Preston Sturges: Camp Dick’s Most Famous Former Cadet? — 1918

by Paula Bosse

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Preston Sturges playing dress-up, Camp Dick, Dallas, 1918

by Paula Bosse

While researching my Veteran’s Day post on Camp Dick cadets, I came across a 1941 Dallas Morning News article about Hollywood screenwriter and director Preston Sturges, whose latest movie The Lady Eve was about to open at the Palace. The article mentioned that Sturges had been stationed at Camp Dick, the WWI aviation boot camp for the U.S. Signal Corps, located in the old racetrack at Fair Park. Preston Sturges — a master of the screwball comedy — is one of my favorite writer-directors (in addition to The Lady Eve, everyone should watch Sullivan’s Travels), so I was interested to find out more about his time in Dallas. I didn’t think I’d find anything but a passing mention of it anywhere, but, surprisingly, it turns out Sturges himself wrote about his Camp Dick days — in a book I actually own and had started but had never finished!

Sturges was sent to Dallas in March, 1918. He was 19 years old. Born in Chicago, he had spent much of his childhood in France, tagging along with his eccentric four-times married bohemian mother who seems to have known every intellectual and artiste of the day (not only was she a close friend of dancer Isadora Duncan and Marcel Duchamp, she had also been romantically involved with Aleister Crowley — you can’t get much more bohemian than that!).

Sturges’ account of his time at Camp Dick (which appeared in Chapter 28 of the posthumously-published Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges) is amusing, describing such things as the heat (“the midday temperature of a Texas summer wasn’t really intended for human beings”), the latrines, and the food. He also remembered the nightmare of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which was particularly deadly in the close quarters of military camps. (You can read the entirety of Sturges’ memories of his days at Camp Dick here.)

The heat was a real problem for the cadets. One of my favorite images conjured by Sturges’ chapter on the camp is this one:

Out on the parade ground, boys fell over from [the intense heat] all the time and had to be revived with cold water and a sponge. Nights we would climb up the shaky apex of the large roller coaster in the corner of the fairgrounds to try to find a breeze.

One of his memories stumped me a bit, though. He wrote the following about the buildings that stood around Fair Park:

In Dallas, we were sent to a place called Camp Dick, then known as a concentration camp. In a later war, such a facility was called a boot camp. Camp Dick was actually the Dallas fairgrounds with a fence thrown around them. Most of the buildings on the fairgrounds were huge reproductions of the products for sale within them in the prewar days when the fair was open. There was a building in the shape of a gigantic Mazola bottle; another like a huge Gulden’s mustard pot; an enormous Log Cabin Syrup edifice; a massive chili bowl; buildings representing almost anything edible or potable that one could think of….

My last memory of Camp Dick is of standing retreat against the hot sunset, the cadets at attention against the silhouetted background of the massively enlarged Sanka coffee pot, Bromo Quinine bottle and Coca-Cola bottle buildings, and in front of us Lieutenant Pennypacker, more or less at ease on the back of the fiery steed presented to him by the grateful citizens of Dallas.

I’ve never heard of any Fair Park buildings shaped like these things. (There was that giant cash register at the Texas Centennial….) Perhaps Mr. Sturges misremembered? Or indulged in a little fanciful poetic license? Or maybe these buildings DID exist? (And if they did, I’d love some corroboration, ’cause that would be cool.)

Sturges was at Camp Dick only a few months. From there he was sent to  the School of Military Aeronautics in Austin and then to Park Field in Millington, Tennessee. He was in the middle of flight training there when, anti-climactically, the war ended. After several years of working in a family business, he became a successful Broadway playwright and was soon whisked off to Hollywood, where, in 1940, he won the first Oscar ever awarded for screenwriting (The Great McGinty). He was considered then — and is considered now — to be one of Hollywood’s greatest comedic screenwriters.

If you’d like to read Preston Sturges’ memories of training at Camp Dick, mosey on over here. Among other tidbits, you’ll read the amusing story behind the be-goggled photo of Cadet Sturges at the top of this post.

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The romanticized photo at the top (the one Sturges wrote about in the book) was taken at Camp Dick in 1918. The quoted passage is also from the book, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, His Life In His Own Words, adapted and edited by Sandy Sturges (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1991). I highly recommend getting this book if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood. You can browse through it on Google Books, here, and purchase it here.

More on Sturges at Wikipedia, here.

The photo below appeared in The Dallas Morning News on March 27, 1941. The caption indicates that it was taken at Camp Dick. If this is accurate, the unnamed photographer must have taken “action shots” as well as portraits of the camp’s cadets. (Sturges writes in his amusing story that none of the cadets had ever been near a plane at that point, but they all wanted to be seen as dashing goggle-and-scarf-wearing flying aces.)

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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