The Over There Theatre League: Amparito Farrar.

The Over There Theatre League, headed by theater legend George M. Cohan and theater director-producer-playwright Winthrop Ames, formed in April 1918 to mobilize volunteer performers for entertaining US troops in France under the auspices of the YMCA. According to the 24 Apr 1918 New York Times, nearly 2,000 theater professionals attended the first meeting (but a 1 November 1918 issue of Variety signaled discord between the league and those rejected for performances in France).

AmparitoFarrar

Amparito Farrar. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

According to the 3 May 1918 Variety, “No woman under 25 will be eligible as an entertainer overseas” (23). One female league participant was the 25-year-old Amparito Farrar, soprano (1893–1989, no relation to opera star Geraldine Farrar). Promoted from chorus girl to star of the 1914 production of High Jinks, Farrar sang for service members at the new base hospital at Fox Hills, Staten Island, before leaving the United States in Aug 1918 with her mother, who served as her accompanist, for four months in France. She said in the 15 Aug 1918 Musical Leader, “I want to bring them solace and comfort when they come back wounded or for first aid. I consider my work just as much first aid as the medical treatment…” (149).

As the 2 Oct. 1918 New Era noted, Farrar stated:

I have sung in motor camps, ‘Y’ and Knights of Columbus huts, Salvation Army bakeries, Red Cross hospitals and even at the bedsides of the boys, one at a time, everything from grand opera to ‘Tickle Toe’ [probably a song from the 1917 musical Going Up]. I even dance a little” (9).

She further reported in the 28 Nov. 1918 Musical Leader:

I have looked over the German line as far as the Rhine. . . . Last week I was in a very beautiful part of the country, singing every night, being forced to ride from fifteen to twenty miles every day to do so. . . . In the afternoon I went with one of the ‘Y’ men to see a track meet for a negro regiment arranged by white officers. After it was over they all gathered around a little bank of grass, over 3,300 of them, and I sang many songs to them amidst cheers and yells of delight. (“Amparito Farrar Writes from France” 521)

In June 1919, Farrar married surgeon Goodrich Truman Smith, who had treated her in France for influenza.

Listen to Farrar sing the World War I song “Madelon.”

The black female drivers of the Hayward Unit.

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Mae Kemp, 1913. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs,  Univ of Washington

The Hayward Unit of the National League for Women’s Service at 200 W. 139th St. in New York City opened a club for black soldiers and sailors in August 1918, providing a canteen, games and reading/writing rooms, accommodations, dances, and musical performances. The unit was named for Colonel William “Bill” Hayward, commander of the 369th Colored Regiment (aka the “Harlem Hellfighters“) that saw extensive combat in France and received the Croix de Guerre (Hayward’s son was Hollywood agent-producer Leland Hayward). What New York Did for Fighting Men states that between August 1918 and September 1919, the club entertained 40,000 men, with 5015 eating in the canteen, 11,527 using the dormitory facilities, and 6464 attending dances. Jobs were found for 883 discharged black servicemen.

Part of this unit was the “only colored women’s motor corps in the world,” according to a 1919 article by Frances Tilghman, NLWS publication secretary. Tilghman stated that the motor corps was composed of 40 women, three ambulances, two buses, and 12 cars. The women of the motor corps visited hospitalized African American service members and took convalescing black patients on outings such as sightseeing, ballgames, picnics, and carnivals. They also transported elderly people to church and orphans to amusement parks. Their service during the influenza epidemic was especially lauded.

Hayward Unit

Poster for the Hayward Unit. Univ of Minnesota Libraries

The motor corps was credited with greeting 100,000 men. Tilghman lists the following women as its leaders:

• Captain Sadie Leavelle

Lt. Mae Kemp (c. 1877–1926): a vaudeville performer who later appeared in the film The Call of His People (1921), which focused on a man passing for white. Kemp was involved with fundraising for and purchasing an ambulance that was sent to France. After she became ill with cancer, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson organized a benefit performance for her.

• Sergeant Pearl Murray
• Sergeant Anna Reid

In addition, Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era states that Lelia Walker Robinson, the daughter of black millionaire Madam C. J. Walker, volunteered with the unit for formal events and parades for the troops.

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Mae Kemp, far left, and Sadie Leavelle with black servicemen on a sightseeing outing. From the New York Age, 30 Aug 1919: 1.