To Americans with vivid memories of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, it may seem impossible that many United States servicemen are unfamiliar with the USO. One might as well imagine a golfer who hasn't heard of the 19th hole, or a Dodgers fan who doesn't recognize the stadium.
Yet most of the estimated 400 enlisted men and women attending Sunday's fifth annual Christmas party were visiting the Bob Hope Hollywood USO Club for the first time. Nearly all were in their late teens or early 20s. Many arrived uncertain of what to expect.
"I knew it had something to do with Bob Hope, but that's about all," said Airman Dawn Raynor, 20, who is stationed at March Air Force Base near Riverside. "I was asked by one of my officers if I wanted to go, and it sounded like something new."
Airman Raynor was one of a few women in a predominantly male crowd. The military personnel were treated to two song-and-dance shows and a turkey dinner. They responded with enthusiastic applause and hearty appetites. During intermission many strolled through the clubhouse lobby, looking at framed photographs from the USO's heyday.
One picture showed the quintessential USO event: Bob Hope at an outdoor microphone delivering one-liners to a sea of laughing World War II soldiers. Photos from 1945 showed an impish Joan Crawford snuggling up to a delighted Army private, and a young Lucille Ball arm-in-arm with a seaman. Others were of Bing Crosby, Red Skelton and Louis Armstrong entertaining servicemen.
Today the image of the local USO is less clear. Its mission remains to entertain and assist active duty military personnel. Officials say, however, that many newer recruits in the 2.1-million member U.S. Armed Forces know little about the organization.
Some of the partygoers Sunday were unaware that the USO is not an arm of the government and receives no government funds. The name--United Service Organizations--was chosen in 1941 when several private, nonprofit agencies banded together. The local USO is funded by the United Way and private donations.
Many guests were unaware also of the services offered at the Hollywood clubhouse. These include dances each Saturday night, occasional variety shows, travelers assistance and help in obtaining tickets to sports and entertainment events.
"We have a problem getting the word out," said James Balla, executive director for the Los Angeles USO. "In peacetime there isn't much attention paid to the USO. When you have so many young people--they're 18, 19 years old--coming into the service, they don't know what the USO is."
Pfc. Terry Roach, 18, stationed at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert, accepted a last-minute offer to attend the party.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "All I'd heard was that this is an OK place. And if I wasn't here I'd probably be watching TV. So this seemed worth a try."
Performers at the party included cast members of the musicals "Cats," "Berlin to Broadway" and "Critters," along with the Lakers cheerleaders and actress Rhonda Shear. In the audience were men and women from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. More than 250,000 military personnel serve at 21 installations in Southern California.
"I'm glad I came," said Airman Adam Miller, 19, stationed at George Air Force Base near Victorville. "It's a good show. I couldn't make it home to Michigan for the holidays, so this is nice."
Among the attractions of the USO in Hollywood are the junior volunteers, single women 18 to 27 years old who attend the Saturday night dances. Patty Emerson, 26, of Los Angeles, became a junior volunteer after seeing actress Debra Winger portray one in the movie "An Officer and a Gentleman."
"If you want to meet people," she said, "it's a lot better than the bar atmosphere. It's warmer, friendlier. Almost all the guys are very nice. Sometimes romances happen."
Emerson resigned as a junior volunteer recently when she became engaged to a USO staff member at the club.
One of the senior volunteers is Sylvia Hartman, 78, of Los Angeles. She has given time to the local USO since its inception in 1941.
"A lot of people don't know there still is a USO," she said. "They see my badge and say, 'Oh, the USO still exists?' The public doesn't know because the servicemen don't wear uniforms like they used to. They'd rather go around in street clothes."
Hartman confirmed that romances between enlisted men and junior volunteers are common in the world of USO.
"That's how we lose our volunteers," she said. "They get married to the boys. If you're married you can't be a volunteer, because your husband might not like to have you dancing with all those men. But sometimes the romances don't turn out. Sometimes the boy leaves and doesn't come back. It hurts."