The capture of Rome was incredibly important to the Allies. It was hoped that the capture of the Italian capital might draw German troops away from France and the impending D-Day landings. But this did not happen as Adolph Hitler kept his army focused on the English Channel. Furthermore, the capture of Rome would also have a tremendous propaganda value, which did happen.
Now, weeks after liberation from German occupation, as the citizens settled into some degree of normality, Rome became a restful vacation spot for weary GI’s needing some sleep, hot showers and warm food.
Near Rome while on tour in 1944, USO Show Troupe 289, nicknamed “Funzafire,” encountered boxing legend Joe Louis, serving with the US Army in Italy. Troupe member Charlie Mariano and Joe Louis put on an impromptu mock boxing match for troops stationed in the area.
Funzafire was brightly MC’d by Benny Meroff, well known Chicago comic. A hit of the show was the famous clown-tramp-bicyclist act of Joe Jackson, Jr., which brought an atmosphere of big-time show business. Lively comedic small-person Charles Mariano, billing himself as “the Great Lover” provided several entertaining spots. Jack Gwynne demonstrated his ability as master magician and illusionist, assisted by Mary, his wife, performing The Temple of Angee, a classic disappearing act. Miss Kathleen McLaughlin appeared on the stage throughout the show in various capacities, as counterpoint to Meroff (her husband) and as a magician’s assistant, and she brought with her every appearance a low meaningful chorus of sighs and low whistles from the GIs sitting so near and yet so far. Jerry and Jane Brandow, husband and wife tap dancing team from Philadelphia, livened up the crowd with their flashing feet. Betty Huntington’s voice, an unusual female baritone, immediately caught the audience’s attention, as did the stylings of Edna Mae Kenyon demonstrating talent as “Queen of the Xylophone.” Joe Jackson Jr., dressed in full clown makeup and not uttering a sound, performed intricate but seemingly simple tricks on a bicycle. These were the sights and sounds of the USO enjoyed by battle weary troopers taking advantage of some time away from the front lines.
Then there was the music and the food. Italian and American music, Italian food, Italian wine!
The Americans brought the USO along with them, and the USO brought the sounds of jazz, the jitterbug and American celebrities like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Mickey Rooney, Joan Crawford, and many more to distract the locals and the soldiers from the reality of war.
Italian wine, homemade marinara sauce, pasta, ciabatta, osso buco, mostaccioli mosta, lasagne verdi al forno, spaghetti, ricotta pie and sausage soup.
What a welcome respite from scourge of war!
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