All-American, All-Star USO Show, or "Who Needs Bob Hope?"

By Tina L. Hanlon
, Ferrum College

The article began as a Note in Facebook on The Jack Tales page in July 2012. The article will be further revised for AppLit in 2013.

The All-American, All-Star USO Show celebrated all that July 4th means. Playing at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre on July 5, 6, and 7, 2012, the show re-created highlights from the 175 USO shows that Rex Stephenson and several different groups of Jack Tale Players toured 30 years ago. They traveled 22,000 miles from Boston to San Diego and from North Dakota to Florida, to visit 10,000 veterans in over 60 USO badgeVeterans Administration hospitals during 8 nationwide tours. The special 2012 Jack Tale show celebrated the contributions of those service men and women as well as saluting current members of the military and veterans as the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre performed Appalachian music and a traditional Jack tale.

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre was on the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, and 'Round the Mountain, southwest Virginia's artisan network. The Jack Tale Players were founded in 1975 by playwright, director, and performer Rex Stephenson, artistic director of the BRDT and retired professor of drama. Ferrum College students and staff members have performed Rex's story theatre dramatizations of traditional Appalachian folktales throughout the group's 37-year history, while other student interns and professional actors joined in during the BRDT's summer theatre season. Emily Rose Tucker, music director, began as a college intern in summer 2001. Jody D. Brown, professor emerita of English and executive director of the BRDT, performed throughout most of the group's history as well. The Jack Tale Players have performed nearly 3,000 shows for three-quarters of a million children and adults in 34 states and England.

Rex, Emily, and Jody were joined in this BRDT show by Ferrum College students Kenny Barron '12, Ashlee Heyward, Chris Wolfe, and Michael Beaman. Rachel K. Blankenship, Mary Allison, Chandra Diesel, and Jordan Estose were returning members of the BRDT company. New performers that summer were Julia Hoffmann, Allison Kessler, Kristen Krak, Alex Madda, Megan Massie, Maria Panvini, and Tyler Sarkis. Juliet Stephenson, also a Ferrum College student, operated lights for this and other shows.

In addition to folk songs that the Jack Tale Players sang regularly, such as "Midnight Special" and "Soldier Boy," this show included "Man of Constant Sorrows," a comical rendition of the Carter family and Jack Tale Players on stairs during tourMinnie Pearl song "Jealous-Hearted Me," a new original ballad called "Reviving Delores," and "The Tennessee Waltz," an old favorite at the VA hospitals. Rex's corny jokes and his silliest folktale adaptation demonstrated how they would amuse the veterans in USO shows. He performed in "Quare Jack" with Emily and Rachel playing his dim-witted brother Tom and clever brother Jack, while audience members joined in as sheep and chickens. As at the end of the USO shows, the audience was invited to join in a rousing performance of "I'll Fly Away."

In photo at left, Willette Thompson and Rex Stephenson are in the middle, 4th and 5th from the top.

An article that Rex wrote for Geriatric Nursing (November/December 1987), titled "Not All Road Shows Tour Europe," captures much of the motivation for making the original USO tours. He observed, "Since our second show, I have been convinced that in the wards a USO college group can outshine all other types of performers. The others may perform better—most have nicer costumes and more polish—but we care. We care on an individual basis. In the wards, that contact between two individuals, the patient and the performer, is the payoff for the van rides, cold coffee, and fouled up motel reservations."

The article tells of a young Vietnam War veteran who hadn't moved in years but blinked after young performers whispered good wishes in his ear, causing ecstatic outbursts from the staff because the man had shown no signs of recognition in six years. "We sang 'Amazing Grace' for a man who drew his last breath, saw men who appeared almost lifeless start singing when they recognized a familiar tune, and once played for a surgical team between operations. Performers must be the ones with the smiles and cheer, no matter how the pathos of the situation clutches at their heart." A patient who had convinced himself he couldn't walk, and could not be convinced to try by the staff, did try when a performer asked him to dance the Tennessee waltz with her. Rex ended the article, "That is why I do it."

Read all of Rex's article at

USO group

A Roanoke Times article written by Trudy Willis before the first tour in 1978 noted that the USO changed focus by signing Ferrum's college group as the USO program was expanded to reach the 172 VA hospitals across the U.S. Geri Washburn, a talent scout from the USO, saw the tours for patients who could not get out for entertainment as "a part of home that can be brought to the veterans." Looking for "personality and ability to relate to audiences," Washburn stated that "'I can tell almost immediately when a group has what it takes.' She signed the Ferrum troupe the day she auditioned them."

Willette Thompson, a Ferrum graduate who performed with the BRDT many times since she starred in its first production (Stephenson's 1979 play Too Free for Me) is pictured below in the first USO tour in November 1978. She wrote in 2010, "I think the best time I had with Jack Tales was the USO tours." Willette Thompson

Willette continued, "I got to see the country and hundreds of veterans touring VA hospitals throughout the US. I did 5 total but the one I remember the best is the final one. I had just graduated in the first class of the educational theater program. I gave my degree to my parents and got in the van right after the ceremony. We toured cross country and back in 28 days."

