BY AARON BARLOW
At the end of The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces (1919), Elsie Janis wrote:
Now I must call a halt. I love talking, and as I can’t talk to everyone, I like writing. Just a few words in parting to the women: You have been wonderful–and while I love men, I also love the women that make the men the regular, honest-to-goodness, fine fellows they are. Will the ladies kindly take a bow, and let’s agree, the War is dead. Long live the War–or at least the men who helped win it!
It was also Janis herself who was wonderful. The War to End War failed to do so, though–and Janis, as spectacular as she was, is forgotten.
She should not be.
In researching my forthcoming book. Doughboys on the Western Front: Memories of American Soldiers in the Great War, I kept running across her name. The doughboys loved her and talked about her in their letters home, their diaries and in their Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Janis, at one time, rode to a performance on the cowcatcher of a train. She sang close to the front. She sang in hospitals. She taught the soldiers her version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” calling it “Over Here.” She was funny, she was famous and she loved the soldiers with passion that they returned… in spades.
Janis was the first notable American performer (she had been a star for more than a decade) to entertain the troops even within the sound of enemy guns. She took the work seriously.
On this Memorial Day, a year before the centennial of the entrance of the United States into the Great War and long after all of its soldiers are gone, we should remember Elsie Janis and the tradition she is responsible for. It wasn’t only the soldiers who should be memorialized, but those who kept their spirits high.
Here are a couple of recordings of songs Janis probably performed in France in 1918: