On April 16, the World War I Memorial site in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C., was unveiled in a livestreamed ceremony of the Inaugural Raising of the Flag. The event covered the history of World War I and included numerous speakers whose family members served in the war. Viewers learned about the “Doughboys,” the “Hello Girls” and other veterans who gave their service to the country. The Binghamton community played a role in this, as a song about the “Hello Girls,” which was written in Johnson City, was performed at the ceremony.
The “Hello Girls” were a group of America’s first women soldiers. “The Hello Girls” were bilingual in French and English and served the American Expeditionary Forces as telephone operators during World War I. The “Hello Girls” connected over 26 million calls, joined the Signal Corps and worked at the frontlines in 1917. In 1918, 223 of the women were sent to work at Army Switchboards across Europe. The Department of War denied the “Hello Girls” veteran status. The “Hello Girls” made an effort for recognition as veterans for nearly 60 years until Congress granted them veteran status in 1977.
A number from Peter Mills and Cara Reichel’s musical “The Hello Girls,” was presented in the livestream. The song, “Making History,” details some of the efforts made by the “Hello Girls” during and after World War I. Naima Kradjian, chief executive officer of Goodwill Theatre Inc., a nonprofit organization restoring the Goodwill Theatre in Johnson City, spoke of the cooperation between the Goodwill Theatre, the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City and the Prospect Theater Company in New York City.
“We had been partnering with the director Cara Reichel since 2007, and she is the director and also the lyricist for ‘The Hello Girls,‘“ Kradjian said. “Around 2015 we started to partner directly with Prospect Theater Company. And then in 2018, she contacted us and [Reichel] wanted to see about bringing ‘The Hello Girls’ up for them to do a staged reading and work out some problems they were having.”
Kradjian said that Reichel and Mills wrote one of “The Hello Girls” songs while traveling to Johnson City and the cast came to Johnson City for a week where they worked on and performed a staged reading of the first act and part of the second act of “The Hello Girls” at the Firehouse Stage. The musical was performed as a part of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ (ASCAP) Musical Theater Week at The Kennedy Center in 2019 and the Prospect Theater Company’s IGNITE Series concert at the Peter Jay Sharpe Theater at Symphony Space in 2020. Kradjian said that these events helped raise money for building a World War I monument.
“The [World War I Centennial Commission] and [The Doughboy Foundation] got in touch with Reichel and Mills,” Kradjian said. “They were looking for ways to get people to think about [World War I]. They did a Kennedy Center tribute, a concert version [and] some performances during Fleet Week for the head of the Navy, and then they were asked to do this which is quite an honor.”
Kradjian said she was glad that “The Hello Girls” musical helped contribute to memorializing World War I veterans at a national level. She also said she was proud that the Johnson City theaters were able to provide a space for “The Hello Girls” musical to be developed.
“It’s pretty amazing to have something created in our space that is then in the nation’s capital, paying honor at such a prestigious event,” Kradjian said. “I’m so proud that it’s part of a national conversation. Something that was performed, that song [‘Making History’] was performed, for the very first time in front of people in our space.”
The effort to have a World War I memorial built in the capital has been in the works for years. In 2016, architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard’s design for the World War I memorial was selected and construction began in 2019.
President Joe Biden spoke at the ceremony and described the spirit of American service members living on today. He mentioned that this memorial will commemorate the courage of all who fought in the war.
“The Great War shifted America’s thinking about ourselves and redefined our place in the world,” Biden said. “We grappled with what we stood for, what we’re willing to fight and die for to defend — the principles of freedom and democracy. We confronted a terrible cost of war and in an age of new and deadly technologies. But the commitment and valor of the American women and men who stepped up to serve — whether here at home or in the frontlines of Europe — was the same spirit that has always defined American service members.”