Andrews Sisters (1932–1953)
Andrews Sisters (1932–1953)
American singing sisters who were among the nation's most popular entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s, especially known for their appearances at morale-boosting USO shows during World War II.
LaVerne (1911–1967). Name variations: Laverne. Born on July 6, 1911, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; died of cancer in Hollywood, California, on May 8, 1967; first daughter of Peter Andrews (of Greek descent) and Olga "Ollie" (Sollie) Andrews (a Norwegian); married Louis Rogers, in 1948.
Maxene (1916–1995). Name variations: sometimes mistakenly spelled Maxine. Born on January 3, 1916, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; died of a heart attack while vacationing in Hyannis, Massachusetts, on October 21, 1995; second daughter of Peter Andrews (of Greek descent) and a Norwegian mother Olga "Ollie" (Sollie) Andrews (a Norwegian); married Lou Levy (their manager), on July 28, 1941 (divorced 1950); children: Peter and Aleda Anne.
Patti (1918—). Born on February 16, 1918, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; third daughter of Peter Andrews (of Greek descent) and a Norwegian mother Olga "Ollie" (Sollie) Andrews (a Norwegian); married Martin Melcher (an agent and future husband of Doris Day ), in October 1947 (divorced 1950); married Walter Wescheler (the group's accompanist), on December 25, 1951.
First appeared professionally as the Andrews Sisters (1932); toured with vaudeville shows (1930s); released their first hit record (1937); appeared on national radio shows and in feature films (1940–53); with the country's entry into World War II and the subsequent formation of the United Services Organization (USO), began touring military facilities in the United States and abroad as part of the effort to entertain the troops and keep morale high (1941); dissolved their act (1953).
"Bei Mir Bist du Schön," "The Hut Sut Song," "Three Little Fishies," "Hold Tight-Hold Tight," "Beer Barrel Polka," "Well, All Right," "Oh Johnny," "Ferryboat Serenade," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "In Apple Blossom Time," "Aurora," "Elmer's Tune," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Pennsylvania Polka," "Sonny Boy," "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," "Oh! Ma-ma!," "Rum and Coca Cola."
Argentine Nights (1940); Buck Privates (1941); In the Navy (1941); Hold That Ghost (1941); What's Cookin'? (1942); Private Buckaroo (1942); Give Out Sisters (1942); Always a Bridesmaid (1943); How's About It? (1943); Swingtime Johnny (1943); Follow the Boys (1944); Moonlight and Cactus (1944); Hollywood Canteen (1944); (dubbed vocals only) Make Mine Music (1946); Road to Rio (1947); (dubbed vocals only) Melody Time (1948); (cameo for Patti) The Phynx (1970).
One cold winter's day in 1941, when the dust-coated old Studebaker drew up outside Cincinnati's largest theater, its occupants knew something was wrong. The street was deserted. By this time of day, there were generally long lines at the box office window to see them perform. But once inside the theater, the reason for the lack of business could be heard on the radio around which the stagehands were clustered. It was December 7, 1941, and the nation was just learning about the disaster at Pearl Harbor. The fact that the Andrews Sisters were appearing in town that night suddenly seemed unimportant. For LaVerne, Patti, and Maxene Andrews—and for their parents who trooped them from city to city, cooked their meals, and washed their clothes—America's entry into World War II would be a turning point in their careers, just as it would be the defining moment for the next 50 years of the nation's history.
It wasn't that the sisters weren't already famous from coast to coast. "The Andrews Sisters are said to be the most popular singing trio that ever came down the pike," The New York Times observed in 1940, and the first audiences that heard them sing in their native Minneapolis back in 1932 would have predicted such success. Born between 1911 and 1918 to Greek-Norwegian parents who ran the successful Pure Food Cafe on Hennepin Avenue, the three girls were ardent fans of the Boswell Sisters , a popular 1920s group, and pooled their allowance to buy nearly every song their idols performed. It was mother Olga who came from a musical background and instilled the love of song and dance; it was LaVerne who learned to read music and took up the piano. The Andrews house was filled with the young girls' effort to mimic the Boswells, with blonde Patti singing lead, brunette Maxene taking the soprano line, and red-haired LaVerne as the alto. Much to their credit, the girls' parents recognized their daughters' talent and encouraged them to appear at small social gatherings around Minneapolis. Olga also recognized that there were fewer sisterly squabbles. Among several other awards, the Andrews Sisters took first prize at the city's Orpheum Theater on the same bill with a ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen. Their act became so popular that it attracted the interest of RKO, which had not yet forsaken its dying vaudeville business for its burgeoning movie studios.
By the early '30s, the Andrews Sisters hit the road with an RKO "unit show," featuring band-leader
Larry Rich. The unit shows were the last gasp of the old vaudeville days of the 'teens and 'twenties, and everyone knew it. "We must have closed every RKO theater in the Midwest," recalled Maxene many years later, but no one could deny that the Andrews Sisters were developing a new kind of singing style that would survive vaudeville's demise. By then, the family had sold the restaurant to finance a move to New York to further show-business ambitions.