"I like to call it the summer of the natural disaster. From floods, earthquakes to insect swarm, we had it all. It was a year after Mt. Saint Helens blew so there was volcanic ash from Washington to Montana. It was the middle of June and Seattle looked like it had been hit by a snow storm. The ash hung off the bottom of cars like snow does, all dirty and gray. The ash blew to Montana and it looked like a desert. Every time a door to the outside opened, the ash would blow in. The ash itself was like fine ground grey sand. I have a small film canister of it that I never open because it goes everywhere instantly."

"We were close to great attractions like the Grand Canyon and the Great Salt Lakes but we didn't get to see anything. We had schedules to keep with our veterans. I remember the kindness of the people we met along the way. A hotel owner in San Antonio woke at 3 am to have homemade pastries for our breakfast before our 4 am departure. We stayed in an old hotel in San Francisco that had community bathrooms and no phones, TVs or clocks in the rooms. A sweet little Asian man with the biggest smile on his face knocked on each of our doors at 5 am saying, 'This is your knock knock call! Good morning!' You couldn't help but smile! I have never seen anyone so happy so early in the morning and I have never forgotten his face."

"Performing for the veterans was one of the most fulfilling times in my career. Some of the audience would be in hospital beds or wheelchairs but the gratitude on their faces was obvious. We would visit the wards to see patients too ill to come to the main show. For some of them we were the only visitors they had. I remember a nurse frantically running to us beckoning for us to follow her. She led us to a room of a patient that had just come out of a coma. As we stood at the door of his room softly singing, he slowly looked towards us and smiled. It was such a beautiful moment, I couldn't contain myself. There are so many memories like that that. It really shows the power of the performing arts and the Jack Tale Players, a tradition that has stood the test of time."

In June 1979, The Hill Echoes, newsletter of the VA Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, published a number of photos of the Jack Tale Players' visit. More than one shows Willette bending over a patient's hospital bed, entertaining one man with a puppet. Jack Tale Players in VA ward

Rex’s mother, Mrs. Martha Stephenson, recalls that during USO tours, the group “always came to my house for a meal” in Rex’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana. One year when they had a picnic in the backyard of Rex’s brother Philip, Mrs. Stephenson remembers a picture of Willette and another woman throwing Rex over a board fence. Rex’s parents went to one USO show in Indianapolis. After the Jack Tale Players, including one student from Switzerland, visited patients in the wards, “one man demanded that they take him to the theatre to hear that girl yodel again.”

Gulf News, a newsletter of the Biloxi, Mississippi VA Medical Center, recorded May 26, 1979 that when the performers from Ferrum arrived, they were playing within thirty seconds of walking down the hall. "The patients really got a bang out of the unusual instruments.... [They] hollered and applauded the fine performance." The USO's information sheet explained that the players "take turns banging the washboard, clicking the spoons, plucking a string tied to a pole, playing the dulcimer and mandolin...all in all, creating a fantasy of bluegrass music and tale-telling." They "have brought to life their own versions of old-time mountain tales, and they act them out with an enthusiasm and spirit that makes the heart soar and the imagination leap."

A letter from Benjamin E. McConnell, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at the Altoona, Pennsylvania VA Hospital, expressed appreciation that the Jack Tale show on Nov. 28, 1978, during the first tour, was "an outstanding entertainment event that stands above all others" in their "day to day patients' activities."

An article May 8, 1980 in Virginia Advocate: The United Methodist Church noted that "The Jack Tale Players' special brand of story-telling and music has made them one of the most popular USO shows on the VA Medical Center circuit." While Rex's own article starts out by revealing his unfulfilled fantasies about touring overseas with Bob Hope, a Roanoke Times article after the first tour ("Good Feelings") ends with Jack Tale Player Leslie Draper reporting that "the students felt duly appreciated...when one member of an audience along the way shouted out, 'Who needs Bob Hope?'"

Other photos are in the "Vintage Jack Tales" Facebook photo album.

USO performer playing washboard bass        USO performers in dresses Jack Tale Players in USO


Articles, letters, and newsletters quoted here are from the files of the Jack Tale Players and Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, Ferrum College.

"Educational Theatre Degree Established By Ferrum Board." Ferrum College Bulletin Spring 1979: p. 9. Article describes the degree program developed by Stephenson in 1979, which included a semester of study at New York University and an internship, as well as experience with Ferrum's drama companies. Next to the article is a photo of Stephenson with the Jack Tale Players, a publicity photo for their USO tour in Southern and Midwestern states May 21-June 4. The previous page contains a Jack Tales performance photo and article by Chris Gladden on development of a historical drama.

