VFW Magazine — May 2017
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Buddy Poppy Stars
Janie Dyhouse

Hollywood’s biggest names once supported the program

From Doris Day to Natalie Wood, an array of leading ladies from the silver screen stepped forward each year throughout the 1940s and 1950s to promote the distribution of VFW’s Buddy Poppies.

Buddy Poppies are synonymous with VFW. And it’s been that way since 1922 when the nation’s oldest combat veterans organization began distributing the blood red flowers.

Since that time, VFW and Auxiliary members distribute millions of artificial poppies each year. Donations received by Posts during the distribution period go into their relief funds.

During the formative years of VFW’s Buddy Poppy program, an impressive array of celebrities appealed to Americans to donate in exchange for the bright red flower symbolic of World War I.

VFW partnered with the likes of Warner Brothers Studios and Paramount Pictures, which paid handsomely in the form of nationwide publicity and prestige.

The goal in recruiting movie stars was to attract the younger generation, who was thought to be lacking in patriotism at the time. The thought was that high school girls would see these Buddy Poppy Girls – female movie stars – and also want to volunteer their own time distributing poppies.

“The selection of a Buddy Poppy Girl is our tribute of appreciation to the thousands of young women who make the success of our annual Buddy Poppy distribution possible,” VFW Adjutant General Robert B. Handy Jr., said in 1941.

The annual selection of Buddy Poppy Girls began in 1940 and ended in 1961 (no one was selected for 1960).

Years before Hollywood starlets officially partnered with VFW to promote Buddy Poppies, Ginger Rogers did so in 1935. The R. K.O. movie star lent her celebrity status to raise awareness of the crimson flower.

That same year, several national advertisers helped boost poppy sales during radio programming.

In 1936, Kate Smith, one of the country’s most popular singers at the time, starred in a 15-minute Buddy Poppy program on the radio. Smith was most popular for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Here’s a brief look at VFW’s famed Buddy Poppy Girls.

Ellen Drew, 1940 b. 1915 – d. 2003

Best known for starring next to Bing Crosby in “Sing You Sinners,” Drew represented VFW in Hollywood by distributing poppies to film celebrities, such as Ezra Stone and Cecil B. De Mille, on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. In 1940, she was on the silver screen in Jack Benny’s “Buck Benny Rides Again.”

She attended VFW’s National Encampment (the precursor to VFW’s National Convention) in August 1940 in Los Angeles, where she was part of VFW Commander-in-Chief Otis Brown’s reviewing stand during the military parade.

Joan Leslie, 1941 b. 1925 – d. 2015

At 16 years old, Leslie was a film star with Warner Brothers Studios, where she appeared in “High Sierra” with Humphrey Bogart and in “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper.

The National Buddy Poppy Committee reported Leslie’s excitement at being selected because she had a history with the Buddy Poppy. Growing up in Detroit, Leslie was one of the best poppy distributors at her school.

“Even if I do not get the opportunity to sell as many Buddy Poppies as all the other girls who try to do their bit, I will feel that I have had something to do with the success of the 1941 sale,” Leslie said after hearing she was chosen. “I’m certainly going to sell as many poppies as I can. I’m going to get my girlfriends to help, too.”

Jane Wyman, 1942 b. 1917 – 2007

While starring in Warner Brother’s “You’re in the Army Now,” Wyman was named “Top Sergeant” of B Battery, 3rd Coast Artillery at Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles by Capt. Alonzo Hyde.

To encourage VFW Posts to distribute Poppies, autographed copies of a photo of Wyman were awarded to each Post, increasing poppy distribution by 25 percent over the prior year.

Irene Manning, 1943 b. 1912 – d. 2004

Best known as Fay Templeton in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” opposite James Cagney, Manning was photographed with activeduty troops for the May 1943 edition of Foreign Service (forerunner to VFW magazine).

Prior to her Hollywood fame, Manning performed a USO show in England. It was there she was asked to perform with bandleader Glenn Miller shortly before his death in 1944.

Alexis Smith, 1944 b. 1921 – d. 1993

Not too many years prior to her Hollywood fame, Smith distributed poppies through her high school in Los Angeles.