The girls, like most teenagers in the 1930s, were listening to the "new music"—Swing. An outgrowth of the jazz bands of the 1920s, the Swing bands added strong rhythm and reed sections and expanded to 20 or more players. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, all were forming bands that were giving the "kids" what they wanted to hear and, even more, wanted to dance to: expressive percussion, vigorous horns, and swooping, velvety reeds in tightly woven harmonies. It was just this layered, seamless vocalizing the Andrews Sisters were perfecting that would prove to be the perfect complement to the Big Bands. At the same time, Patti Andrews brought her two sisters' attention to a kind of swing everyone was calling "boogie woogie." It was derived from the old South and was characterized by a jumpy, foot-tapping eight beats to the bar. (The Andrews Sisters would, in fact, record a boogie-woogie hit some years later called "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.") Patti was the youngest of the three, and it came as no surprise that she was the one to discover the new style. "Patti was the fun one of the group," Maxene later wrote, "the clown who kept us laughing during those endless periods of backstage boredom between shows, when we were doing five or six shows a day."
It was, however, a traditional Yiddish song that set the girls on a recording career that would bring them nationwide fame. The song was "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" ("For Me You Are Always Beautiful"), and the girls' swing arrangement of it was released by Decca Records in 1937; it sold over a million copies for which they received $50, no royalties. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" was on the flip side. The following year, they had another hit, again taking an old vaudeville tune from 1916 and dressing it up in swing. "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!" was quickly followed by "The Beer Barrel Polka" (which was recycled after the war broke out as "Here Comes The Navy," with different lyrics). Given a more lucrative contract, the group would stay with Decca for almost 17 years, recording over 400 songs, selling over 80 million records.
By 1940, vaudeville was officially dead, but the Andrews Sisters were perfectly positioned to make the transition to its mass entertainment successor, radio. Radio was now big business, and it wasn't long before the major networks (Mutual, NBC, and CBS) realized the audience potential for Swing. Glenn Miller had agreed to a 15-minute, once-weekly radio show, but the sponsor—Chesterfield cigarettes—wanted to hedge its bet on the "new music" and began searching for an added attraction that would increase the show's chances for success. Patti, Maxene, and LaVerne had already been appearing on "Your Hit Parade" to good notices, and they were soon added to the Miller show. Audience response was so enthusiastic that the show was soon expanded to three nights a week. It was on Glenn Miller's show that the Andrews Sisters introduced what would become their signature tune, "In Apple Blossom Time." They were also the first group to literally move on stage; other groups had always stood still and harmonized.
The world changed for everyone with the outbreak of war in 1941. Only six people attended the afternoon show at that Cincinnati theater on December 7th in 1941. Only a few dozen showed up for the evening show, in a theater that could hold 2,000. But it would not be long before Patti, Maxene, and LaVerne would be performing before some of the largest and most enthusiastic audiences they had ever encountered.
The USO (United Services Organization) was born in April of that year. Spearheaded by Broadway impresario Billy Rose, the USO was a collaboration between show business professionals and the military, with the goal of bringing morale-boosting entertainment to the troops. Funded entirely by public donation at first, the USO brought "draftee shows" to military bases around the country where America's young men and women were in training before heading overseas to fight. The shows were mounted on the backs of flatbed trucks, packed up and driven from base to base, and featured some of the top talent of the day: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable , Abbott & Costello, Dorothy Lamour , and Clark Gable, along with the music of Dorsey, Miller, Goodman and, of course, the Andrews Sisters.
Thanks to their vaudeville background, the girls could troop with the best of them and over the next four years would be on the road almost continuously. For the armed forces' men and women, the Andrews Sisters represented home and family, the security and comforts of a youth they had so quickly lost. When the three sisters, still in their 20s themselves, began singing "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time," a hush fell over an audience about to leave sweethearts behind for distant battles in Europe or the Pacific; and when they launched into "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," the crowd would be on their feet, clapping and dancing and ready to take on anything the war could throw at them. Many years later, Maxene would remember singing the lyrics to another of their hit tunes, "Don't sit under the apple tree/ With anyone else but me/ 'Til I come marching home," on the docks of Seattle to young men about to leave for the Pacific. "We stood down there on the pier," Maxene recalled, "looking up at all those young men leaning over the ships' rails, waving and yelling and screaming…. One thought nagged at you: how many of the young men shipping out wouldn't come back?"
From 1941 to 1945, the Andrews Sisters sang in USO shows, at war bond rallies, and in the "canteens" set up in major cities by the USO, where the entertainers also waited tables. In 1944, they went overseas, performing in Italy and North Africa, sometimes only a few miles from the front lines. By war's end, the USO had staged some 293,000 performances and played to a combined audience of some 16 million servicemen and women. It was the biggest production in show business history, and the entertainers earned their title of "soldiers in greasepaint."
In addition to their USO duties, the three women played to civilian audiences (setting attendance records during a national tour in 1942), had their own half-hour radio show, "The Eight-to-the-Bar Ranch," on Sunday nights, appeared in more than a dozen films, and continued to record for Decca, selling 30 million records by 1944. Time called them "the queens of the jukebox," and The New York Times' Jack Gould observed that "the Andrews Sisters are in a class by themselves."
