Dick Tracy in B-Flat – February 15, 1945
Arguably the most successful effort in which popular and patriotic screen and radio entertainers served the troops was through the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). AFRS created 125 productions a week during the war. The troops received basic programming of news and popular radio programs, plus the special Command Performance USA shows created by Louis G. Cowen. Emcee Ken Carpenter announced each week’s Command Performance broadcast by introducing “the greatest entertainers in America as requested by you, the servicemen and women of the United States Armed Forces throughout the world…presented this week and every week until it is over, over there.” Carpenter’s opening was followed by George M. Cohan’s instrumental, Over There.
A rotating group of actors, actresses, comedians, and singers pre-recorded each week’s show in a Hollywood recording studio. The recording was later pressed onto records that were distributed overseas to four hundred forty remote radio outlets in forty-seven foreign countries.
The brilliance of the Command Performance broadcasts was their wide variety of popular entertainers, musicians, and singers. AFRS scored a major hit with its broadcast of the first comic-strip operetta, Dick Tracy in B-Flat. Unlike previous shows, which were recorded in the studio, the Tracy extravaganza was recorded live.
The cast gathering at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 15, 1945, included crooner Bing Crosby as Tracy, funnyman Bob Hope as Flattop, Cass Daley as Gravel Gertie, teen heartthrob Frank Sinatra as Shaky, actress Dinah Shore as Tess Trueheart, Judy Garland as Snowflake Falls, the Andrews Sisters as the Summer Sisters (May, June and July), actor Frank Morgan as Vitamin Flintheart, comedian Jerry Colonna as Chief Brandon, Harry Von Zell as Judge Hooper, and Jimmy Durante as The Mole. This stellar line-up appeared with a full chorus before the AFRS Orchestra, conducted by Major Meredith Willson (who later gained fame as the composer and lyricist of The Music Man).
Subtitled “For goodness sakes isn’t he ever going to marry Tess Trueheart!” the show satirized the investigative exploits of the moralizing Tracy in light of his steady avoidance of his true love. With the assistance of Jack Brooks and Gilbert & Sullivan, the lyrics of several popular tunes were changed to fit the show. Tess and Tracy performed a special version of Who’s That Knocking at My Door to the tune of Barnacle Bill, the Sailor, Somewhere Over the Rainbow was sung by Snowflake as Somewhere Over a Barrel; Cass Daley as Gravel Gertie belted out the Trolley Song as Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Wagon. Near the end of the show Crosby, Sinatra and Hope shared the roles in Sunday, Monday and Always as Tracy, Shaky and Flattop.
The hour-long show relentlessly poked fun at Dick Tracy’s old-fashioned values. “Why aren’t men more like me,” Bing asks Shore at one point. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t gamble.” Tess’s reply—“Oh, please don’t tell me anymore of your faults, we’re getting married tonight”—earned big laughs from the studio audience.
In another segment, it appeared Flattop had Tracy in a fix. “Drop that gun and turn around, Tracy” said Hope, playing the arch-criminal. “If that voice belongs to who I think it does, I may never turn around,” replied Tracy. “What a pleasure, I’ve always wanted to have a gun in this guy’s back,” Flattop declared. “Yeah, and you can pull it up a little, too,” said Bing to thunderous laughter. “Sorry, I was gonna blow your brains out,” quipped Hope. The jokes come so quickly throughout the show that it’s hard to keep up. Several of Hope’s writers lent their talent in crafting the show, including Melvin Frank, Norman Panama, and Larry Gelbart (who went on to write for Jack Paar before helping to bring the hit book and movie M*A*S*H to series television in the 1970s).
Later in the program, Tracy tracks down the Mole, convincing him to squeal that Snowflake was being held by Flattop in his apartment. “Come over here, Snowflake, I’m going to tie you up with this rope,” Flattop instructed his captive.
“That rope? You wouldn’t take advantage of a poor defenseless girl like me, would you?”
“She doesn’t know me very well,” Hope replied with a sinister gruffness in his voice.
“Please, please, Flattop, I beseech you to release me,” cried Garland, playing Snowflake.
“Nothing doing, I only release ‘em when they’re over 38.”
Exasperated, Snowflake tried once more. “Flattop, I appeal to you on bended knee.” Flattop paused before replying, “Kid, you appeal to me in any position.” The audience laughed and howled, albeit a bit uncomfortably at the risqué dialogue.
Perhaps Frank Morgan was the show-stealer as the bumbling Vitamin Flintheart. Upon encountering Tess, Vitamin exclaimed, “Don’t fret, Miss Trueheart, my little rum-blossom. For I don’t see what you want with that flatfoot, when I, the pride of the Flinthearts, am available?”
Tess replied, “Well, Mr. Flintheart, I hate to say this, but you are so much older than I am.” Incredulous, Vitamin snapped, “Older! Bah, age is in the mind…I hope!” Singing to the tune of A Wandering Actor, I, Vitamin described his last performance in Poopedout, Nebraska:
“A wandering actor, I
My life is inter-urban
I drink a lot of bourbon
To wash down my vit-a-min piiillllls!”
By the fifth rendition of the show’s chorus song, Happy Wedding Day, which contained thirteen consecutive “happy’s”—listeners may have wished that Tracy would just get on with it and marry Tess, already.
In May of 1945, Chet joined members of the syndicate and Tribune staff in WGN’s broadcast studios for a special preview of the show. Legendary Chicago columnist Irv Kupcinet reported in his Chicago Times column that “the person who chuckled heartiest at the recorded shenanigans was Chester Gould,” to little surprise among those who knew Chet. Gould laughed again as he later shared his thoughts with Editor & Publisher. “It’s amazing that what we scribble on the drawing board can become something as thrilling as that show.” “Der Bingle,” as Crosby was referred to during the war, even decided afterward to record Happy Wedding Day with the Andrews Sisters, produced by Meredith Willson.
For your viewing and listening pleasure, we present AFRS snapshots of the cast and introduce the recording of Dick Tracy in B-Flat.
Listen to the performance!