If any decade put the “united” in United States, it was the 1940s. Food rations, victory gardens, travel restrictions, every wartime hardship was faced head-on with patriotism and resolute good cheer. Folks on the home front did their part while the boys did theirs, thousands of miles away. For the first time, history was being shared as it happened, and history had a soundtrack. Radio came of age and pulled the country together like never before.
In “1940s USO Show,” Jennifer Schmidt and the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre take a sentimental journey back to the golden age of radio to pay tribute to that greatest of generations and to those following in its footsteps. We’re all invited along for the ride. The music is rich and mellow, the comedy is corny and the commercials are kitschy. In other words, it’s perfect.
Schmidt created “1940s USO Show” after 9/11. “I really wanted to support the men and women serving in the military and I felt that I could do that by setting the show in the ’40s during World War II, which was a time of great patriotism and people coming together.”
Funny, that’s what people say about the show. That must be why performances sell out.
Because radio broadcasts played an integral part in the great coming together, the show, appropriately, comes to you “live from the studios of WJRT in Jonesborough.” This production is JRT’s ninth staging of Schmidt’s creation. Most have been mounted around the 4th of July and Jonesborough Days. But, in keeping with the tradition of Mr. USO, Bob “Christmas with the troops” Hope, JRT has twice staged the show in December.
If you’re lucky enough to get tickets, you’ll spend an hour and a half in the thrilling days of yesteryear in the studio audience for the “4th of July Extravaganza” ... featuring the musical stylings of the guys and gals of WJRT performing the hits of Hoagy Carmichael (“Stardust”), Benny Goodman (“Sing, Sing, Sing”), the Andrews Sisters (“Shortnin’ Bread”), Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher”) and many more.
The musical lineup changes from year to year, but the story line is the same: a live radio broadcast going out to the men and women in uniform courtesy of the USO. The United Service Organizations was created on the eve of the our entry into WWII and remains true to its slogan — “Until every one comes home” — taking entertainment to U.S. troops around the world.
JRT’s first extravaganza wasn’t all that extravagant, remembers Sharon Squibb, one of three cast members who’ve been in every JRT “USO Show” production. With each staging, the show has evolved with the addition of cast members, musicians, props, set decoration, costumes and choreography.
“The music has become much richer and fuller,” Squibb said. “We have more of the Big Band-sound now and the costumes have gotten more elaborate.”
Barb Knicely’s once-lone piano is now joined by woodwinds, a trumpet, a trombone, drums and bass. In the beginning, dancers were brought just to dance. Now, thanks to the choreography of Kristin Smith, dance numbers are fully integrated into the show’s story line by singing and dancing cast members.
In costume, creator-director Schmidt looks like she stepped out of a 1944 issue of Life. And the show looks like Schmidt has colorized a few pages from the iconic magazine to throw a big wet kiss for her favorite era. “I’ve always related to the music and the styles,” she said. “I should have been born back then.”
To compensate for that anachronistic accident of birth, she’s rounded up a cavalcade of singers, dancers and musicians to re-create the magic of the home front in the days when folks did what needed to be done just because it needed doing. The cavalcade comes together for each production, doing whatever needs doing to make sure the show goes on.
The sartorial stylings of the ’40s fit hand in glove with period music in capturing the essence of the era. Schmidt and the JRT go to great lengths to re-create the fashions, down to the seamed stockings and white gloves no lady wanted to be without.
This season’s “Military Medley,” the traditional lump-in-the-throat number near the end of the show, is at its most authentic so far. Working from a vintage pattern Schmidt found online, costume designer Missie Way and seamstress Marcia Bechtel have re-created WAC — Women’s Army Corps — uniforms down to the buttons (another of Schmidt’s online scores).
The once-nearly bare set has become a rich character in the show. New this year are the yellow-and-maroon checkerboard floor, wainscotting and maroon velvet curtain. “It’s like we’re walking into the radio station,” Squibb said. The the cast and crew made that happen. “Everybody pitches in,” she said. “It feels like family.”
Schmidt and company are always on the lookout for ways to make the production look and sound true to the times. Old Glory with 48 stars? Check. Coconut shells for hoofbeats in “The Lone Ranger” sketch? Check. Poster of movie star selling War Bonds. Check (Clark Gable). Contemporary pop culture reference? Check (“Casablanca” poster).
The show within the show is brought to you by Lifebuoy Health Bar, “the only soap especially made to stop B.O.” and Sal Hepatica, “the only laxative to combat acidity to relieve constipation.” Apparently, back then that kind of trouble could knock a gal right out of a baking contest. Who knew?
In a nod to modern sensibilities, a mainstay of ’40s life and radio is missing. You won’t hear commercials touting the health benefits of one cigarette brand over all the others. By the way, the show isn’t really brought to you by Sal Hepatica, Lifebuoy, Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do you”) and good-to-the-last-drop Maxwell House coffee. It’s sponsored by the Johnson City Power Board.
The “1940s USO Show” opened last week and continues through next weekend, with performances today at 2 and 5 p.m.; Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 7 p.m. and next Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m.
If you’re in the mood, buy tickets online (www.jonesboroughtn.org) or by phone at 753-1010. But you must remember this, performances sell out fast.
JRT is at 125½ West Main St., across from Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, next door to the Historic Eureka Inn.