The Great American History Theatre reminds us that one of the biggest musical groups of the 20th century, the Andrews Sisters, got its start in our town.
In this 2012 file photo, the "Sisters of Swing" at the Great American History Theater are, from left, Maxene Andrews, played by Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Patty, played by Christina Baldwin Fletcher, and LaVerne, played by Norah Long.
Editor's note: This story was originally published April 12, 2002.
Among my most primitive memories, I am standing in my swimsuit in tiny Sollie's Bros. Grocery buying Bazooka bubble gum from an ancient man whom I know to be Ed Sollie. He and his brother, Pete, were legends in my hometown of Mound both for this little store and because of their three sweet-voiced nieces.
The Andrews Sisters, we were told, had lived in Mound and visited their uncles every summer in this ramshackle mart near Lake Minnetonka during the '40s and '50s. Their celebrity had faded by the time I was buying bubble gum, and when the bachelor Sollies died in 1963 and '64, the store closed. Long forgotten, it seems an apt metaphor of how the Twin Cities have neglected three of the hottest celebrities ever to spring from this icy prairie.
St. Paul venerates F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Schulz. Sinclair Lewis owns Sauk Centre, the hometown he ridiculed. Grand Rapids has glommed onto Judy Garland, even though Frances Gumm had left by age 4. Mary Tyler Moore didn't even live here, and she's getting a statue in downtown Minneapolis!
But search in vain for vestiges of Laverne, Maxene and Patty Andrews - who sold nearly 100 million records, had more top-10 hits than Elvis or the Beatles, appeared in 17 films and became one of America's definitive patriotic symbols during World War II. Outside of old friends, the Andrews Sisters largely are forgotten in their hometown.
Enter Ron Peluso. The Great American History Theatre artistic director showed photos of the sisters to visitors at his troupe's State Fair booth. Could they identify these famous Minnesotans?
After a passel of folks guessed "The Lennon Sisters," Peluso got to thinking the Andrews girls might be worth explaining, so he commissioned actor/playwright Beth Gilleland to string a story through 20 of the sisters' hits and create a musical, which she did with help from writer Bob Beverage. Peluso then secured three of the finest theatrical singers in the Twin Cities - sisters Christina Baldwin-Fletcher and Jennifer Baldwin Peden, and Norah Long - to star.
The result is "Sisters of Swing," which opens tomorrow in St. Paul.
"We think we know so much about the professional lives of these women," Beverage said. "But what do we know about their personal lives?"
Three little girls
They were the three surviving daughters of Peter Andrews and Olga Sollie Andrews. Laverne, the oldest, was a "mother hen" to her sisters, said Long, who'll portray her. Maxene, played by Peden, was snazzy and outgoing. Patty, who was only 7 when the girls ventured into local theaters, sang lead vocal. She was the prettiest.
A Greek immigrant who came to Minneapolis in about 1910, Peter was gruff and ill-tempered; he resisted his daughters getting into show biz. Olga encouraged their musical gift and they sang around the piano, imitating the popular Boswell Sisters. The Andrews moved to Mound in 1920 to be near Olga's Sollie relatives. They returned to Minneapolis four years later when Peter opened a restaurant.
In 1931, the sisters won a talent contest at the Orpheum Theatre, and within two years they were on the vaudeville circuit. Peter drove, Olga sewed costumes and the three girls practiced in the back seat. Middling success had Peter ready to quit the biz, but in 1937 the girls recorded "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," and it became their first million-seller.
For the next 10 years they were huge, with hits such as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Rum and Coca Cola," "All I Want For Christmas" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," which ranked sixth in the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America's Top 100 of the 20th century.
The sisters toured with Glenn Miller, recorded with Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo, even did films with Abbott and Costello. They were one of the first popular singing groups to introduce sassy choreography into their act. Take that, Jackson Five!
Their 17 films included "Private Buckaroo" and "Road to Rio." They etched a place in American iconography with their USO tours during World War II. Peluso said his father, near death, surprised him by telling about his memories of seeing the Andrews Sisters in north Africa.