Quick, can you name the brand that counts more celebrity endorsers than any other in existence? A brand that's understood the power of having famous names and faces behind it for longer than many brands have even existed?
And consider this: The brand not only has Hollywood's A-list lining up behind it, it doesn't pay a cent for the support.
It’s the United Service Organizations—or USO for short—and, in fairness, it isn’t a brand you can buy in stores or online. But if you happen to be a man or woman serving in the U.S. armed forces, the USO is probably the most important brand in your life.
The government-chartered, privately operated USO provides a plethora of support services for uniformed personnel—everything from couples counseling to free phone calls home. But it’s best known for bringing famous entertainers to far-flung military outposts to perform for the troops.
The USO turns 75 this year and will host an anniversary celebration in New York aboard the retired aircraft carrier USS Intrepid tonight. It’s a fitting opportunity to look back at a few of the hundreds of celebrities who’ve volunteered their time to fly halfway around the world to sing, dance, tell jokes or simply shake hands with men and women in uniform. (See the gallery below.)
It may come as a surprise to many that celebs performing in camouflage, a routine pioneered by Bob Hope during World War II, is a tradition that’s still alive and well. But according to Paul G. Allvin, the USO’s senior vice president of brand advancement, the gesture means as much to the troops today as it did to service personnel in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"When you’re in Kandahar or Djibouti and someone who’s internationally famous comes all around the world to thank you, shake your hand and perform for you, it’s America itself finding you and reminding you that you’ve not been forgotten, you’re not misunderstood and you’re properly appreciated," Allvin said. "That will never diminish or go away. There’s nothing like someone standing in front of you saying, ‘I came across the world to say thank you.'"
He added that the celebrities his organization books aren’t just volunteering their time, they’re making a bigger commitment than ever before. In the old days, when entertainers like Frank Sinatra or B.B. King put on an overseas show, they could at least count on some financial incentive: The troops would buy their records once they returned home. "[But today], you make your living from live performances, and we’re asking you to take a break from that," Allvin said. "Our appeal to them is not a career opportunity."
Maybe not, but it’s an integral if often overlooked part of national defense. It's also proof that the most effective celebrity endorsements, incredibly, don’t involve appearance fees. Here are 10 memorable stars who've stumped for the USO.
Sammy Davis Jr.
A World War II Army veteran himself, Rat Pack crooner Sammy Davis Jr. drew 15,000 troops to his first USO show in Vietnam in 1972, and stayed to complete a string of performances he later called "one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of my career."
Superstar actress and singer Scarlett Johansson signs a soldier's uniform during a 2008 tour of the Persian Gulf. "It's one thing to reply to a letter to service members," she said, "but it's another thing to visit them."
Legendary NBC weatherman Al Roker swung through Afghanistan in 2014 to participate in a comedy show at the Bagram Airfield. He didn't have the forecast, but nobody seemed to care.
Famed for his antics and his checkerboard guitar, axeman Rick Nielsen of the rock band Cheap Trick plugged into his amp for a set with some jets—and highly appreciative airmen—in this undated photo.
Actor Channing Tatum joined the USO's 2015 tour to Afghanistan—his first—and spent quality time with 1,500 troops. All he was scheduled to do was shake hands, but as this photos shows he was willing to do much more than that.
In 1988, Robin Williams played comedian Adrian Cronauer in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. Nineteen years later, in 2007, he did his own material in Kuwait, where he played this packed house at Camp Arifjan.
Marilyn Monroe left her new husband Joe DiMaggio in Japan to visit American troops in South Korea in February 1954. The famous actress wound up staying for 10 shows—and no fewer than 100,000 servicemen came to see them.
Country star Toby Keith is someting of a USO legend for his willingness to travel nearly anywhere to entertain troops. He's played in 17 countries including Kosovo, Afghanistan Kyrgyzstan and Iraq, and on board a number of Navy vessels, too. Between 2002 and 2014, the USO estimates that Keith has played for a quarter million men and women in uniform.
The USO's programs also include live shows for military families, which started in 2008 and have included the cast of Sesame Street.
Utah Jazz and L.A. Lakers legendary power forward Karl Malone went to Afghanistan along with Jon Stewart in 2011 as part of the USO's Summer Troop Visit. Malone had retired from the NBA in 2004, but proved he had plenty of strength left in those arms.