In December 1967, when rioters burned cities and soldiers died in Vietnam’s rice paddies, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1901-1971) sang to Fort Hood soldiers about a wonderful world.
The nine-minute, black-and-white video of Satchmo’s ebullient appearance at Fort Hood can be now viewed on The Texas Archive of the Moving Image, an online historical repository of films and videos available free at www.Texasarchive.org.
The Texas Archive of the Moving Image is preserving vintage scenes of Bell County and Texas frame-by-frame and making them available to the public. So far, 132 separate videos have been posted relating to Bell County. The collection is wide-ranging from 1920s-era home movies of the two Governors Ferguson to news coverage of a Killeen mass murder.
Armstrong, then 67, appeared on several TV shows earlier that year, but his Fort Hood gig was a bigger deal because it was part of the jazz trumpeter’s role as “Ambassador Satch.”
In the video, the camera frequently panned to some of the 15,000 blank-eyed young men anticipating going toe-to-toe with some unnamed adversary in a random Asian jungle. They would experience things that would age them quickly. At least for a few minutes, Satchmo’s sandpaper vocals and affable style made time stop on an outdoor stage on Fort Hood.
Even though he had been sidelined just three months earlier for eight weeks with multiple health problems, Armstrong wanted to perform for the soldiers before he headed for a whirlwind of concerts in France, Spain and Ireland.
It was also among his first public performances of “What a Wonderful World,” a song recorded just three months earlier. It flopped in the U.S. but was a rousing success in Europe. Eventually, “Wonderful World” would become the signature performance of his career.
Armstrong’s appearance was the top news on the Armored Sentinel, the post newspaper: “‘Satchmo’ to mop brow before Fort Hood Audience” screamed the front-page headline.
Master of ceremony comedian/writer Dick Cavett opened the show with a few barbs lobbed at Killeen’s expense, calling it “a sleepy little town” of 35,000 population.
“From what I’ve seen since I’ve been here, it’s in a coma. It’s actually a wonderful place to live … if you’re a lizard,” Cavett said, as the crowd howled in delight. The Armored Sentinel reporter said that Cavett “seemed to know which jokes the soldiers stationed at Fort Hood would appreciate.”
Cavett wouldn’t relent with the taunts. “I asked one soldier what he did for entertainment around here. He told me two things – go to a go-go joint and get traffic tickets,” Cavett continued. “I’ve done both, and I believe getting the ticket was more fun.”
After Cavett’s introduction, Armstrong opened his set with a vibrant arrangement of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” accompanied by his quintet. He capped it all with scat and his trademark raspy “oh yeaaaah,” while the crowd hollered and whistled with approval.
The camera panned to a wide shot, flags flapping in the southwesterly breeze. The crowd roared as Armstrong lifted his trumpet to his lips. His New Orleans jazz sound is unmistakable.
To cap off his set, Armstrong ended with an upbeat arrangement of “Hello Dolly!” – “I feel the room swayin’/for the band’s playin’/one of my old favorite songs from way back when….”
Another flood of cheers and shrills drowned out the band. Satchmo had them clapping happy.
The performance was part of a national telecast titled “Operation: Entertainment,” shot over two days just before Christmas and aired nationwide on ABC on Jan. 19, 1968. The ABC program garnered big ratings in Central Texas. Other performers at Fort Hood and on the ABC telecast were the Mills Brothers, comedian Richard Pryor, actor Tony Randall, magician Carl Ballentine and vocalists Nancy Ames and Joanie Summers as well as a singing group called the Korean Kittens, singing their version of Ray Charles’ “Tell Me What I Say.”
While at Fort Hood, the entertainers visited patients at Darnall Army Hospital and visited with other soldiers. This concert was preamble for the production company attempting to stage similar concerts in South Vietnam before U.S. and allied troops.
Launched in 2008, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image is devoted to finding and preserving vintage films, videos and digital images and documenting movement and historical events. It also includes home movies, rare glimpses into racial minorities and other moments that often don’t make the history books. The offerings are as varied as film itself: home movies, industrial films, local television and “orphan” film materials as well as the archive’s curated online exhibits.
It’s the brainchild of Dr. Caroline Frick, executive director, who also teaches media history, the evolution of the moving image archiving movement, cross-cultural approaches to historical preservation, and online media libraries at the University of Texas at Austin.
Satchmo’s Fort Hood performance isn’t the only local vintage film preserved on The Texas Archive of the Moving Image site.
Other films feature charming views of Belton in 1939, Salado in the early 1960s before Interstate 35, kitschy 1920s “down home” scenes of the Governors Jim and Miriam Ferguson relaxing with their daughters, construction of the Belton Dam in the early 1950s and a 1936 Texas Centennial interview with Jeff Hamilton of Temple, a former slave of Gen. Sam Houston.
Also included are parades, football games, high school drill teams and views of Mary Hardin-Baylor College, when it was still all female.
The archive also includes news footage of the 1992 Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, where a gunman killed 23 diners and wounded 27 others.