The night is hot and the large crowd ready for a show. Standing elbow to elbow, the audience starts up chants and cheers in anticipation of the performance.
A hometown rock concert? Far from it - by a long stretch of ocean. The stage is the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, on maneuvers in the Indian Ocean. And the attraction is not a star-studded show but Starving Artist, a six-member noncelebrity troupe performing its Christmas Eve music production for more than 4,000 excited sailors.
This scene is typical of the more than 100 United Service Organization (USO) shows sent abroad every year to entertain the American armed forces. For most people the name USO conjures up stars like Bob Hope, and, indeed, 14 celebrity shows have been scheduled to tour for the USO this year. They'll include stars Lou Rawls, Loretta Lynn, and Mickey Gilley, among others.
But it's the lesser-known phase of the USO - the noncelebrity shows - which actually make up the largest contingent of performers sent overseas every year. The USO was originally interested only in celebrity entertainment for overseas tours, sending its first ones out in 1941. In the '60s and '70s, however, noncelebrity units were added in an effort to reach more troops and more locations. More than 100 such groups will tour this year - no longer actually produced by the USO but by the Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Office (AFPEO), but still loosely labeled USO shows.
Although performers on these tours are usually in their early 20s, most are established professionals. The groups go out for as many as seven weeks or as few as two. The young people come from around the country and, like the celebrities, are volunteers.
In an interview, Lt. Col. Richard Malone, chief of AFPEO, said: ''These groups volunteer their time and talents for the experience. They get transportation taken care of, and a daily living allowance to cover other costs. It is beneficial to everyone concerned. The troops get good entertainment, the entertainers get valuable experience, and everyone is serving their country in the process.''
Some of the noncelebrity groups are rock bands, others country or jazz, and many are show groups - incorporating dancing, singing, comedy, and a variety of musical idioms.
The groups usually have four to six members and are self-contained, self-sufficient units. They often go to remote locations, traveling in whatever is going in their direction. The stages are often small, so the amount and size of equipment has to be limited.
Wholesome, ''taste-of-home'' entertainment characterizes most shows - which at their best include humor and audience involvement. The average miltary viewer is 24 years old and would not hesitate to walk out on a boring show.
Yet you can't find a more enthusiastic audience than servicemen. The six members of the Starving Artist group, which toured for 21/2 months, not only had enthusiastic audiences, but were barraged by letters from enlisted men and officers thanking them for brightening their winter. The performers' luggage bulged with plaques, pictures, hats, and other memorabilia from the grateful men. Says one member of the now-defunct Starving Artist, ''The men and women react enthusiastically to performers who are willing to travel to remote areas or to be hoisted down onto ships from helicopters.''
Celebrities and noncelebrities perform in both large, packed theaters and tiny clubs with as few as 25 viewers. Often, it's the men in the most remote locations that respond most heartily. According to Colonel Malone, one comedian still talks about the 80 men in South Korea that sounded more like 8,000.
Performing is not the entertainers' only role. Before and after shows they meet and talk with the men. Aware that meeting someone from ''home'' can can give morale a big boost, some celebrities tour for handshake visits only.
Any group can audition for the AFPEO, but many come from such sources as Kings Productions and the American Theater Association.
''They always send quality shows to us,'' Malone said. ''This year we sent out three college shows. Some of the troops haven't seen a 'legit' play in their lives, so it's good exposure for both parties.''