IN 1942, A GROUP OF 20 BROADWAY STAGE DESIGNERS DECIDED THEY WANTED TO PUT THEIR ARTISTIC TALENTS TO WORK IN THE ARMY. THEY FOUNDED THE "CAMOUFLAGE SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL STAGE DESIGNERS."
Naversen. They thought that maybe learning about camouflage might help prepare them better
RON NAVERSEN IS A SET DESIGNER AT SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY AT CARBONDALE. HE RESEARCHED THE SOCIETY FOR A DISSERTATION HE WROTE IN THE LATE '80s.
Naversen: They hired a Russian army captain, a Baron Nicholas Cherkasof to train them in the basic principals of camouflage. They would build models and things like that.
AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF CLASSES, THEY WENT TO THE RECRUITMENT CENTERS TO VOLUNTEER
Leve: We dreaded going to the army! This is why I joined the camouflage society. If I'm going to be in the army, I may as do something behind the lines.
SAM LEVE WAS A YOUNG MEMBER OF THE SOCIETY, WHO HAD ALREADY WORKED WITH ORSON WELLES ON JULIUS CEASAR BY THE TIME HE JOINED. RON NAVERSEN INTERVIEWED HIM AT HIS HOME IN 1988. WHEN IT CAME TIME TO SIGN UP FOR THE ARMY, LEV SAYS HE GOT SICK.
Leve: 104 fever. Terrible, terrible, you know. So the army… sent down army doctors to investigate. Psychosomatic. They put me into 4-F. They don't want me in the army, a crazy guy like me.
Naversen: I only know of three people who definitely served, and that was probably the three most successful designers of their day, Jo Melziner, Donald Owenslager and Harry Horner.
Horner: I was then in the army there were three designers, maybe. And they worked on the realization on these dreams, so to say.
Naversen: Harry Horner was designing musicals like Lady in the Dark and Stars and Garters. When he entered the military and went into camouflage as a sergeant, he conceived of the idea of doing a musical review.
THE SHOW, CALLED 'YOU BET YOUR LIFE', TOLD THE HISTORY OF CAMOUFLAGE. HORNER WANTED TO ENTERTAIN THE SOLDIERS IN THE AUDIENCE, BUT ALSO TEACH THEM ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF CAMOUFLAGE.
Horner: I wanted to get the ordinary foot soldier to try and teach them a little bit part of this.
Naversen: None of the music has survived, but the final lyrics are kind of funny: It’s so confusin’ but so amusin’; the ruses one uses are nature’s own scheme; though we're not mirages, we're all camouflages; things are not what they seem, no things are never quite what they seem.
THERE ARE TWO BASICS OF CAMOUFLAGE: YOU CAN TRY TO MAKE SOMETHING DISAPPEAR INTO ITS BACKGROUND, BY WORKING WITH TEXTURES AND COLORS
NaversenL: And that’s what I think we think of as camouflage. The other kind of camouflage is to simply make something important look unimportant.
THAT'S WHAT STAGE DESIGNERS DO ALL THE TIME.
Naversen: We’re constantly exploring different materials to make them seem like something else.
Naversen: George Diestel was not a member of the camouflage society. He was a corporal in the 603 Phantom army.
THE 603rd ENGINEER CAMOUFLAGE BATTALION WAS PART OF A DIVISION CREATED BY THE WAR DEPARTMENT IN 1944. IT WAS MADE UP OF SET DESIGNERS. ACTORS AND COMPOSERS. THEIR JOB WAS TO USE CAMOUFLAGE TECHNIQUES TO DECIEVE THE GERMANS.
Deistel: You have a nice lunch, this is on me
RON NAVERSEN INTERVIEWED GEORGE DEISTEL IN A RESTAURANT IN LOS ANGELES.
Deistel: I tell you what I always get their onion soup, but that's me
Naversen: I asked George Deistel what he told his kids when they asked what he did during the war, and he said "I tell them I blew up tanks!"
Deistel: You put them up with compressors and you maintain them with a hand pump
Naversen: These were just balloons that the Phantom army would take into town at night. Blow them up, inflate them. They would use wire recorders and make a lot of noise. And they would march through the town on one end, and then come back in again, so a hundred men could look like 1000 men.
The trouble with camouflage is you really never know if it works, because you just simply don't get bombed. You only know if it doesn’t work.
THE OTHER TROUBLE WITH CAMOUFLAGE, AT LEAST FOR SOME OF THESE ARTISTS, IS THAT THEY WERE MAKING ART--FOR WAR.
Horner: The fact that these dreams were really for a rather nightmarish reality was only part of the dream
Naversen: I think it was a very practical necessity. It was the way in which these artists could utilize their art skills to serve their country.
Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Carbondale, IL, by Mike Zelten at WSIU
Archival tape courtesey of Ron Naversen