America Supports You: WWII Veteran Kicks Up His Heels for USO
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2006 For a few hours Tuesday night, the Sequoia restaurant here was transported back to the golden era of the 1940s.
Lara Deni and Bob Kleinpeter enjoy the music of the Glenn Miller Orchestra at Sequoia restaurant in Washington, D.C., Dec. 19, 2006. Attendees were encouraged to wear vintage or military dress to the event benefiting the USO of Metropolitan Washington. Defense Dept. photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Dance legend 92-year-old Frankie Manning was the special guest as the Glenn Miller Orchestra played swinging tunes and 300 dancers hit the floor during a “Home for the Holidays” event to benefit the United Services Organization.
The USO provides entertainment and improves quality of life for troops. The organization is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program showcasing ways
American individuals and organizations are supporting the nation’s troops.
A creator of the dance now know as "the Lindy Hop," Manning showed the crowd that he’s still got what earned him the moniker “legend.” But he didn’t fly all the way from his New York home just to show off his fancy footwork, he also was supporting the USO.
“I just thought it would be a good thing to do,” Manning said. “That’s the good part … when you can bring laughter to the other guys when there’s so much fear and tension in their minds.”
Manning said that, even in this age of iPods and the Internet, he still thinks the kind of live entertainment he enjoyed while serving in World War II is important for the morale of today’s servicemembers.
“Because of this technology … it’s one form of entertainment and it’s something you can listen to all the time,” Manning said. “When you actually see a person performing, it’s fantastic. It’s much more entertaining the just listening to it on the iPod.”
Melanie Carson, communications manager for USO-Metro, was pleased that Manning traveled from New York to support her organization.
“It’s generous for him to make an appearance for this type of event for no personal gain, just to support the programs and services of the USO,” she said.
Both Manning’s appearance fee and the net proceeds of the event will benefit the USO of Metropolitan Washington.
Tom Koerner, an area dance instructor and one of the event organizers, said that he and Manning "both have abiding respect for the work they do. Anybody who grew up in the 70s, Vietnam, knows that (the country) treated the military pretty shabbily. I really think that (servicemembers make) unbelievable sacrifices, the least we can do is give them a few bucks.”
Manning, a Florida native who moved to Harlem when he was 3 years old, is more than a dance legend, however. He’s also a movie star, appearing in several films, including the 1937 “A Day at the Races” with the Marx Brothers.
He also has toured with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway, and from 1936 to 1941, he was a member of the professional dance group known as “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.”
With the onset of World War II, however, the dance group disbanded. Manning kept performing and, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1942, Manning was working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I got my draft papers while I was down there but couldn’t get back to the United States for about 10 months after that,” Manning said. “We went down by boat and we had return ticket by boat, but because of the situation – passenger ships or any other ships going from South America to America were being sunk by the Germans.”
The alternative was to return by plane. That, however, was a slow process as everyone else wanting to return to the United States was in the same situation.
When he finally was able to report to join the Army, he saw combat in New Guinea.
Finding opportunities to dance during his service wasn’t always easy, so Manning organized performances to entertain the men with whom he served. He had one golden opportunity to dance on stage with one of the era’s best-loved starlets, as well, he said.
“When it became safe enough for (entertainers) to come down that way, then … Jack Benny with his troupe, they came down and did a show,” Manning said, a grin stretching into a wide smile as he remembered the show. “Fortunate enough, I got to dance with Betty Grable.
“It was quite a thrill,” he added.
Having entertainers visit them while they were so far from home did wonders for the men, Manning said.
He was discharged from the Army in 1947 and formed his own dance group, The Congaroos, which performed for about seven years. Then rock-and-roll music grew in popularity and Manning started another profession as a civil servant working for the U.S. Post Office. He said he expected that to last no more than a year, until his style of dance regained its popularity.
“That year turned into about 30 years,” Manning said. “I was getting ready to retire in ’87 and the resurgence (of big band music and the Lindy Hop) came back and here I go again and I’m and I’m still at it.
“It was quite a surprise,” he said, adding he’d never dreamed that it would come back after so many years. “And I can have some weird dreams.”
He’s been teaching his beloved dances all over the world to anyone who cares to learn since them.
“I love to go the dances and see these young kids out there dancing,” Manning. “It’s just a joy to watch other dancers doing the dance that I love so much.”
And they love watching him, especially when he observes his annual birthday tradition that started when he was 75. Each year he dances with one woman for every year of his life.
“This next year, I've got to dance with 93 women,” he laughed.