"Good Feelings Come From Tour." Roanoke Times & World-News 5 Dec. 1978: C2. With one photo of several Jack Tale Players performing. Leslie Draper of Bassett, VA was one of 9 Jack Tale Players who toured 16 hospitals in VA, NY, PA, and NC Nov. 20-Dec. 1. He reported after the first USO tour that "the students felt duly appreciated...when one member of an audience along the way shouted out, 'Who needs Bob Hope?'"

"Jack Tale Players Begin Five-State USO Tour." Ferrum College Bulletin Fall 1978: p. 7. Full-page article with five photos of the Jack Tale Players. Reprint of article "Jack Tales To Do Tour" by Trudy Willis (see Willis, below).

"Jack Tales Troupe Tours VA Hospitals for USO." The Ferrum College Bulletin Winter 1980: p. 3. Article about seven students spending a week of Christmas vacation visiting VA hospitals in NC, GA, and FL on the Jack Tale Players' third USO tour (after Thanksgiving 1978 and June 1979). Director Rex Stephenson and music professor David A. Waybright accompanied the students. In January they performed at a VA hospital in Hampton and schools in Virginia Beach and Suffolk, VA. Includes a photo of the group with a hospital patient. On p. 4, Faculty/Staff Notes include a note about Rex Stephenson being appointed vice chairman of the Children's Theatre Division of the Southeastern Theatre Conference and becoming chairman in March. On p. 8 is a notice about Stephenson's plan to take students and alumni to New York City in the spring.

Stein, Bob. "Jack Tales Troupe on USO Tour." The Ferrum College Bulletin Spring 1981: p. 5. On Memorial Day the USO celebrated 40 years of service and the Jack Tales Traveling Theatre Troupe had been with the USO for five years. A 25-day tour of Veteran Medical Centers went from Columbia, MO on May 18 to 12 Midwestern states, bringing the total of Jack Tales shows at VA centers to 150. These anniversaries would be celebrated with a special program on WBRA TV. "A typical VA show consists of an hour of music...mixed with several tales from the folklore of the Blue Ridge" and then visits to patients who cannot leave wards. "This personal attention, combined with sparkling performances, makes a show which one VA Director called the 'best USO show I've ever seen.'" The performers are all volunteers, "receiving no pay for the grueling shows or the hours of rehearsals. They do it for the fun and the joy of making other lives happier. On p. 1 an article about graduation announces that Willette Thompson (a member of the Jack Tale Players) received the Lillie Warwick Slaven Award.

Stephenson, Martha. Interview. 3 Aug. 2012. Ferrum College.

Stephenson, R. Rex. "Not All Road Shows Tour Europe: Lukewarm Coffee and Endless Roads are Overshadowed by the Audience's Response." Geriatric Nursing, Winter 1987. Article about the Jack Tale Players' nationwide USO tours to VA medical centers 1978-82. Pdf. copy at this link.

Thompson, Willette. E-mail to Tina L. Hanlon. 2 Jan. 2010.

"USO Show Set Tuesday at Altoona VA Hospital." 24 Nov. 1978. Newspaper clipping in Jack Tale Players scrapbook with no newspaper title given.

Van Patten, John. "Jack Tale Tour." Ferrum College Bulletin. No date on clipping in papers of the BRDT/Jack Tale Players. Full-page article by a performer about the Jack Tale Players' USO tour, with photo.

"Variety Reigns in Drama Dept."The Iron Blade [Ferrum College, VA] 29 Mar. 1979: p. 7. Full-page spread with eight photos of Jack Tale Players, Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, and USO shows. Photos by Don Scott.

"Vintage Jack Tales." Facebook photo album in The Jack Tales site.

Willis, Trudy. "Jack Tales To Do Tour." The Roanoke Times 9 Nov. 1978. Article about Stephenson's Jack Tale Players preparing for their first USO tour to VA hospitals during Thanksgiving vacation. The 13 performers prepared four hours of material for the two-week tour. The USO changed focus by signing Ferrum's college group as the USO program was expanded to reach the 172 VA hospitals across the U.S. Geri Washburn, a talent scout from the USO, saw the tours for patients who could not get out for entertainment as "a part of home that can be brought to the veterans." She observed that college groups "go over well in VA Hospitals...because of their attitude: 'Their freshness and excitement exudes. They express a sincere interest in the patients,'" while overseas shows for younger GIs are more polished and contemporary. Looking for "personality and ability to relate to audiences," Washburn stated that "'I can tell almost immediately when a group has what it takes.' She signed the Ferrum troupe the day she auditioned them." This article was reprinted in The Ferrum College Bulletin, Fall 1978, p. 7, with the headline "'Jack Tale Players' Begin Five-State USO Tour." Five photos show John Van Patten playing the banjo, a performance at the recent Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, and Rex Stephenson talking with classroom teachers while filming one of ten television shows about creative drama at WBRA in Roanoke.

Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature and Collections for All Ages

Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

The Jack Tale Players Web Site

The Jack Tales Facebook page with photos and notes.

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