April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
We were excited when we heard the news. The gang of would-be entertainers, musicians, and magicians who hung around Special Services at Fort Bliss that fall of 1958 was going to have its own live television show. KROD, the local CBS outlet, was going to give us half an hour of airtime. Sure, it was public service programming, and it would be broadcast on a Saturday afternoon opposite a Texas Western football game, but it was live TV! We decided to name our show “Fort Bliss at Ease.”
Then we found out about the Public Information Office. If we were going to present anything to the public as an example of military entertainment, we would be supervised by the brass. The public information officer at Fort Bliss was a self-important first lieutenant who wore jodhpur boots and carried a swagger stick—mahogany with a real gold tip. When you talked to him, he had the annoying habit of tapping his boots with the stick and then, ignoring everything you had to say, announcing, “I have a better plan.”
We knew we were in trouble when he told us he wanted to review and approve our script. He insisted on seeing the lyrics of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” before we could include it in the program. We had a kid who did a fair Noel Coward impression, and “Mad Dogs” was his centerpiece. But Fort Bliss was, and still is, a training center for NATO troops, and the PIO was afraid that something with a title like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” might offend our gallant allies from the United Kingdom.
We tried to explain that the piece was like a British anthem. It was a favorite of Winston Churchill, for God’s sake. Nothing helped. Our Coward impressionist ended up doing “Let’s Fall in Love” instead. Then we got the really bad news. The PIO demanded that five precious minutes of airtime be set aside so that he personally could explain the contribution Fort Bliss was making to world peace. Fort Bliss was the home of the U.S. Army Air Defense Command. He was actually going to do a five-minute documentary on the Nike missile system in the middle of a variety show.
He never showed up for any rehearsals, which was a relief. But since he hadn’t practiced with a hot camera, we were sure he’d blow it, and on live television there would be no way to recover. When the great moment arrived, I began to feel sorry for the guy. Sure, he was a pain, but I hated to see anyone embarrass himself that way.
He didn’t seem nervous as he stood in front of his official Army flip charts, waiting for the red light on the camera to wink at him. When it did come on, we found out why. He took command. He was brilliant. We were shamed into admitting that his five-minute talk on missiles was going to be the highlight of our show.
He closed by looking directly at the camera and telling the world, “I am Lt. Sam Donaldson, and you are watching ‘Fort Bliss at Ease.’”