“I never dreamed that I would have the honor of representing the thousands of girls who help sell Buddy Poppies each year,” Smith said when told she had been selected. “I am truly thrilled with the compliment.”

Smith starred in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” with Humphrey Bogart and “Here Comes the Groom” with Bing Crosby, among many others.

Jean Sullivan, 1945 b. 1923 – d. 2003

The daughter of a retired Army colonel, Sullivan was married to Army Lt. Joe Grenzebeck, when he was wounded at Normandy on D-Day.

From the Warner Brothers Studios, Sullivan led the charge of Buddy Poppy distribution across the nation.

Her film credits include “Uncertain Glory” and “Escape in the Desert.”

Eleanor Parker, 1946 b. 1922 – d. 2013

Appearing in the film “Her Kind of Man” in 1946, Parker was the leader in distributing millions of Buddy Poppies. The National Buddy Poppy Committee said that Parker “symbolizes the typical American girl.”

Nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, Parker’s most memorable role was that of the Baroness in “The Sound of Music.”

Margaret O’Brien, 1947 b. 1937

“Though I was only a child, it gave me the opportunity to show my great love for our country and those who defend it,” O’Brien said recently from her home with regard to her time as a Buddy Poppy Girl.

O’Brien’s most notable role was as Tootie in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” opposite Judy Garland.

She later married West Point graduate Roy Thorsen. In the 1970s, she served as a civilian aide to the Army in southern California.

Jeanne Crain, 1948 b. 1925 – 2003

A 20th Century-Fox film star, Crain was chosen by the National Buddy Poppy Committee to typify the “charm and sincerity of thousands of young American women” who volunteered to distribute poppies in 1948.

Crain appeared on the screen with stars such as Cary Grant and Kirk Douglas. But she is well known for costarring with Jane Russell in “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” in 1955.

Her career is documented by a collection of memorabilia that resides at the Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Janis Paige, 1949 b. 1922

Paige had the honor of being named Buddy Poppy Girl during VFW’s Golden Jubilee. VFW Commander-in-Chief Lyall T. Beggs appeared alongside Paige in April for a 30-minute radio show. During the show, Paige provided a narrative of VFW’s service work.

Other celebrities participating in the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration activities were Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Kate Smith, Ken Carson and Ed Sullivan.

Paige left Hollywood for Broadway following her 1951 role in “Two Gals and a Guy.” She appeared numerous times in theater.

Doris Day, 1950 b. 1924

A popular singer on the Bob Hope radio show, Day was regarded as a “top-level entertainer” by troops during WWII.

“I did many USO tours with Bob Hope and Les Brown and was proud to represent our veterans through the Buddy Poppy program,” Day told VFW magazine in January.

One of Day’s biggest commercial successes came with 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” co-starring James Cagney. She followed that up with Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” She sang “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Virginia Mayo, 1951 b. 1920 – d. 2005

Mayo was already known as someone who entertained disabled vets in hospitals when she was named Buddy Poppy Girl. The National Buddy Poppy Committee called her a “charming symbol” representing the thousands of patriotic women distributing poppies.

Mayo got her start on stage, but quickly transcended to Hollywood. She appeared in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which became the highest-grossing film inside the U.S. since “Gone with the Wind.”

Ginger Crowley, 1952*

The daughter of retired Navy command er and VFW member Dennis Stafford, Crowley appeared in “She’s Working Her Way Through College” when she was chosen to lead the way in poppy distribution.

Shortly after being named Buddy Poppy Girl, Crowley was spotted on a Hollywood movie set presenting actor Ronald Reagan with a poppy.

*Editor’s note: Despite our best efforts, Crowley’s birthdate could not be confirmed.

Kathryn Grayson, 1953 b. 1922 – d. 2010

Grayson got her start as a singer. Announcing her as the poppy representative for 1953, the National Buddy Poppy Committee said Grayson had “one of the finest voices ever recorded on either wax or celluloid.” She was a lead performer in “Anchors Aweigh” with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, followed by “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat.”

