Robert Rosenthal, a self-described “typical Jewish boy from Manhattan and Scarsdale,” a onetime bull rider, filmmaker and country music addict, has morphed into the godfather of entertainment at military bases across the United States. The city boy’s unlikely transformation began when he was a kid. One summer he worked on a dude ranch in Arizona. Though he did all the dirty work, he never got over the experience; after that summer he entered rodeos, studied ranch management and never went out without his Stetson hat.
In the 1960s, after serving in the army, Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles and became a successful entertainment lawyer. The 68-year-old retired a few years ago.
Always an ardent patriot, after Sept. 11 Rosenthal felt strongly that he had to do something constructive.
When he learned that although USO provides shows for troops overseas, there was no similar entertainment at stateside bases, he suggested to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that something be done to close that gap.
Rumsfeld thought it was a neat idea, but let it be known that the mechanics and expenses would have to be borne by public-spirited citizens — say, perhaps, Rosenthal.
Drawing on his professional background, show biz contacts and family foundation, Rosenthal and his wife Nina set up the Spirit of America Tour project.
As a first step, Rosenthal went to Nashville, the country music capital. There he asked managers and agents for some of the town’s biggest acts to list dates when their performers were not tied up with commercial gigs.
Then, slashing Pentagon red tape as he went along, Rosenthal coordinated the dates with commanders of army, navy and air force bases and staging areas across the country.
Working without a staff, the Rosenthals have created a show circuit that a professional impresario might well envy. They started with five concerts and shows in 2002, escalating to 18 in 2003, and were up to 21 last year.
Their most frequent and popular performers have been country music stars Clint Black, Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt. Other favorites have been David Clayton-Thomas and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and comedian Dennis Miller.
The entertainers work without fees, though Rosenthal covers their expenses. The audiences, including families of soldiers and sailors, never pay a penny.
Rosenthal attends all shows west of the Mississippi, and his Nashville liaison, Cathy Gurley, goes to all the shows in the eastern part of the country.
By now, Rosenthal has become known as a “one-step shopping center” for artists who want to entertain the troops. “Their agents know exactly whom to call,” he said.
Rosenthal, who also put in a stint in the 1960s as a documentary and feature filmmaker he was a producer of the 1971 film “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” — is a man of many interests.
In addition to his current charitable project, other beneficiaries of his volunteer work and money have been Maccabi USA, Professional Bull Riders, and the Los Angeles Junior Ballet. He has also served on the California Boxing Commission.
As for the Spirit of America tour, which has become a full-time endeavor, Rosenthal said, “When you hear 15,000 military cheering an act, that’s the biggest reward. We live in the greatest country in the world, and I feel privileged to do something for it.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.