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Bringing Country's Biggest Stars to the Troops By: Richard Fausset
Los Angeles Times | Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Robert Rosenthal is a board member of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the parent of FrontPage Magazine. We are proud of Mr. Rosenthal's accomplishments and are delighted to reproduce this story of his patriotism. - The Editors.

Tucked in a desert valley in southern Idaho, the Mountain Home Air Force Base is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get.

So when the Charlie Daniels Band rolled into town last July to crank out its roster of country-fried hits, it was the biggest of big deals for the base's 5,000 enlisted personnel and their families.

"The closest thing was in '98, when we gave Bruce Willis a flight — but it was nothing like this," said Sgt. Erien Chasse, a base spokeswoman. "It kind of had a hometown feel to it. People came out to our base park, they brought their lawn chairs, and we got an up-close view of a huge star."

The show was part of the 3-year-old "Spirit of America Tour," which has brought some of country music's biggest stars to domestic military bases in more than 40 free concerts.

The shows were arranged and paid for by a Los Angeles-area impresario named Robert Rosenthal — possibly one of the few people in the country who could have pulled off the project.

Rosenthal, 67, is a blue-state mensch with a red-state heart. A transplanted New Yorker and retired entertainment attorney, he seems to relish playing against type: He is an Army veteran, a passionate rodeo fan, a former country-music radio station owner and a fervent supporter of the military.

It was a background well-suited to launching the concert series, which involved expertly schmoozing Nashville entertainment executives, understanding the needs of major recording artists and navigating reams of Pentagon red tape.

His motive was simple patriotism.

"Look, we live in a free country because we have a standing army," Rosenthal said. "Somebody has to give a damn about them, and I give a damn about them."

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rosenthal, like many Americans, was looking for a way to contribute something to the war effort. His wife, Nina, grew up in England during World War II, and she recalled that local families opened their homes to American GIs stationed there.

Rosenthal decided to take that kind of hospitality on the road. He started with a few military base shows featuring entertainers of the singing cowboy variety. It was a genre he had loved since boyhood, when he spent summers working at an Arizona dude ranch.

The singing cowboys went over OK, but at a show in Alaska, an Air Force officer suggested that he boost attendance by bringing in more contemporary country artists such as Clint Black and Travis Tritt.

So Rosenthal went to Nashville, invited its big movers and shakers to lunch, and gave them wish lists of major country stars. All they had to do was give him holes in their touring schedules.

In return, he promised to find the performers a nearby military base to play and pay the expenses for their bands and crews through his nonprofit foundation. The performers would technically work for free, and they could feel like they were doing something good for their country.

"I've been around the entertainment business all of my life, and I know what it takes to get them to volunteer," Rosenthal said.

The response from Nashville has been overwhelming: The list of performers includes Black, Tritt and Daniels, as well as non-country acts such as Blood, Sweat and Tears and comedian Dennis Miller. Charlie Daniels has played six shows and is planning more this year. Rosenthal said Carrot Top has signed on for a few dates; a spokesman said the comedian has a brother in the Air Force.

Charlie Daniels Band tour manager Bebe Evans said she was amazed that Rosenthal ran such an efficient program practically by himself out of a small Burbank office suite. The only other Spirit of America staffer is a Nashville-based liaison, Cathy Gurley.

With songs such as "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag," Daniels' music is well-suited for military consumption. Evans said the concerts have been particularly moving in recent months: In October, the band played at California's Ft. Irwin and ran into some Tennessee-based National Guardsmen they had met doing a gig in Kosovo. The guardsmen were planning to redeploy to Iraq.

In June, the band played Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. Many of its airmen were serving in Iraq; the crowd was largely made up of their spouses and children.

"That's a heavy thing," Evans said. "The soldiers are gone, but their families are just waiting on base. And well, what are they going to do? Nobody's doing anything for them."

Rosenthal, who retired in 2000, now finds himself with another full-time job, one he plans to do for the next five years or so. He attends every concert west of the Mississippi, and he has seen close up how his concerts boost morale.

"Even if we didn't have a war," he said, "I'd still be hustling around looking for entertainment for them."

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