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.
The sisters' togetherness started to fray in the early 50s, providing juicy grist for gossip columnists. Patty went solo in 1953, and her sisters read about it in the paper. Patty sued Laverne over their deceased parents' estate. Maxene took an overdose of sleeping pills. Patty went ballistic when Laverne and Maxene appeared on the Red Skelton show with the comic masquerading as the youngest sister.
Gilleland, who has six siblings, can appreciate the squabbling.
"A family is both a wonderful and an awful thing," she said, laughing.
The History Theatre script takes on the question of how it is to live, breathe and perform with one another for all those years.
It's amusing when those same dynamics rise between the Baldwin sisters. In an interview, they bantered about Christina singing lead as Patty. As a contralto, she said, she's used to the lower parts.
"But in opera, you sing mezzo," said Jennifer quickly, pointing at Christina as though she's made this point several times with her younger sister.
Only siblings would correct each other like that with a reporter present.
The Andrews Sisters reunited in 1956 but never returned to their zenith. Laverne died at 56 in 1967. In 1974, Maxene and Patty did a Broadway show called "Over Here," which capitalized on their war-heroine images. Critically praised and commercially successful, the show closed before going on tour because the sisters demanded more money. Each continued singing intermittently thereafter.
Maxene was 79 when she died in 1995. Patty, 84, lives in California.
A joy to rehearse
Peluso talked by phone about the show with Wally Weschler, Patty's husband and manager who was the group's piano player and arranger in the late 40s. Weschler showed little interest and seemed overly protective of his wife.
"It's too bad," Peluso said, "because I think she'd enjoy this piece. There's a joyousness about what they did in their music."
That became readily evident when the Baldwin sisters and Long dug into "Dinah" during a recent rehearsal. Their voices swayed in a tight harmony, each vocal nuance like filigree on an elegant package.
"It's really a thick sound," Baldwin-Fletcher said. So thick, in fact, that Peden, who sings Maxene's tight harmonies with her sister, has on occasion stopped during rehearsals to ask music director Raymond Berg if she's slipped into the melody.
And Long, after nine months as soprano Eliza Doolittle in Chanhassen's "My Fair Lady," is stretching herself to handle Laverne's lower range.
"As Norah, I want to be Patty," Long admitted.
Who wouldn't? Instead of the winsome lead vocalist, she is the quieter sister who passed glory onto the others.
"I wondered if Laverne wanted to be who she was?" she said.
Gilleland suggested that Laverne might not have been the party type, comparing her to an older sibling of her own whom she described as the family glue.
As actors, each woman brings individual style to the stage, but they agree that the Andrews Sisters had such a distinct sound that their portrayal requires a lot of mimicry.
"That's what people have in their ears," Long said.
"Their style had so many subtleties that you never notice," she said. "It seems so simple, but picking it apart is hard."
"The bottom line," Paden said, "is that it's so much fun to sing. You can't get it out of your head. It's the closest I'll come to feeling like a rock star."
It's a rush, Peden explained, to know you're a vessel bearing the popular music that defined and captivated a generation.
No big deal at home
For all their success in a career that in one form or another spanned more than 40 years, the Andrews Sisters were frustrated by small crowds in their hometown. Minneapolis Star columnist Cedric Adams puzzled over this in 1951:
"I remember a few years back when they came to the Orpheum theater,"he wrote. "Every stop was pulled out. ... Radio stations bent over backwards to plug them; they worked benefit shows 'til they dropped in their tracks. What happened? Nothing. The box office at the theater was strictly on the duddy side. ... The Bible quotation is, `A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.' "
The sisters admitted that this curious ennui hurt their feelings, but it couldn't dim their fondness for their hometown. The newspaper library is full of clips throughout the '40s and '50s, noting a visit by the famous Andrews girls, during which they invariably drove out to Mound to visit with their uncles at the little store near the shore of Lake Minnetonka. Maxene in particular seemed drawn, buying 13 acres on the west edge of Mound in 1951.
Twenty-five years later, Maxene had written her autobiography and planned a publicity tour.
"I wouldn't miss Minneapolis," she told Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan. "Or Mound. I spent some of the happiest summers of my life in Mound, where our two uncles ran the grocery store."