leadership in partnering with with likeminded Broadway folks to create the Touring Green Initiative, a pool of offsets to complement their efforts to reduce emissions. Soon after, Charlie became co-chair (with Susan Sampliner, Company Manager of Wicked) of the Broadway Green Alliance.

Now with four generations of Whitey Molitch’s clan working at Clark Transfer and the fifth generation currently learning to walk, the Deulls intend to keep Clark a family business. “That’s the vision,” says Jonathan, “that this continues its tradition as a family operation. We don’t do the glamorous stuff, the stuff that gets names on marquees. The thing that drives us is bringing live performances to people who may not have the opportunity to see that – people whose lives can be transformed by that power and magic. Being able to bring that opportunity to people is enormous.”