Still carrying a tune for the troops

POULSBO — Nearly 63 years ago, Margaret Lenhart walked on stage before thousands of adoring fans.

But instead of recalling the moment with joy, the former professional entertainer said the memory makes her want to cry.

America had just joined World War II. Her stage was Terminal Island. Her audience was United States service men on their way to the South Pacific.

“Looking out at those thousands of boys. I’ll never forget that,” she said. “I’d say the majority of the guys were the same age as me.”

Lenhart, 88, today resides at Poulsbo’s Liberty Shores Assisted Living Community. A spunky character who continues to sing and play piano, she said Veterans Day has a special meaning for her. She has had the chance to support a number of American troops through a singing career that has lasted seven decades and counting.

Growing up in Seattle, Lenhart realized at an early age that she had great musical talent. As a teen, she’d sing for local charities, including the Marines Hospital and other veteran organizations.

Later, she was often hired to sing at hot spots and on several radio stations in Seattle. One gig in the 1930s allowed her to sing for World War I veterans at the famous 40 and 8 Club.

“The most fun was when we could entertain the veterans,” she commented. “Any time we could do that, we would.”

In the late 1930s, she heard about a statewide talent competition. She entered and won. First prize was a trip to Hollywood, Calif. to audition.

“I told them, ‘By God, just buy me a one-way ticket because I’m not coming back,’” she recalled of her reaction to winning the chance. “I was just sure if I just did good enough on one number that I would be staying.”

Lenhart got to sing with John Scott Trotter’s Orchestra for the Camel Hour radio show. There, she met Bing Crosby, who offered her Mary Martin’s spot on the Kraft Music Hour while Martin filmed “South Pacific.” She began getting offers for tours and guest spots and said she started to feel like quite the success.

But six weeks later, the world changed.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lenhart’s career continued to speed on but she and other entertainers were called upon to rally the troops. She explained that before Pearl Harbor, America hadn’t had much of a military and many men had to be recruited quickly.

“We were totally unprepared for war,” she commented.

Lenhart entertained troops at the Hollywood Canteen, a famous WWII landmark, and at Terminal Island, where the men were prepared for deployment.

“You’d look out and you wanted to cry because you’d see all these men and you didn’t know if any of them would come back,” she recalled.

Though she would have liked to have joined the USO Tour, Lenhart was urged to stay in the U.S. because she had young children. Her husband, Ray, was sent overseas but as one of the last members recruited to the First Motion Picture Unit, creating sound effects for war movies.

But back at home, Lenhart used her star status to do what she could for the troops. In one instance, she cut her hair in a “victory bob” for a local fashion show. The short hair cut for women that was part of the campaign encouraging Americans to conserve during war times.

“That way, you could be ready to go without wasting time,” she explained. “Time was very valuable.”

Lenhart also continued to entertain troops on their way to war, veterans returned from the war and service men recuperating in local hospitals. She recalls that some of their favorite tunes included, “Sentimental Journey,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time Honey,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I don’t want to walk without you.”

“They just appreciated it so much and you couldn’t help feeling the way they felt,” she recalled of the experience. “That’s one of those times that you have to work hard not to cry on stage because you’re reaching out to them and they’re reaching out to you.”

Even after war times passed, Lenhart said veterans organizations, homes and hospitals tended to be her favorite places to sing. This year, she was a special guest at the opening of the Kitsap Veterans Memorial in Silverdale because of the role she has played. Lenhart said she feels an appreciation for veterans partially because of family history but mostly because of what they should mean to every American.

“I think it’s a matter of giving to one another and I know I did it because I sure appreciated what they’d done,” she said.

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