Thats Entertainment DoD Style
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 1999 Military life can mean some tough duty, but then again, there are some really choice assignments. Ask Air Force Maj. Denise M. Hollywood and U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Will Rosser. They have one.
The two officers assigned to the Armed Forces Entertainment Office here ensure America's troops overseas periodically get a taste of home. They take the razzle dazzle of show biz from the homefront to U.S. troops in distant lands.
Until the 1980's the Army was the executive agent for what was then known as DoD Overseas Shows, Hollywood said. The joint service office now falls under the Air Force Services Directorate, equivalent to morale, welfare and recreation programs in other military branches.
The office has a new "eye-catching" logo and a new thrust to provide quality entertainment, she added. "What we're trying to do is upgrade the quality of the bands that we send to get better entertainment out to the field."
Hollywood, who readily admits she gets a lot of razzing because of her name, is a services officer. Rosser is a logistics officer. Their official military duty involves escorting stars like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and country music's Reba McEntire when the performers tour troop bases.
The entertainment office and the United Services Organization, better known as the USO, work as partners. The USO recruits celebrity performers and provides production expertise while the entertainment office provides the logistics.
"The USO is a non-profit charitable organization, so in order to get on a base, they need a military liaison organization and that's us," Hollywood said. The USO can wield some powerful clout, Rosser added. "Supporting the USO gives Americans a good feeling about themselves," he said.
The entertainment office provides visas, transportation and other essentials. Each tour requires intense logistics support and coordination. Each country has unique requirements.
"When you fly into the Sinai in Egypt, for example, you have to get approval through the multinational force headquarters in Rome," Hollywood said. On Diego Garcia, military flights are invariably cancelled and there's no way in or out of that island in the Indian Ocean other than a military flight. "We had 20 wrestlers -- 250 pound guys and their 5,000 pound wrestling ring -- trapped on that island for two weeks," Hollywood recalled."
Rosser said his biggest logistical challenge in the two years he's worked tours was Hootie and the Blowfish. The group had 38 people and 42,000 pounds of equipment. "It was very logistics intensive because we did five shows in six days in five different countries in the Middle East and the Balkans," Rosser said.
Rosser pointed out that only about 30 percent of the tours the entertainment office handles are celebrity USO tours. The remainder are 'non-celebrity' tours made up of up-and- coming performers. The entertainment office staff of 12 independently recruits and sends out about 150 non- celebrity tours each year.
"We send entertainers to seven circuits around the world -- the Pacific, Southwest Asia, the Balkans, Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the North -- Alaska and Greenland," said Hollywood who handles tours for the Pacific and Southwest Asia. Rosser handles tours for the Balkans and Northern Europe.
"With the non-celebrity portion," Rosser said, "it's our job to do everything A to Z. To solicit, hire and contract the 'on the rise' star and then put them on tour." Performers such as Susanne Lee Price and bands such as Wild Blue, and Memphis Gold have recently gone out on the military circuits. One former 'non-celebrity' act -- the Dixie Chicks -- has since made it to the top of the country music charts.
"In the past 50 years," Rosser added, "we have never advertised. We don't have a web site. Word of mouth around America is amazing. Bands of all types -- rock, country, rhythm and blues, magic acts, jugglers, cheerleading groups -- everyone knows about the program in the entertainment world."
They want to go on the tours for several reasons, Hollywood explained. "One, they want the exposure. Two, the military troops are a very gracious audience. Three, they get to travel around the world."
About 300 promotional packets cover the a conference table in a small room at the entertainment office in Crystal City, Va. Stacks of demo compact discs and videotapes are piled on file cabinets. "We get bombarded daily with this type of information," Hollywood said. "These are all from people who want to go out for our program."
Finding entertainers willing to travel is not a problem, but it is a challenge to find groups who are professional both on and off stage. They need to be "road worthy," Rosser said. "A lot of them are celebrities in their home towns and they're used to getting in a van or truck and going to the next club, but they're not used to going on an airplane or a helicopter, passing through customs, or dealing with jet lag and different cultures."
It's also a challenge to entice entertainers to go to world hot spots, he said. "These are lonely locations in the world -- the Middle East, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia; Bosnia and Kosovo; and Korea - especially near the DMZ."
The USO focuses on these sites in particular, Rosser said, and "waves the patriotic flag to the celebrities to say, 'We know you want to go to the Caribbean because it's beautiful, but how about going to the Balkans?' It's a challenge for the USO to get these celebrities to go where they're really needed."
Non-celebrity shows are fully funded by appropriated funds, Hollywood said. "We have a baseline budget of $3 million, which grew to about $9 million in 1998 with all the contingency funds we got for Kosovo and Southwest Asia," she said. "And we used every penny of it."
"In 1999," she continued, "we have a $3 million budget that we've completely spent already in the first quarter. That's how much entertainment we push out. We'll get more contingency funds -- we hope -- or the entertainment program will come to a screeching halt."
Non-celebrity acts go out from three to six weeks and hit all the countries in a particular area, Hollywood said. If a band goes to Southwest Asia, for example, they'll go to Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Egypt. At each site, they'll do a two to three hour set and sign autographs. "They play anywhere from the top of a flatbed truck to a stage in a club, to an outside parade ground -- anywhere the troops can support them," she said.
During Christmas, New Years and the 4th of July the office may send six bands at a time to one circuit. "We try to support people the most during the holidays because we feel that's when they need it the most," Hollywood said.
Once bands have traveled, they're always willing to do it again, Hollywood said. "They love going out for us, and it's definitely not for the money."
Most bands get $150.00 a day per person, she said. Out of that, they pay for lodging and food. "They come back year after year because of what they get out of it -- they feel a huge sense of patriotism for taking care of the troops. "I think it's a life changing thing for people when they meet the troops," Hollywood said.
"My first tour, I took out was 10,000 Maniacs," she said. "We took them to a desert site called 'China Kabol,' eight miles from the Iraqi border, where the band played on two flatbed trucks. Visiting a site like this really gives people an appreciation for the military. They saw the way the soldiers lived out there, and they gained all kinds of respect and support for the armed forces."
Rosser agreed. He said the entertainers take home some great stories about what they've seen. "Many call us back to say it was the best experience of their life."