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Veterans Swing to Tunes of a Bygone Era

November 10, 1987|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

For the space of an afternoon, for a couple hundred veterans at the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles, it was 1942 again--not the 1942 of shrapnel wounds and Silver Stars and torpedo hits, but the 1942 of Chicago's Aragon Ballroom and the dreamy music of the Big Bands.

Few groups were bigger than that of the late Kay Kyser--the goofy bandleader in his mortarboard, instructing his "Kollege of Musical Knowledge."

And on Monday, some patients at the hospital celebrated Veterans Day early (the official holiday is Wednesday), with a Swing era concert by the band's remaining members that had some vets bouncing in their wheelchairs.

"My husband had surgery this morning on his hand, and he's down here now"--against doctors' advice, whispered June Wood of Oxnard, who met her husband, Bill, when she was a nurse and he was a bomb loader with the Army Air Force in England.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 11, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, two men were inadvertently described as Vietnam veterans in Tuesday's story about a Big Band concert at a West Los Angeles veterans' hospital. They are Vietnam-era veterans.

Bill Wood, his right arm taped upright into a half-salute, was tapping out the rhythm of a Benny Goodman tune he used to hear at the old Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Peninsula, the liquid in his IV drip bottle sloshing gently as he moved.

Mrs. Wood, who once won a dance contest to Kay Kyser's music, said that Monday's concert "brings a lot of good memories back."

For band members--including trumpeter Zeke Zarchy, first sergeant in Glenn Miller's service band, and singer Harry Babbitt, who had played the Hollywood Canteen and wartime military camps, the show was "a kind of reunion," with one another and with the veterans.

"Some of these guys will remember us when we played in their camps," said Babbitt, acting bandleader of the Kyser group.

Sure enough, there was Frank Bonsignore, a 60-year-old Army vet, who arrived an hour before the show and finally worked up the nerve to ask Babbitt for his autograph.

"I'm very sentimental about these people," Bonsignore said. "I remember when he (Babbitt) had black hair--and he was thinner."

In New York's halls and ballrooms, he heard all the groups, had all their records.

"It just breaks me up," Bonsignore said, wistfully. "I wish I could go back to those days."

For the duration--this time, an hourlong performance--it was almost as though they had never left.

Babbitt smoothly delivered such classics as "Slow Boat to China" and the nonsense song "Mairzy Doats" ("And we laugh at the songs kids sing today!") for the fans, who remembered the lyrics at least as well as he did.

Rock 'n' roll may have replaced Big Band music--"temporarily," Babbitt allows. "But my rule is, they'll never write another 'Stardust.' "

Herman Manning still found the dance beat irresistible. The 90-year-old World War I veteran, who fought in France, had gone to the canteen to stock up on Three Musketeers bars and stopped by for the show.

As people 30 years his junior sat politely, Miller cut a rug in the aisle, swinging his cane, beating time on his bag of candy bars and twirling his hat jauntily, before bowing to applause and making his exit.

"I'm the only one getting around!" he crowed.

Even Vietnam vets Douglas Day, 32, and Dwight Riley, 31, in side-by-side wheelchairs, got caught up in a few tunes.

"I know the fishing one ('Three Little Fishes')," declared Day.

"I've heard one of 'em too" said Riley confidently. "Auld Lang Syne!"

Like the dwindling ranks of veterans at the hospital, where the median age is 62 to 65, a few band members were missing, too. Most obvious was the pseudonymous Ish Kabibble, the trumpet player and comic rhymester, who stayed at his ailing wife's bedside.

But others, like Al Anderson, made it. He was still playing the trombone he bought second-hand in high school, the same one he played through his days with Harry James and Fred Waring.

"I'm glad to be here," mused Zarchy, who said he just finished playing for a film score and who still gets fan mail from his Glenn Miller days. "As one of the fellows said, 'I'm glad to be anywhere!' "

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