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FOOTLIGHT NOTES
no. 612

updated
Saturday, 6 June 2009

FOOTLIGHT NOTES
images of theatre and other popular entertainment
1850s-1920s


a photograph of Elsie Janis (1889-1956), American actress and singer
at about the time of her appearances in France for the
American Expeditionary Force during World War I

(photo: Malcolm Arbuthnot, London, circa 1918)

'PLAY-GIRL OF WESTERN FRONT.
'Wonderful Part Played by Elsie Janis in Keeping Up Morale of Troops.
'SINGS TO BOYS OVER THERE
'Many a Company Has Marched to First Night in Trenches With More Gallant Swing Because Elsie Cheered Them on Way.
'By ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT.

'Paris. - the theater was no theater at all. It was just the great train shed which serves as the workshop and headquarters for a small army of American engineers who are lending the P.R.R. Touch to the astonished landscape of France. Though retreat had sounded an hour or so before, it was packed to suffocation with Yanks, for all that day rakish posters, turned out in the company painter's best style, had intrigued the eye with the modest announcement:

'ELSIE JANIS - AMERICA'S GREATEST ACTRESS - FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY.

'And at last, with warning toots from a distant whistle and a great wave of laughter as the order was passed along to clear the track, a locomotive trundled in out of the night, in its cab a pair of proud and grinning engineers, on its cowcatcher Elsie Janis. A moment later and the engine was near enough to the stage for her to clear the space at a single jump and there she was, with her black velvet tam pushed back on her tossing hair, with he eyes alight and her hands uplifted, her whole voice thrown into the question which is the beginning and the end of morale, which is the most important question in the army:
'''Are we downhearted?''

'The Thunderous Response.

'You can only faintly imagine the thunderous ''No'' with which the train shed echoed. And it is the whole point of Elsie Janis - as well as the whole point of all the mummers now being booked to play for the A.E.F. - that whatever the spirit of the boys before her coming, they really meant that ''No'' with all there was in them, that any who might have been just a little downhearted before, felt better about it after seeing and hearing her. For, like the rare officer who can inspire his men to very prodigies of valor, so the flashing Elsie is compact of that priceless thing which, for lack of a less pedantic phrase, we must call positive magnetism. More than one company has marched off to its first night in the trenches with brighter eyes, squarer shoulders and a more gallant swing because, at the very threshold of safety, this lanky and lovely lady from Columbus, Ohio, waved and sang and cheered them on their way.
'That is why, when the history of this expedition comes to be written, there should be a chapter devoted to the play-girl of the western front, the star of the A.E.F., the forerunner of those players who are now being booked in the greatest circuit of them all, the Y.M.C.A. huts of France.
'For her, and for her like, there is always room. And work aplenty to do. There are troops to be fired - as by martial music - on the edge of the advance.
'Elsie Janis (and mother) are having the time of their lives, and she meant every word of it when she cabled back to all her brothers and sisters of the stage to come or they would never know what they had missed.

'Barn-Storming With Vengeance.

'For Elsie it has been barn-storming with a vengeance, a tour of tank towns in more senses than one. It has meant traveling without a maid for once in a way, playing a whole season with a one-dress wardrobe, bivouacking in strange and uninviting hotels.
'It has meant warbling as a cabaret singer among tables of some officers' mess or mounting a bench to sing through the windows of some contagion barracks where the isolate doughboys had been tearing their infected hair with disappointment because they had heard she was in the post and knew they could not got out to see her.
'It has meant lingering for an extra performance at some hut because a whole new audience was coming through the starlit heavens from the aviation camp down the lines.
'In all her years on the stage she has known no such tumultuous heart-warming welcomes as are her nightly portions in the biggest time a booking office can offer to a player in the year 1918.
'The boys swarm up on the stage and slap her on the back and vow there never was such a girl since the world began. They cheer her until they are hoarse, and she is dizzy with pride.'
(Adams County Union-Republican, Corning, Iowa, Wednesday, 17 July 1918, p. 8b/c)

Elsie Janis Sweetheart of the A.E.F.

This long-overdue and very welcome CD, ELSIE JANIS Sweetheart of the A.E.F., including recordings made by her between 1912 and 1919 for the Victor and H.M.V. Labels, has just been issued by Archeophone Records in its Pioneers Series.

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