During the war, my father-in-law rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars
If I had been living during World War II, and IF I had been old enough to be in the U.S. military, and IF I could have chosen the specific job while serving my country, I would have done exactly what my wife Julie’s dad did during his stint in the U.S. Navy.
Lt. James M. Storie was the Recreation and Athletic Director at Camp Parks, Calif. Camp Parks, located 28 miles east of Oakland, was built as a U.S. Navy Base, commissioned January 19, 1943, home to the Navy Seabees and functioned as home for men returning from the Pacific Theatre of Operations.
The returning Seabees came for medical treatment, military training and reorganization. The base housed as many as 20 battalions at a time. Once here, the men no longer fit for combat duty, received their discharge. The others were prepared for a second Pacific tour.
But while these more than 20,000 servicemen at any given time were at Camp Parks, it was the task of my father-in-law to provide entertainment for them all. He turned to Hollywood.
Hollywood is actually a district in Los Angeles, but through the years it became known as more than a geographical area. Hollywood signifies the West Coast entertainment industry, and during World War II, included the movies, network radio, big bands and nightclubs.
The entertainment industry, immediately after Pearl Harbor, committed to the U.S. government its full support in doing what it could to help in our country’s cause. Film stars, primarily Bette Davis and John Garfield, started the Hollywood Canteen, located in, where else, Hollywood. A nightclub offering food, dancing and entertainment for servicemen, most of whom were on their way overseas. Everything was free. Soldiers gained admission by the wearing of their uniforms.
Of course, not every U.S. soldier found his way to Southern California, so in 1941 the United Service Organization (USO) was formed under the banner of the Department of Defense to provide programs, services and live entertainment to the U.S. troops and their families.
The USO quickly became the G.I.’s “home away from home.” Working with the USO and the newly-formed Hollywood Victory Committee, the good folks of show business quickly made themselves available for appearances at military bases all across the country, some even going overseas.
My father-in-law Jim Storie and his wife, Elizabeth, were transferred from Gulfport, Miss., to Camp Parks sometime in early 1944. Assuming the same position he held in Mississippi, Lt. Storie began his duty as Recreation and Athletic Director upon arrival.
I had known for many years that Jim had served in the U.S. Navy during the War, but was unaware of what he actually did until one of my family’s Christmas pilgrimages to the Storie home in Boone, where my in-laws had retired after careers in education.
It was during one of these visits that they surprised me by bringing out Jim and Lib’s Camp Parks photo album and asked if I wanted to give it a look. I said, “Sure,” feigning more enthusiasm than I actually had. Everyone has been subjected to seeing their friend’s and neighbor’s vacation pictures and having to act as if they are enjoyed.
So I started into this 6-inch high album. I immediately noticed that the pictures were not of the usual Kodak home camera variety, but rather 8x10 professional quality photographs. The first half dozen or so I saw were of buildings on the Naval base. Nice, but not exactly my cup of tea. Architecture is not one of my strong suits.
Then, I flipped the page and there stands a man in front of a microphone. “Is that Orson Welles?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lib answered matter-of-factly.
Then the next page. I see Rita Hayworth. Continuing on, there’s Danny Kaye, Chico Marx, Jack Benny, Joan Blondell.
“WHAT IS THIS?” I asked. (Now I was really interested!)
They grinned and explained that, “Jim booked all the movie stars and band leaders for the base while we were there.”
I was but a puddle of goo sitting in the chair. They had gotten my goat...big time.
“We thought you might have an interest in seeing this album.”
As big an understatement as, “Yes, I wouldn’t mind winning the Powerball lottery.”
So I spent the next several hours drooling through the collection of one-of-a-kind photos of the great “stars” of the day, many now legendary. Having no shame, I asked if I could have the album. They said no.
And so it went. Every Christmas in Boone involved a journey through the WWII Camp Parks album. And every year, my request for obtaining it was denied.
For anyone who likes the movies of the World War II years, this scrapbook is a dream. All of the photos were taken during the personal appearances at Camp Parks. None of these photos ever appeared in the newspapers or magazines. Truly one-of-a-kind candid photos of an incredible array of actors and the biggest band leaders of the era. And quite a few of them are shots of my father-in-law with his “guests.”
Sadly, many young folks of today would look at these pictures and not recognize any faces. They’ll know Lady Gaga but not Rita Hayworth, Ryan Gosling but not Orson Welles, Neil Patrick Harris but not Jack Benny or Bob Hope. Their losses.
The old saying tells us that “good things come to those who wait.” And even though I didn’t wait by my own choosing, the good thing, in this case, the scrapbook, came. I was given the photo album as a Christmas gift in 1997.
I assume that by this time, being married to their younger daughter for more than 25 years, Jim and Lib figured I planned to hang around, and with my almost compulsive love for the movie industry since birth, the scrapbook would be in good hands.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1989.