by Warren M. Sherk
In the America of 1964, the nation was still reeling from the loss of a president, Congress passed a historic civil rights omnibus bill, and the Vietnam War was stoking the fires of discontent. During this tumult, Dimitri Tiomkin—who had become a U.S. citizen in the late 1930s—made a public appeal in support of the American flag by writing to the Los Angeles Times. Titled “Show the Flag!,” Tiomkin’s letter to the editor hails the Stars and Stripes as “a brave flutter of hope in a sadly confused and chaotic world.”
The year was shaping up as a productive one for Tiomkin, thanks largely to a trio of films he scored for producer Samuel Bronston—two of which were The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World. Los Angeles Times film critic Philip K. Scheuer called Tiomkin one of the most prolific Hollywood music men of the moment (the other being Henry Mancini). In February, Tiomkin jetted to Paris to finish conducting his score for Fall of the Roman Empire. (Film Daily had previously reported that the score would be recorded in London.) Not long after, he received two Academy Award nominations for 55 Days at Peking, one for best score and one for best original song (“So Little Time”). Roman Empire premiered in March, and Scheuer in his review touted its “triumphant score.” Tiomkin then departed again for Europe, to compose and conduct the score for Circus World. On June 21, about two weeks after his return to the U.S., his letter to the Times was published; “The [American] Flag to me is a symbol of great significance,” he wrote.
What happened next may have been a direct a result of the letter, or the letter may have been premeditated publicity; whatever the case may be, Tiomkin was tapped as conductor for the Pageant of Flags, a celebration of patriotism that took place Friday, July 31, at Wrigley Field, near downtown Los Angeles. The flag story was intended to reawaken and reaffirm a sense of patriotism. Tiomkin described the pageant as a colorful military extravaganza showcasing bands, drill teams, fife and drum corps, and the 120-man ceremonial unit of the Third Infantry Regiment from Washington, D.C. Various National flags and all 50 state flags were represented as the Third Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” provided a history.
A dapper Tiomkin (pictured, at right) and a flag bearer in Colonial uniform accompanied television actress Karen Sharpe across the stadium’s infield. According to early reports, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty was to be the grand marshal and actor Jackie Cooper the master of ceremonies. Local Boy Scouts were enlisted to hand out some 10,000 American flags. Raising his baton, Tiomkin led the Sixth U.S. Army band in performances of the national anthem and “God Bless America.” The band, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco and serving eight Western states including Arizona and Washington, had previously participated in the Pageant of Flags’ West Coast premiere in Oakland, Calif., and would later perform in San Diego, Portland, and Seattle.
In September, the Times published a follow-up letter from Tiomkin titled “Patriotism,” in which he questioned why “only a handful of people showed up” to the free event. The letter drew three responses. One writer felt the Pageant of Flags was underpublicized, and another feared patriotic gatherings sponsored by pseudopatriotic groups (which was not the case here, as the pageant was cosponsored by the Sixth Army and the L.A.-based Army Association). Last to weigh in was one of the program’s organizers, Lt. Col. Hubert J. Van Kan, of the Army’s Office of the Chief of Information in Hollywood. Van Kan claimed the event was publicized on city buses and on television and radio, and concluded that the public simply is not interested. More than 30,000 free tickets were distributed to local civic organizations, businesses, and clubs; yet, in a stadium that held more than 20,000 seats, only about 5,000 were filled.
For his time and effort, Tiomkin received thank-you letters from Army officials. The officer in charge wrote that the Army band regarded it a privilege to have appeared with Tiomkin. The commander of the Sixth Army, Lt. Gen. Frederic J. Brown, praised his conducting. Shortly after, Van Kan requested a musical work from Tiomkin. The composer gracefully responded by writing a marching song, “Honor for the Colors.” Tiomkin had previously written a marching song for the Army’s 23rd Engineers unit. As an honorary member, he attended the group’s annual reunions in 1963 and possibly 1964. (Neither work has been located as of this posting.)
Read the entire Lt. Gen. Frederic J. Brown letter to Tiomkin here
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the Cinematic Arts Library, University of Southern California
- The Los Angeles Times, accessed through ProQuest
- “Movies and the Sound of Great Music,” by Philip K. Scheuer, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1964
- “Save the Flag!” by Dimitri Tiomkin, Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1964
- “Troops to Present Pageant of Flags,” Oakland Tribune, July 20, 1964, accessed through Access Newspaper Archives, Los Angeles Public Library
- “Flag Pageant Scheduled in L.A. Friday,” Long Beach Independent, July 30, 1964, accessed through Access Newspaper Archives, Los Angeles Public Library
- “Tiomkin Strikes Up Tune for U.S. Troops Overseas,” Variety, September 15, 1964
- “Patriotism” by Dimitri Tiomkin, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1964
- “Disinterested” by Lt. Col. Hubert J. Van Kan, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1964
- Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, California