"Dancing with the Stars on the Nostalgic Stage of World War II" is a multi-media musical program focused on the popularity of dancing in America during the years of 1934 to 1948 being presented free of charge on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. by the Lake County Library Board at the Merrillville Branch.
“Although World War II itself was from 1941 to 1945, the WW II-era actually begins in the mid-1930s when the clouds of war were brewing in Europe and carries over to around 1950, when troops were settling back into their lives after returning home,” explained Dr. John R. Ban, Professor Emeritus Indiana Northwest Indiana and the creator and presenter of the program. “It was called ‘The Good War’ which is an oxymoron really, because it was a war that everyone felt was justified because it was a war about freeing innocent people occupied by the Nazis or by the Japanese in the Pacific.
“We are delighted to have Dr. John Ban showcase ‘Dancing with the Stars on the Nostalgic Stage of World War II’ at our Merrillville branch,” said Lake County Public Library Director Ana Maria Grandfield. “It is more than the Big Band Era; it is America at its best! Music, dance and film are the premier American export. I am looking forward to attending this presentation. It will incorporate all that the library offers in history, music and film.”
During his expansive career in the field of education, Ban has taught a variety of topics on both the high school and college level, including history and politics, two of his favorite topics of discussion.
“I’m not a musician, I don’t pretend to be an expert on World War II or music,” explained Ban, who holds a Masters degree in diplomatic history and taught world history for many years. “I’m more of a hobbyist when it comes to this and as such, I’ve studied the field pretty thoroughly in my retirement. It’s taken me over two years to put this program together.”
Ban added that his original target audience was senior citizens who like himself, lived through the era, but even when the program was presented at senior centers in the region he found younger folks filtering in and enjoying the program; younger people whose parents or grandparents had served proudly in “The Big One,” as the Second World War came to be called. Ban has also enjoyed seeing many military veterans of other more recent wars attending.
The expansion of his audience since first presenting the program inspired him to find a larger and more general venue for its presentation. “At the library we want to present programs of interest to as many people in the community as possible. We do programs on history, programs for seniors and veterans, programs about the arts,” added reference librarian Beth Alyea, Ban’s LCPL liaison for this presentation. “Dr. Ban’s program is all of those things rolled into one, so it’s a great fit for us.”
“My interest in the music of the Second World War originated because of how it did so much to unite the country at a time when America had just emerged out of the Great Depression. It was the first time in history when people everywhere, from all walks of life, were connected by the magic of radio.”
As radios became the centerpiece of most American living rooms, families would gather around them to keep updated on the brewing conflicts overseas through network newscasts while also helping to ease the stress of the horrific news they heard news they heard with upbeat songs by popular vocalists and big bands.
“This was a time in our country’s history I thought was important, in our present day and age to step back in time and reflect on,” added Ban, a big fan of fortitude, courage and strength of those who have come to be called “The Greatest Generation.”
Once America had officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and U.S. troops deployed overseas, music played an even more important role in the lives of those both at home and stationed abroad.
“Music and dancing helped keep minds off all the bloodshed and the horrors of the war,” said Ban. “It was important in keeping spirits up and morale high. It was a place for people to escape to for a few hours.”
Ban’s program includes a lot about the canteens, the dance halls where military personnel could blow off steam by fox-trotting, jitterbugging or waltzing. It was a time when young women whose own men were off fighting the good fight, would spend time talking, sharing coffee, serving donuts, and dancing with lonely troops in their locale.
“I’ve spoken to a few of these girls, called ‘hostesses’ back then, who live in Chicago and are now in their 90s,” said Ban. “They felt and still do, that it was their patriotic duty to keep the morale high in our troops.”
Believing that he would be short-changing the importance of the arts if he tried to squeeze everything into one program, Ban has broken things down into a trilogy of individual seminars each complimenting the others. Each targets a specific aspect of the arts during the war era.
Given the strong advance response already received about Tuesday’s program, it has been moved to the library’s biggest meeting room where hundreds of attendees can be accommodated comfortably.
“The program on Tuesday at the Merrillville library focuses on the great hoofers of World War II,” explained Ban. “There were so many great dancers at that time like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Conner, Ray Bolger and others; whose brilliant footwork rocked the Hollywood musicals and helped make dancing a national pastime in the canteens. There were dance halls in every city and they were always packed. Dancing was a great way to relax, re-connect and socialize. Being able to look forward to spending a few hours at the local canteen helped a G.I. get through the week.”
As for the other two sessions of Ban’s trilogy—one focuses on “the history of the war, how music was phased and how the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Kay Kaiser, Artie Shaw and other music combos came to play a very important role.” A second session spotlights “the great vocalists of the era like Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Jane Froman, Helen O’Connell, Bob Eberly and others.
Ban also shares many stories and historical fun facts about the stars and the songs of the era For instance, Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts the same day Japanese Zeroes hit Peal Harbor; Hitler tried to woo film and music star Marlene Dietrich back to her German homeland to serve as a propaganda agent for the Nazi war machine; and 45 members of one of America’s biggest orchestras marched down to a local recruitment office and enlisted together to serve Uncle Sam.
We’ve all heard of “Rosie the Riviter,” the symbol of American women who stepped in to work mills and factories while American men were off fighting, but did you know there were all female orchestras keeping the music playing while their male counterparts were doing the same?
For each of the sessions, Ban utilizes modern technology and narrates the story of the great entertainers and their impact on the war and those who fought it both in uniform and on the home front, through video clips culled from famous films, documentaries, still photographs, audio recordings, and sometimes giving a little twirl to a female guest from the audience to underscore the simple enjoyment of dancing. “I’ve been known on occasion to ask for a volunteer from the audience to dance a few steps with me,” said Ban.
“While it’s not really part of the program, people often times will get up and dance a little as well during the presentation,” added Ban. “I don’t discourage that because dancing is good for you. It gives you exercise, keeps you young and makes you smile. So there’s always an area for those who want to get up and dance a bit.”
While pre-registration is not required, Beth Alyea strongly recommends it so that they can make sure to have enough chairs set up and enough light refreshments available. "Just give us a call - (219) 769-3541 - and let us know you are coming,” she said. “We are also going to have door prizes at this event.”
“If you come to Tuesday’s event, be ready to slip back in time to see and hear the sounds of the past come alive,” said Dr. Ban. “This is a special tribute to a time of both charm and heartbreak. If songs like ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ don’t get your feet tapping, have you humming along and make you feel alive, then you’ve got no blood in your veins.”
Email Tom Lounges at firstname.lastname@example.org