Twenty-five years ago my wife and business partner Marsha Roberts and I had a crazy idea: “Lets do a play!” We already had two decades experience making films, videos and live “corporate theater” presentations for the likes of Coca-Cola, IBM and Revlon and we had just finished a ninety minute, three-act, seven character extravaganza for Georgia Pacific. We decided that producing a legitimate play was only a step away. We took the step.
We knocked around several ideas; I was favoring a musical comedy, but on the night of Sept. 13, 1990 Marsha had a dream. This story has been told many times over the years until it has reached legendary status, but it is absolutely true. In her dream Marsha saw a theater marquee emblazoned with the words Letters From The Front in neon.When she woke up she told me about it then said I had to write a play to go with it. For even greater motivation, she booked the non-existent play into Atlanta’s 14th Street Playhouse for a three week run starting March 6 – less than six months away. Simple. Bear in mind that I had no idea what this play was going to be about.
Eventually I developed a storyline centered around Katharine Hartgrove, a renowned writer of human interest stories who has a son in the Army who’s just been deployed to the Middle East. She writes many letters to him and it occurs to her that this process has been going on throughout American history and decides to create a play based on real war letters. She enlists her boyfriend Johnny Chastain, a comic showbiz veteran, to help her.
Operation Desert Shield was just getting under way when work on the play began. My script wasn’t centered around Desert Storm because Desert Storm didn’t exist. At the time everybody expected Saddam Hussein to back down. That changed on January 17. We were at war with Iraq. Since ours was a contemporary play, each night after watching the news I would write new pages to reflect what was happening. Rehearsals started Feb 11 and I was still doing nightly rewrites. When the war ended on Feb. 28, we only had five days of rehearsal left before opening night and I still hadn’t written the ending yet.
Despite the last minute pandemonium, Letters From The Front opened on March 6, 1991 with Della Cole in the role of Katharine Hartgrove. This wasn’t by sheer chance. I wrote the script with her in mind. Why? I needed an ace in the hole. I had worked with Della on a number of film and live shows and knew she was a powerful performer able to tackle any character. Audiences loved her and she and I had a great working relationship. In a film we did together for Revlon she played Aunty Sam and wore a sequined top coat and hat. We held onto that costume and used it in Letters From The Front as part of a comedy take-off on overblown patriotic pageants (see pix above).
By the time we finished our 14th Street Playhouse run we knew we had something special but we also knew changes needed to be made. I shortened the play by thirty minutes, eliminated extraneous plot lines, and moved the locale from Johnny’s cold NYC flat to Katharine’s homey Connecticut bungalow.But the most important development during the initial run was that after every performance military families would tell us how our play really told their story and should be toured to military bases across the country. That never occurred to us and when I wrote the play I didn’t do so with a military audience in mind – a very happy coincidence.
As producer, Marsha was invited to the Pentagon by Col. Rick Kiernan who was in charge of Army Public Affairs. He loved the idea of the show and threw his support behind it. Meanwhile I was in Atlanta reshaping the show. After going down many dead-end roads Marsha finally got a green-light for a test engagement at Ft. Bliss’ Center Theater in El Paso, TX, December 10 & 11, 1991.
The shows were enthusiastically received with standing-Os both nights. Our first full military base tour was scheduled to begin in June ’92 at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS. Playing before military community audiences was very special for all of us on the show. I was personally gratified and touched that so many people, especially military wives and moms, came up to me after a show and thanked me for telling their story. The stars always participated in a meet-and-greet in front of the stage after final curtain. This included troop shows, our favorites. There were always plenty of hugs, handshakes and autographs. We all marveled at how warm and friendly everybody on military bases were. They made us a part of their family and we loved it.
Starting with the 1997 tour we expanded our schedule to include military bases overseas. This involved designing a separate set to accommodate smaller stages commonly found in England, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Pacific Rim. Also, the set had to be constructed to fit onto military cargo plane pallets. Because voltage in these different countries could vary between 120 and 480, we had to lug a giant 450 lb. electrical converter along with us so that our lights
and sound system would be compatible no matter where we played. It could also output either a 50 or 60 Hz frequency. Our motto was: give us four walls and some seats and we’ll do everything else. Letters From The Front is probably the world’s most self-contained touring show. We’ve performed in England, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, S. Korea, Japan (including Okinawa), Guam, Diego Garcia and Kwajalein.
1997 also saw Neal Matthews take over the role of Johnny Chastain. He continued playing Johhny in both stateside and overseas tours through the 1999 Pacific Rim Tour. He played opposite Della Cole in the ’97 tour and again in the ’99 tour. In between, his costars were Danette Bock and Michelle Rosen. Della also directed the 2001 tour, the only other person I’ve trusted to do the job. The ’99 Pacific Rim tour also saw a major change in the show itself. Instead of taking place during Desert Storm, it now took place during World War II – same characters, same story, different era. Audiences loved the new version and we’ve performed it exclusively ever since.
9/ll brought about major logistical changes for us. We were determined to keep touring and the bases wanted us to keep performing for military community audiences because our show was considered a morale booster and thus beneficial, but because of the war, support units were stretched thin. We understood and figured out ways to keep the show on the road without being a burden to our friends in Services.
Bob Curren and Bobbi Kravis became the new Katharine and Johnny and were audience favorites for years to come.
We ended the 2005 tour being chased out of Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina. Loading out of our last show at Ft. Polk became a hazardous exercise due to the heavy winds and our set sustained some damage.
We hit the road early the next morning and made it as far as Birmingham, AL where we were safe. It was like a premonition. It was time for Letters From The Front to go on leave for a while.
After 15 years of being set up and taken down then packed onto trucks, planes and ferries hundreds of times all over the world, the show was physically exhausted. So were we.
Now a new era is starting for Letters From The Front. Marsha and I are determined to continue the legacy we started 25 years ago, following in the footsteps of Bob Hope by entertaining and inspiring our troops and their loved ones throughout the world.