It was late 1942, America was fighting the war against Germany and Japan and the Kay Kyser Orchestra was doing what it did best--entertaining the troops with popular music and pratfall comedy.
The 20-piece big band, known nearly as much for silliness as syncopation, found itself in the California desert outside Indio, where the legendary Gen. George S. Patton was preparing GIs for combat. After the performance, an appreciative Patton decided to offer the orchestra some entertainment of his own.
With a gruff order for everyone to have fun, "Old Blood and Guts" put the musicians and singers in a battalion of tanks and sent them racing over cactus, brambles and whatever else got in the way.
To Patton, the careening tanks may have been an odd and fleetingly amusing sight, but to Jess Bourgeois, one of the band's original bassists, it was typical of what made the Kyser years so special.
"Let me tell you, it was wild, and it was just like the band to get into something crazy like that," recalled Bourgeois, now 71. "Patton had on his famous pistols and everything . . . and then letting us race in those tanks. Those were the best times, when we had great music and great times. Those are the moments I remember best."
There won't be any tanks when three of the original band members reunite with other players from the big band era for Wednesday's New Year's Eve show in Garden Grove, but Bourgeois says there should be some of the old spirit. The band, performing at the Alicante Princess Hotel, will be fronted by singer Harry Babbitt (given the sobriquet "Handsome Harry" by Kyser, who died in 1985) and will perform the old favorites.
During a recent interview, Bourgeois and Babbitt often drifted back to when the Kay Kyser Orchestra had a revered spot on the American music scene next to "swing" giants like the Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman bands.
The group was formed in the early 1930s and had much success on radio and on tour with its "Kollege of Musical Knowledge," a mixture of popular tunes like "Who Wouldn't Love You" and "On a Slow Boat to China" and gags. Leader James Kern (Kay) Kyser would interrupt the numbers with musical quizzes, often handing out small cash prizes for correct answers. The questions were easy, and the "Old Perfesser," as Kyser was known, kept it lively.
Kyser often operated as the straight man for a succession of singer-comics, the best known being Ish Kabibble (Merwyn A. Bogue), who peered out from under long hair and bangs and warbled the lyrics to Hit Parade numbers like "Three Little Fishies." After the gags, the serious singers like Babbitt and Ginny Simms would croon romantically.
Ironically, it wasn't until the war years that the orchestra really took off, becoming synonymous with efforts to entertain soldiers and foster the unbridled patriotism that swelled everywhere. Kyser was a regular headliner at the Hollywood Canteen, the nightclub reserved for enlisted men returning from combat or awaiting their call.
Babbitt, now 72 and a little broader than in his salad days, recalled that the orchestra played the canteen almost every weekend when not touring, sharing the stage with Hollywood stars who were brought in to charm the doughboys. Bette Davis, Linda Darnell, Lucille Ball and Marlene Dietrich often stopped by.
"Bette Davis used to come in and wait on the tables; all those big names did even the smallest tasks to keep the boys happy," said Babbitt, a gentle-voiced man who has lived in Newport Beach for several years. "We'd really get up for those performances because we felt it was so important. It was also really important to Kay; he really couldn't do enough for the GIs . . . he even wore GI fatigue boots when we played."
Kyser's dedication was echoed by Bourgeois, who noted that the band leader saved most of it for enlisted men.
"To tell the truth, Kay was really nasty to officers because he felt they always got more than the GIs," remembered Bourgeois, who lives in Laguna Niguel. "But when it came to the GIs, he did what he could to give them the best of everything."
The group also routinely went on tour to sell war bonds. A government train took the orchestra across the country, where it played in both large and small auditoriums. Tickets usually were the price of a war bond, Babbitt said, noting that concert-goers often had to buy a $100,000 bond to get a front row seat.
Performances usually sold out in advance, and the size of some of the crowds rivaled the later mega-rock concerts of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Babbitt said a show at Soldier Field in Chicago drew more than 100,000 flag-wavers eager for swing. They were also treated to walk-ons by James Cagney, Dick Powell, Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers and the usual svelte leading ladies.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both for the audience and for us," said Bourgeois.