TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — It started as a morale program to boost the spirits of troops heading to Korea and the wounded coming back from that war. Within a year, it turned Travis Air Force Base into a movie set for the motion picture “Starlift,” with the likes of Doris Day and Gordon McCrea headlining it.
Actress Ruth Roman was the first star to arrive in September 1950 to visit the wounded at the base’s hospital and perform at the Passenger Terminal Building for departing soldiers, sailors and Marines.
The list of those who followed soon included Hollywood heavyweights of the 1950s, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Alan Ladd, Andy Williams, Donna Reed, Danny Kaye, Walter Pigeon, Jack Benny, Kennan Wynn, Vic Damone, Bob Hope and Donald O’Conner, as well a sports figures such as Joe Lewis.
Travis commander Brig. Gen. Joe Kelly named the project not long after Roman’s arrival, with an offhand comment to his Public Affairs Office asking, “Who is coming here from Hollywood this week on our Operation Starlift?” according to a May 1952 article in the Global Ranger Supplement.
The name stuck for the flights that collected actors, entertainers and sports figures from Burbank to fly them to Travis every Saturday and return them the next day.
The stars would put on two- to three-hour shows at the passenger terminal, only interrupted by loudspeakers telling the troops their aircraft were ready to load, according to the article.
Warner Bros. Studios and the Pentagon knew a good thing when they saw it and started production of the movie “Starlift,” which it plugged as “a star-spangled spectacle with 18 big-name guest stars” that overshadowed acting newcomers Janice Rule and Ron Hogarthy, who had the lead roles in the musical drama.
Hogarthy played a Travis flier who was trying to meet a movie star played by Rule, who grew up in his hometown, while her fellow stars performed for injured men on the base.
The movie opened on Dec. 14, 1951, to reviews that were much less stellar than its cameo cast.
A Time magazine review said that the film “now supplies a backdrop for a spotty variety show, loosely glued together by the romance of a Hollywood star and an Air Force corporal from her hometown,” while a New York Times reviewer was even less complimentary, writing the “acts were unspeakably slapdash and the romance is painful beyond words.”
But that did not matter to the Travis airmen or doctors.
Airman 1st Class James Hakes later recounted his memories of being at Travis during the filming to the Travis Air Museum.
“The movie was basically a movie about Hollywood stars coming to the base hospital and the terminal at Travis to entertain the troops coming from and going to Korea,” said Hakes, who later saw the finished product at Travis and again in a theater in his hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wis.
“Whenever possible, I used to watch the performances. Kennan Wynn seemed to be the group leader most of the time,” Hakes said. “I remember on Christmas Eve 1950, after the main performance, Debbie Reynolds and another pretty blonde lady stayed on and sang to the troops, anything they wanted until 2 a.m. Pretty nice, I thought, of these two young ladies.”
One David Grant doctor said in the Global Ranger article that “there is no better medicine for these men.”
“All of them have been to the movies and to them it means the United States when they see the stars that they enjoyed seeing in the motion pictures,” the doctor said in the article. “It means they are home again.”
The movie did have one unusual effect.
Not long after it hit the theaters, the recruiting station at the base got a letter from Ramsey Russell of Memphis, Tenn.
“I am interested in joining the Air Force and would like to work on the base there in California,” Russell wrote. “I like to do the kind of work they do there. I saw a picture where Doris Day and other movie stars made a picture on the base. I don’t know whether I have the right idea, but the picture stated in its own way what you all do there on that base.”
“I have tried many Air Force bases, including the one here, to find work best suited for me and when I saw the picture I knew I would like to know the requirements needed to join out there,” Russell wrote.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.