As U.S. soldier, sailors, aviators and Marines went overseas to fight in World War II, they sent back letters to friends and family. The History Theatre in St. Paul uses real letters to tell the stories of Minnesotans during the war in “Christmas of Swing.”
Center stage are actors portraying LaVerne, Maxene and Patty Andrews — better known as the Andrews Sisters — who rose to fame with their infectious harmonies right just before the U.S. entered the conflict.
The sisters were born in Minneapolis and attended North High School. They travelled the world, entertaining U.S. soldiers as part of the United Service Organizations (USO) with other stars including Bing Crosby and Abbot and Costello.
The sisters were also known for selecting three soldiers at different stops along the way and taking them out for dinner.
On the home front, they encouraged people to buy war bonds.
The History Theatre’s production is set on Christmas Eve 1944 as the sisters prepare to entertain the troops at a USO show, singing Christmas songs and relating the experiences of soldiers.
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Director Ron Peluso said he was inspired to tell the Andrews Sisters story by his own father's experience in the war.
“He was at a lumberyard somewhere in southern France waiting to go home and he said ‘I started crying and a buddy came over and said to me, hey, USO is coming tomorrow. Cheer up, we’ll go to that, and the Andrews Sisters happened to be there.’ And he said, ‘those girls saved my life’” Peluso recalled.
One scene in the show features a letter from Minnesota native Dr. Harold Brown. Now 97 years old, he served as a fighter pilot and was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
While Brown attended North High School just as the Andrews Sisters did, he admits “I’m not a big fan of the music and so forth, but I enjoyed [the show].”
Brown attended a rehearsal at the History Theatre and saw actor Kevin Brown Jr. (no relation), who play his younger self on stage, and sing through a letter he sent home to his parents during the war.
“It was interesting to see it being portrayed, and obviously I watched him very closely and I like what he did,” said Brown.
And he liked the show, too.
“I guess it brought back some reasonably fond memories,” he said. “Some of the memories I would rather have forgotten about. But that won’t happen.”
Brown’s letter in the show relates how when he headed South to Tuskegee for training he asked a ticket agent in a Southern Railway Station about which track his train might arrive. The man said the agent around the corner could tell him. When Brown got there, he found the same agent at that window, who then asked him how he could help as if he had never seen Brown before. It was only then Brown saw the word “Coloreds” painted above the window.
“Christmas of Swing” has hosted five World War II veterans in the audience. They acknowledge all veterans before each performance, but World War II veterans get a special recognitions, which director Peluso said has been very moving.
“Christmas of Swing” runs through Dec. 19 at the History Theatre. It's also possible to stream performances. There is free admission to any World War II veteran who wishes to attend, something Peluso feels is important.
“We’re hoping for all veterans, this show has some meaning,” said Peluso.