Joan Weldon, 1954 b. 1930

Weldon was chosen to lead the poppy charge of 1954 because she symbolized the “spirit of patriotic sacrifice.”

“I remember being so proud when I was asked to be a Buddy Poppy girl,” Weldon told VFW magazine in March. “I was especially proud because my uncle Howard was a Marine. He was very proud of me, too, because he belonged to the VFW in Santa Cruz. I remember seeing the Buddy Poppies in San Francisco when I was just a girl.”

Her professional career included stage, radio, film and television.

Dorothy Malone, 1955 b. 1925

Through several film trailers shown in theaters in May 1955, Malone appealed to the public to “Buy a VFW Buddy Poppy and honor the dead by helping the living.”

While Malone won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Written on the Wind,” it was her television success as Constance Mackenzie on “Peyton Place” from 1964 to 1968 that she is most known for.

Lori Nelson, 1956 b. 1933

The great-grandniece of Gen. John J. Pershing, Nelson entertained troops stationed in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1956. Her work with the troops is why she was selected as the Buddy Poppy Girl that year.

“I was so very honored and proud to have been chosen to meet and entertain the men and women of our armed services,” Nelson told VFW magazine in February. “And to have been chosen the VFW Buddy Poppy Girl of 1956. I have a very special place in my heart for those who have and are serving our country.”

Her career spanned many years in film and television.

Natalie Wood, 1957 b. 1938 – d. 1981

A busy film star of the 1950s, Wood took time out of her schedule to pose for publicity photos and appeal to the public through movie and television trailers.

Wood co-starred alongside Maureen O’Hara in the “Miracle on 34th Street,” and she is well known for her starring role in the musical “West Side Story.”

Venetia Stevenson, 1958 b. 1938

With an “abundance of talent and personal charm,” Stevenson was selected to lobby Americans to donate to VFW’s Buddy Poppy program.

A relative Hollywood newcomer at the time, Stevenson appeared in “Darby’s Rangers.” In addition to several films, Stevenson appeared in a number of television shows throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Arlene Howell, 1959 b. 1939

A well-known television actress in her day, Howell didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked to serve as VFW Buddy Poppy Girl in 1959.

“What’s more, it always seems to bring good luck to be a VFW Buddy Poppy Girl,” Howell said at the time.

Her acting career included shows such as “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip.”

Elaine Edwards, 1961 b. 1935

Edwards’s husband, Edward Kemmer, was a VFW member and former WWII prisoner of war. To that end, Edwards considered it an honor to serve as a Buddy Poppy spokesperson.

“I am humbly grateful for the opportunity to assist in any way possible in the VFW Buddy Poppy sale,” Edwards said upon being chosen. “I am familiar with the many comforts the symbolic flower of Flanders Fields provides for our needy.”

Edwards is known for her role in “The Bat” alongside Vincent Price as well as in “The Purple Gang.” -

EMAIL jdyhouse@vfw.org

In Flanders Fields

By Col. John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch, be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.

Buddy Rogers Assists in 1948 Poppy Drive

In 1948 when Jeanne Crain was the VFW Buddy Poppy Girl, another star sae fit to promote the red flower, as well.

Charles “Buddy” Rogers, a WWII veteran and actor of the 1930s and ’40s, made a personal appeal on movie screens in May 1948 to urge Americans to support VFW's Buddy Poppy campaign.

He appeared in a three-minute film promoting the poppy in which he emphasized that if “every citizen will give a little, the VFW will be able to give a lot" for veterans welfare.

Rogers spent two years during WWII with the Navy Ferry Command and about two more years as a test pilot.

Poppy Seeds Promote WWI Memorial

The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission launched its nationwide WWI Poppy Program to enable organizations across the country to support construction of the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C.

The WWI Poppy Program consists of 60 poppy seed packets that will be used in fundraising endeavors. Each seed packet sparks awareness and conversation about the World War I centennial.

More importantly, the seeds help honor the legacy of the 4.7 million American veterans who served during the Great War.

VFW officially endorsed the WWI Poppy Program in February. Visit www.WW1CC.org/poppy for more information.