The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
November/December 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Ace Lundon: Pendleton Producer
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

About a month before Ace Lundon embarked on a 1966-1972 show business run that would entertain an audience estimated at 750,000, he found himself sitting next to a lone Marine while on a business trip to Minneapolis. They struck up a conversation. Lundon said he did personal management and public relations work for entertainers in Los Angeles. The Marine’s line of work was evident. His next business trip would be to Vietnam.

“He asked if it would be possible for me to bring some stars down to Camp Pendleton to meet him and his buddies before they shipped out,” Lundon said.

Back home in California, Lundon mentioned the conversation to his then-wife (they’re now divorced) Jean London (they spell their last names differently). She suggested they contact friends in the business to see if they’d be interested.

Lundon checked with the base Special Services office at Camp Pendleton. The officer in charge enthusiastically encouraged Lundon to pursue the project. In 1966, he brought the first “show” to the Marine base, though in truth it wasn’t a show at all. The “cast” consisted of three people—Jean London, her photojournalist friend Joyce Widoff, and Jane Darwell, the veteran actress who had won an Academy Award for her role as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

“It wasn’t a live show, but it was a beginning,” Lundon said.

They met twelve appreciative Marines. When the visit ended, the Special Services section commander challenged them to return with a live show for a larger group of Marines scheduled to leave for Vietnam in about a month. Lundon called Sherri Alberoni, a former Mousketeer. A new group returned to Camp Pendleton. But it wasn’t quite what any of them had in mind that time, either.

“Again, it wasn’t a show,” he writes on an Internet website being constructed to memorialize the productions. “But it helped us realize our lives might count for something very worthwhile that was appreciated by our American servicemen.”

When they returned the next month, they brought the makings of a full-blown show—a band, entertainers, comics, actors, actresses, and Jean London, who was a natural on stage. She went to Vietnam three times to do USO shows.


So began “The Jean London Show” at the San Onofre Outdoor Theater of the Marine Corps. The troupe returned to Camp Pendleton every month until 1973, a string of performances that Lundon said became the longest running, and the only sustaining monthly show in the history of the armed forces.

“That’s how it began and we gave no thought of how many more shows we might be invited to,” he said. “They continued, however, and became a regular monthly set-aside date on all our calendars.”

When it finally came to an end, Lundon said a Marine Corps officer told him they had entertained around three-quarters of a million servicemen and women. Lundon became the show’s director and co-producer.

“It was my task as show director to try and give the audience something that might provide a fantasy to help them through the crap of reality we were living with,” he writes on his website, www.vietnamjeanlondonshow.com “We were all in the same boat together.”

He recalled that in the show’s earliest days nearly everyone he talked to in Hollywood told him it couldn’t be done. The job was too big. But telling him it couldn’t be done ran counter to a lifetime of ignoring such doomsayers, though Lundon knew well that putting together any variety show is something of a logistical miracle when done only once. Putting together a show every month—and one peopled exclusively by volunteers for seven consecutive years—is a quantum leap in the miracle business.


Each Camp Pendleton show comprised 25 to 60 performers. Lundon soon constructed a base of regulars, a loyal and dedicated production staff, and then sought other Hollywood luminaries to give their time. He said it made no difference if the pursuit lasted years. He kept after them.

He found most show business people opposed to the war in Vietnam, but it made no difference in their willingness to participate. When political eyebrows were raised, Lundon pressed on. He said he had little time to argue with those who wanted to make political hay out of the Pendleton shows.

“Because I was out securing talent, I would hear things like ‘You mean you support the war?’” he said. “I hadn’t even considered the question. I remember thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ I would tell people, ‘We support the men who are over there fighting.’ They’d say, ‘How can you do these shows if you don’t support the war?’ And I’d say, ‘We support the men. Doesn’t that make sense to you?’ If they said it didn’t make sense to them, I said, ‘Oh, the hell with you. We’re entertainers.’”

This year, while going through a lifetime of show business memories, Lundon realized he was “sitting on a treasure trove of photo history.” With a website designer, he has begun putting together a photo-rich history of the seven years he and a group of show business performers brought a moment of respite to Marines headed for Vietnam.

“As nearly 40 years have passed, I still remember the smiles, cheers, laughter, and applause of the audiences,” he writes. “We still remember the pain of war and shall never forget the sacrifices of our American military personnel.”

   

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