With the war over in 1945, the sisters began thinking about a future that lacked the USO. They formed a corporation to handle their finances and permanently relocated to Los Angeles, settling their parents in a home in Brentwood.
Maxene had married their manager, Lou Levy, in 1941 (although she kept it a secret from everyone but Patti for some time); LaVerne married musician Lou Rogers in 1948. Compared to the hectic pace of the war years, the girls' lives seemed to be settling down by the late 1940s. There were still tours and recording dates, to be sure, and newspaper reporter Mary Morris , who came to one of these studio sessions to interview them, found that the Andrews Sisters remained every bit as energetic when it came to their music. "They made faces," she wrote, "beat their feet while their bodies jumped and swayed. Even the arranger's derriere wriggled wildly in the piano seat. The whole room jumped."
"They were as different as three sisters could possibly be," wrote Bernie Woods. "Patti, very outgoing, devil-may-care. LaVerne, quiet and unassuming. Maxene was the main gear and handled most of the trio's business dealings with Levy…. And she drove a car like a racer." "Music is the one thing we had in common," said Maxene, who was always the group rebel. "We never agreed on hair styles or clothes, but we were always together" on material and arrangements.
By the early 1950s, though, the strains were beginning to show. "Everything seemed to catch up with us at once," said Maxene. Their mother had died in 1948; their father soon after. They had split with their arranger Vic Schoen. Patti separated from her agent-husband Marty Melcher (who would marry Doris Day the following year); Maxene divorced her husband. Patti, who had a solo hit in 1949 with "I Can Dream Can't I," began complaining that her older sisters still treated her like a baby, and disputes broke out over the corporation and the salaries it paid to each of the girls. In 1951, Maxene underwent major surgery, and LaVerne and Patti finished their commitments as a duet. In 1953, the corporation was dissolved, along with the act itself. The Andrews Sisters were officially retired, and Patti went solo in 1954, signing with Capitol records. When Patti sued her sisters, demanding proper settlement of their mother's estate, Maxene made the headlines on December 21, 1954, with a suspected suicide attempt because of the conflict. Maxene denied it, and LaVerne maintained that Maxene "loves life too much to want to end it." LaVerne also told reporters that more than 2,000 letters had poured in begging them to reconsider the breakup, and in 1956 the Andrews Sisters did, indeed, revive the act for a few appearances. But the times were different. The Korean War was being fought, but it inspired nothing like the national pride and enthusiasm of the Second World War. The enemy was no longer a man called Hitler, but an ideology called Communism. People were listening to radio less and watching television more, and the great Swing bands were giving way to bebop and a quirky new sound called rock-and-roll.
Americans could beat anything and anybody, and if you didn't believe it, the Andrews Sisters would make a believer out of you.
Even so, no one completely forgot the Andrews Sisters. There were occasional solo television and film appearances for each of the sisters and, after LaVerne died of cancer in 1967, interviews and articles about the sisters and what they had meant to a generation of Americans. Maxene was then teaching in the drama and speech department at Tahoe Paradise College in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where she became dean of women for two years beginning in 1968. It was reported that Patti and Maxene had become estranged and rarely spoke to one another. Both were closed mouth as to the reasons why.
Sell, Janie (1941—)
American actress. Name variations: Jane Trese. Born in Detroit, Michigan, on October 1, 1941; attended University of Detroit; graduated from Hunter College, 1989; married in 1965 and divorced; married Patrick Trese, around 1990; children: (first marriage) one son.
Janie Sell made her debut in Mixed Doubles in 1966; she was also featured in Dark Horses, Dames at Sea, George M, Irene, Pal Joey, Happy End, I Love My Wife, and Over Here, for which she received a Theater World Award.
In 1973, when Bette Midler re-recorded "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" with enormous success, there was renewed interest in the original act that had performed it. Before long, a Broadway musical opened, called Over Here—a nostalgic recreation of the war years starring Maxene and Patti and a third "sister," actress Janie Sell . Produced by Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox , it opened on Broadway on March 6, 1974. After a near-fatal heart attack in 1982 and quadruple bypass surgery, Maxene recorded a solo album in 1985, moved to Nevada in 1989, appeared briefly in a dance show called "Company B" created by choreographer Paul Taylor in 1991, and published a memoir of the USO years in 1993. Before she died in October 1995, she had also become interested in group therapy, forming a foundation to work with drug addicts and delinquents.
Following a solo appearance in Florida in 1991, Maxene had encountered a WWII veteran waiting for her outside her dressing room. He shook her hand warmly, and then told her, "I don't know if you think this is a compliment or not, but to me and my buddies, the Andrews Sisters are synonymous with World War II." Maxene thought it was one of the best compliments she had ever been paid.
Andrews, Maxene, with Bill Gilbert. Over Here, Over There: The Andrews Sisters and the USO Stars in WWII. NY: Kensington Publishers, 1993.
Clarke, Donald. The Rise and Fall of Popular Music. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: The Perennial Library, 1990.
Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? Third Series. NY: Crown, 1971.
Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.
Woods, Bernie. When the Music Stopped. NY: Barricade Books, 1994.
Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York