Sister act: The Andrews Sisters’ Hollywood Canteen: men in dresses, six-part harmonies, and that American sense of blind optimism restored
by Summer Burkes
SAN FRANCISCO, known for a large part of two centuries as a hub of cutting-edge and/or “morally questionable” behavior, has been the uncontested center for gay culture for some time now and is also currently the unofficial epicenter of the ’40s retro/swing renaissance. So, as Ellen reaches homes as far away as Rooster Poot, Ark., and bland beautiful people Lindy hop in Gap khakis during must-see TV commercial breaks, it seems high time that the two scenes somehow merge.
Let the cultural hybridization begin: Artfull Circle Theatre, the troupe responsible for the annual favorite Christmas with the Crawfords, has magnified one of the holiday show’s vignettes into a full-length production. Said retro-ness of The Andrews Sisters’ Hollywood Canteen isn’t in the camp-queen movie references and quotes that have almost come to be expected in cabaret revues, but in the re-creation of a bona fide WWII radio show complete with period costumes, commercials, sailors, and crooning heartthrobs.
While still full of the comic bits, rubber faces, and double entendres that the Castro loves, The Andrews Sisters’ Hollywood Canteen sports more real talent than gay kitsch, with two hours of 30 or so war-era songs sung in three- to six-part harmony. Drag theater, yes. Tired drag theater, no.
The real Andrews Sisters began their phenomenal career in 1937 and, with the onset of the second world war, spent tireless months on the road entertaining GIs with their tight harmonies, effervescent personalities, and unflappable optimism. They recorded more than 1,800 songs, starred in 16 films, and sold more than 90 million records worldwide before finally calling it a day in 1966.
So, for a large portion of the population that’s sort of assumed to no longer have any musical taste whatsoever (Muzak, these kids today, etc.), strains of the Andrews Sisters can revive even the most catatonic or world-weary senior citizen.
Which might explain why, in the middle of the Castro on a Monday night during a revue performed primarily by men in dresses, at least half of the crowd seems to be straight, and the median age hovers around 40 or 50. Never mind the cultural differences — these people just love the music.
The venerable Café du Nord — an actual speakeasy during Prohibition — serves as an excellent venue for a counterfeit USO canteen. Period music drifts through the low-ceilinged room; elderly couples with their slightly less elderly children hobnob with young queer date partners. A rakish, boy-faced man in an immaculate WWII sailor suit sits next to me.
The lights go down, and Laverne, Maxene, and Patty Andrews take the stage, bantering and gushing so much ebullience it almost makes me cringe. They launch into “Sing Sing Sing,” and I turn to survey the audience. Everyone’s grinning. The accompaniment is well-arranged but, unfortunately, orchestrated on an expensive keyboard rather than with the 16-piece big band the music deserves. No one seems to care.
The sisters, decked out in WAC uniforms, tidy wigs, and relatively subtle drag makeup, sing their harmonies effortlessly, but in a considerably lower register. When the song’s finished, they call the sailor beside me onstage to ask him what life is like in the military. He responds by singing “GI Jive.”
A modest USO volunteer (local diva Connie Champagne) is also called up to sing, and the girls are all treated to a surprise visit from fictional heartthrob Frankie Davero. The sailor returns from rummaging around backstage in a full Carmen Miranda outfit to clown through “Cuanto la gusta” – one of the highlights of the night. “I tell ya, there’s nothing funnier than a man in a dress!” one of the sisters quips.
The song barrage continues with solos from all corners and carefully arranged harmonies. After a stunning “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” with six vocalists and a break for intermission, the Sisters come out in hausfrau dresses and aprons to serve doughnuts to us, the GIs. Nice touch. The sailor leaves, and two drunk queens share the chair beside me, alternately snipping at each other, making out, and spilling drinks on the other patrons.
The Sisters start to warbling again, and when they launch into “Don’t Fence Me In,” the slurring cavemen loudly tap-dance in their seats and moan along to the song at the same decibel level as the amplified quartet.
The 70-plus woman in a shawl on the other side of me is oblivious to them and absolutely beside herself, jubilantly clapping her hands and singing quietly. I will the drunks out of my consciousness and side with the happy old woman, my American sense of blind optimism having been given a boost by the mood in the air.
Later, as I trade the ambience of Café du Nord for the noise of Market Street, my brain’s cheerful recollection of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” is marred by the Andrews Sisters’ sample from Soul Coughing’s song about murder and disembowellment. 5 minutes out of the USO, and I’m already back at war.
Next week: in search of Miami bass
BONUS: just listen to them harmonize
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