Fewer Top Stars Willing to Sign Up with USO For almost 65 years, the USO has provided entertainment for U.S. troops, getting movie stars, musicians and comics to visit war zones. But today, it's a bit more difficult to get top celebrities to go. USA Today correspondent Martin Kasindorf and radio commentator Al Franken explore the reasons why.

Fewer Top Stars Willing to Sign Up with USO

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

Tomorrow, want new furniture, clothes or a remodeled house? Maybe it's time to do it yourself. We'll look in on the curious and creative roles of DIY.

Now we turn to a story that appeared in USA Today spotlighting the USO. For almost 65 years, the USO has provided entertainment for US troops, getting movie stars, musicians and comics to visit war zones. But today, some celebrities are reluctant to go on the tours. Joining us to explore the reasons why is Martin Kasindorf. He reported the story that appeared in USA Today. The organization still works to boost the morale of soldiers in the field, but recruiting celebrities is not as easy as it used to be.

Martin Kasindorf, what's going on?

Mr. MARTIN KASINDORF (USA Today): Well, there are three reasons cited by the president and CEO of the USO, Ned Powell, and by Wayne Newton, who took up the mantle that Bob Hope gave him. Three years before Bob Hope died in 2003, he tapped Wayne Newton, the great legendary Las Vegas entertainer, to be in charge of rounding up celebrities for the USO. And both of these gentlemen told me, along with Robin Williams, who does a lot of USO appearance, that they get some reluctance on the part of many top-name entertainers for three particular reasons. One is political opposition to the war in some cases; the second reason is the danger and the peril of the war zones themselves, which is understandable; and the third reason is the changes in structure of show business in the structure where Bob Hope could easily round up a lot of people to join him in Vietnam or Korea for an NBC Christmas TV special that gave a tremendous exposure to the celebrities with him. Now things are more independent, more atomized, less of a studio system, and everybody is kind of a cottage industry with his or her own agent or manager who wants top billing, and that should follow in the wake of somebody like Bob Hope. So show business has changed.

SEABROOK: We've asked the listeners to join our conversation if they have questions about this. Call us at (800) 989-TALK. E-mail address is totn@npr.org. Martin Kasindorf, I don't know how much time you've spent over in Iraq, but is it safe to say that it's more dangerous for celebrities to go on a USO tour than, say, it was in Vietnam or World War II? I mean, war zones are war zones, aren't they?

Mr. KASINDORF: Yeah, it's pretty dangerous in Iraq. Many entertainers I talk to who have gone over there said they heard mortar fire, they felt the concussion and they didn't feel particularly safe. But, you know, war zones were dangerous in Vietnam too. Thirty-seven entertainers died during World War II going over for the USO, including Major Glenn Miller of the Army Air Corps band.

SEABROOK: So what's a typical tour like now? I mean, I sort of from movies and stuff have a sense of what it was like for Bob Hope and even in Vietnam, but what's it like now?

Mr. KASINDORF: For one thing, the tours are much smaller. In Iraq now, Afghanistan, the military is strained. They don't have the helicopters and the extra troops for security, so the USO keeps things much smaller these days, vs. the 200 people in a troupe that Bob Hope would bring over to Vietnam. Now you might have 80, but, as Wayne Newton says, he divides them up into small groups of eight and sends them around to small forward bases to cover more ground and they might get together once or twice to do big shows for 4 or 5,000 troops. But the shows are smaller, but in many ways, Hope would recognize the shows. I mean, they're updated for a little hip-hop and a little bluer language on the part of the comics to be up with the troops, which they have young troops and what they want and what they demand. But yet the format of a show like the one that Al Franken just led over in Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan was similar to Hope. You had the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders for a little cheesecake. You have comic monologues starting out. You have patriotic songs.

SEABROOK: Well, Martin Kasindorf, thank you so much for joining us. Martin Kasindorf is a reporter with USA Today. He spoke with us from his office in Los Angeles. Thank you so much.

Mr. KASINDORF: You're welcome.

SEABROOK: And he provided us a perfect segue to our surprise guest this afternoon. If you'd like to speak to us about a USO performance that you've seen, call us at (800) 989-TALK. Let's go now to Al Franken, the host of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio and author of "The Truth (With Jokes)," a book, and he's also...

Mr. AL FRANKEN (Author, "The Truth (With Jokes)"): "The Truth (With Jokes)."

SEABROOK: "The Truth (With Jokes)." Sorry. I didn't recognize my script, Al.

Mr. FRANKEN: Oh. I'm on the radio, guys.

SEABROOK: Al Franken, you are part of this USO tour. How's it been going? What's it like?

Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, it was great. We returned a few days ago, and we did about--we just got back, I guess, on Christmas Eve. And we did Kuwait and Afghanistan and Iraq, and it was great. It was great. It was a really fun show; traveled with--we had about 40-some people, Army band and some, you know--we had Traylor Howard, who's on "Monk" and who is, you know, sort of my--she and I were the emcees. We had some country western--or country singers--Mark Wills, who's been on the tour every year I have. On this particularly one--this is--we did this with the sergeant major of the Army, Preston.

SEABROOK: So where'd you go, Al Franken? I mean, did you--are you talking small bases? How big were your performances there?

Mr. FRANKEN: Well, we--you go to different--you go to some forward bases, which are smaller. But we went to Airfjan in Kuwait, which is a big air base, and did a big show there, so that was everybody. And then--but we als--the helicopters, you know, ran the forward bases and split up, and did mainly meet and greets there. We did--went to Afghanistan to Bagram, which is a pretty big base, and that one we did--the whole group did the show there, and we split up again. My group was supposed to go to Jalalabad and the aircraft that was supposed to bring us there didn't come in because something had happened to it. And the others went to Salerno, which is a base in Afghanistan. Then we met up in Kandahar, which is a pretty big base and did the show there. Then we went to Baghdad and Camp Victory, and we actually did a--during the day went to Abu Ghraib and did sort of an impromptu show there.

SEABROOK: Well, let's take some calls from our callers here.

Mr. FRANKEN: Sure.

SEABROOK: If you'd like to join our conversation, especially if you've seen a USO show or you have questions about it, even for Al Franken. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK; that's (800) 989-8255.

Let's go now to Kevin in San Francisco. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KEVIN: Hey. How are you? How you doing, everyone?


Mr. FRANKEN: Hey, good.

KEVIN: Not to take anything away from the current USO tour efforts, but an interesting bit of trivia with Bob Hope is that he had a unique contract with the networks that, number one, was a production deal where he owned all the rights to the USO show that appears annually, and his rates for production were frozen at 1962 union rates, so he actually became quite wealthy and everyone on the show was doing it for free.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call.

KEVIN: So it's just an interesting bit of trivia about the USO tours that appeared on the networks annually; it was either CBS or NBC.

Mr. FRANKEN: It was NBC.


Mr. FRANKEN: Hope--you see, the thing with Hope was that CBS did a raid of comedians and stars from NBC years ago, and Hope didn't go, so NBC always treated Hope great. And Hope was a wealthy man before his USO tours.

SEABROOK: Al Franken, how much are you making on these tours?

Mr. FRANKEN: I actually don't make anything. They give you a per diem check that I've never looked at; I just hand it right back.

SEABROOK: Huh. You've never looked at it.

Mr. FRANKEN: No. And then I read--I guess I read in the USA Today article that we get paid $50 a day, so I guess that's how much I'm turning back.

SEABROOK: Fifty bucks a day. How many days did you spent there?

Mr. FRANKEN: I guess it's like 12 or something like that. So I mean, you know, I just--on principle. 'Cause I also--I actually give money to the USO.


Mr. FRANKEN: Because I think it's a good--you know, have experienced the work that they do--and a lot of the work they do is just, you know, like at airports so that soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen have a place to go to get online or get coffee or something like that. That's a lot of what they do.

SEABROOK: I have to admit, Al Franken, you're not who I would have guessed would be out there on a USO tour. Most of your work is highly critical of this war, the administration. Does that matter?

Mr. FRANKEN: Well, you know, I was thinking--this sort of crystalized as I was thinking about this at the end of this tour that, you know, one of the lesson--I think the only lesson from Vietnam that we actually learned as a country that we can agree on as a lesson from Vietnam is not to blame the troops. You know, I don't--there's lots of lessons we learned from Vietnam, but I don't think we agree on them--except for that one. And to me this is my sixth--it was my sixth tour. The first time I went it was Kosovo, and that was certainly something that I felt was, you know, a good mission. I think Afghanistan was a right thing to do. I think we made a mistake in retrospect going into Iraq; I think that we were misled into it. But I don't--you know, these troops are doing heroic work, and I--you know, they're Americans and they're away from their families and they're sacr--they're the only ones that are sacrificing.

SEABROOK: OK. We have a listening on hold who has a call for you. Richard in Mission, Kansas. Hi.

Mr. RICHARD JOHNSON (Caller): Hi. This is Richard Johnson in Mission, Kansas.

Mr. FRANKEN: Hi, Richard.

Mr. JOHNSON: Hi, Al. Hey, my comment is basically the same, and yet I wanted to know really a little bit more specifically is you hit on any topics that the troops disliked in your political point of view. Did you have anything specific that you might have hit on that might have touched, you know, some hard-rock places with those guys? And I'll sign off. Thanks.

Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah. That's a good question. I mean, no, I don't. I--you know, it is really like a Bob Hope kind of show that we do. Like Traylor Howard who is on "Monk"--and I were the emcees, and we'd go out and do--you know, my first joke is, `Anybody here from out of town?' Am I--you know, and then--it was just like--you know, this was my sixth USO tour, my third time here in Iraq. Traylor, however, is a virgin. And they go, `Whoo, whoo.' And she goes, `That's right. It's my first tour.' And I go, `That's what I meant, and I'm going to have to walk you through this, Traylor. First of all, watch out for the Army chow. So far I've had five MREs and none of them seem to have an exit strategy.' So it's very Bob Hope, and then we do this thing where, you know, I have written up this audition piece for me for "Monk," 'cause she's--'cause I want to be on the show, and it's all an excuse to kiss her. And then I kiss her and the guys, like yell, and she says, `Wait a minute. If I were going to kiss anybody here, it'd be one of these brave men.' And everyone goes, `Whoo, whoo,' and then she goes, `Or women.' And then they actually get louder. And then we pick a guy from the audience and he ends up kissing her. You know, that kind of thing.

And with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, I introduce them as the Taliban cheerleaders and they come out in burqas.

SEABROOK: We're talking with Al Franken, the host of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio. We're talking about the USO and their tours in front of the troops.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So, Al Franken, another quick question. I mean, you are one of the people who's gone over there. Have you had any second thoughts? Have you heard shells in the background and wondered if you should be there?

Mr. FRANKEN: You know, I--the first year I went to Iraq, I was nervous--I mean, frankly. And since then I haven't been, 'cause they really do make sure that we're--you know, they don't want anyone from the USO to get hurt. So--and we're traveling with a sergeant major in the Army and we're pretty much in a--we're taken very good care of. So you know, there's very, very little room--I mean, it would have to be very, very random. I mean, we're in bases for the--almost entirely. You know, we're in--the last base we did was Balad. Anacaonda, which gets a lot of mortar fire--and every once in a while someone randomly gets, you know, hit. And so that's the only sort of--this trip the only ti--and then you know, I didn't think about it.

SEABROOK: Well, let's go back to some of our faithful listeners. Nancy in San Francisco, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. My name's Nancy? Yeah, and I was actually in Vietnam on USO tours, and I just wanted to bring up the fact that there were a lot of little tours that went out to all kinds of podunk places all in Vietnam and in Korea. And we were gone for two and three months, and we flew in on helicopters. It was very dangerous. There were, you know, Viet Cong on the hills and all the kind of stuff. So the USO didn't just have the big shows; they had lots and lots of little shows that went out and really--you know, it got close to the troops; we're in little places. And so I just kind of wanted to mention that, that there was a lot of small stuff that went on and that was, you know, really scary and exciting and an incredible experience.

SEABROOK: Hey, Nancy, could--do you mind turning down your radio for a second and let me just ask you what were you doing on the tour.

NANCY: I was a singer and we had a comic and we had a magician and we had a blues singer, and we had a kind of a cheerleader-type gal who, you know, pranced around. It was kind of like a mini-Bob Hope show, like Al Franken was saying. But they were very small and so we were helicoptered in and bused in to different places. So yeah, it was--and it was early on and it was in '64, and '65 in Vietnam, so it was, you know, at a very unique time in the whole process.

SEABROOK: And quickly, did you ever have any worry that people would think you were somehow supporting the war effort because you were going over with the USO?

NANCY: Well, yeah. You know, it was a different climate then and now. I mean, it was--you know, very divided between--yeah, people in my age group that were protesting but--you know, it was--I wouldn't say that I was worried about that because I felt like what I was doing was really important. We also didn't get a huge amount of money for that, so it was--you know, we were kind of putting our lives on the line in those days and you kind of did it because, first of all, you wanted to connect and perform for the troops, but also because you--you know, you were getting to make somewhat of a living doing your field--you know, doing what you love to do best.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Nancy, and, Al Franken, in just the last couple of seconds, do you encourage your fellow comedians, celebrities, musicians to go over and perform for the USO?

Mr. FRANKEN: Absolutely. That's one of the reasons I even--that I talk about this because it--you really get a tremendous amount out of it; it's very gratifying. And you--if you keep your eyes open and stuff, you learn about what's going on there, and--but mainly, it's just about--it's a tremendously gratifying fun experience and I can't encourage people enough to do it.

SEABROOK: Thanks for joining us. Al Franken, the host of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio and author of "Truth (With Jokes)."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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