Excerpt from Swinging Sisters by Madonna Dries Christensen. Each chapter in the book is introduced with a song title. This chapter covers the sisters' decision to join two other women and form the Texas Rangerettes.
This Could Be The Start Of Something Big
You suddenly realize, this could be the start of something big ~~~
The opening of San Antonio’s Sunken Garden Amphitheater, set among limestone cliffs that offered extraordinary acoustics, loomed as another high class venue for the Quartet. When Gladys learned that the Civic Opera would be presenting the first show, The Pirates of Penzance, she insisted that the group audition to provide the music for the outdoor production.
The telegram announcing they had won arrived minutes after the family recited grace at a dinner celebrating Evelyn’s eighteenth birthday. “We have Gladys to thank for this,” Evelyn said after Hazel read the message aloud. “Gladdie is familiar with the music. Remember when you starred in Pirates of Penzance in Park Rapids. Oh, wait a minute. I think you played in the band instead.”
Gladys narrowed her eyes at Evelyn, but then grinned. “Very funny, Sis.”
“Thank you, thank you. Now, let’s get back to my birthday party. Please pass the spuds,” Evelyn said in a baby voice, and earned a laugh from around the table. The spuds request had been her first sentence as a baby and she dragged it out now and then to see if anyone still found it amusing.
Heaping mashed potatoes next to the roast beef on her plate, she said, “Good old Midwest food. After being a Texan for three years, I still can’t get used to the food. Those refried beans. When they say they cooked a mess of beans, they mean a mess. And tamales, or whatever they are, wrapped in corn husks. In Minnesota we threw corn husks to the pigs. And what’s with that chicken fried steak restaurants are offering? Which is it, chicken or steak?”
Gladys clamped a hand over her sister’s mouth. “Ev-e-lyn, please be quiet. Don’t you remember? Hazel has something to tell the folks.” Gladys had willingly agreed to let the boss handle the announcement.
While Hazel gulped a glass of water, Mama asked, “What’s going on?”
Hazel grabbed a deep breath.” Well…we didn’t know we’d hear about the audition tonight, but we have other big news. Some time back we met two swell gals, Willeen Grey and Jerry McCrae. They’re billed as ‘Swing and Sway with McRae and Grey.’ We ran into them last night and they want the six of us to form a band.”
“A band? What about the Quartet? What about Louise?” Mama asked.
“She’s hinted that she wants to quit touring so she and the professor can travel.”
Pa jumped in. “If that’s the case, maybe that’d be a good time for you to quit the road show. Bet you can find plenty of work here in town. You’ve done the Juneteenth celebration for a couple of years. And that big show at the Majestic and now the Sunken Garden wants you.”
“Those are wonderful places, but this sounds like a barrel of fun.”
“And one of these days I’d like a son-in-law or two, some grandkids. Evelyn, is that boyfriend of yours a good prospect?”
Mama tapped her fork on Pa’s wrist. “Hold your horses. You’re off the subject. Hazel, are these girls Catholics?”
“With the name Jerry McCrae? As Irish as Paddy’s pig.”
“There are Protestant Irish. Surely you’ve read about the fighting going on between them and the Catholics in Ireland.”
“Sure; I studied that in history class. They’ve been fighting since time began. Yes, Jerry and Willeen are Catholics. Willeen’s a convert. Come to think of it, Jerry might be, too. But what does that have to do with our forming a group?”
“Because you’ll be of like minds about playing in decent places and going to church on the road, that sort of thing.”
Gladys opened her mouth to speak but Pa was a step ahead. “Now that your mother knows everyone’s religion, let’s talk about the places you’d play. Since Prohibition, lots of nice clubs have become gin mills with gangsters hangin’ around. I don’t want you gals gettin’ caught up in a raid and thrown in jail. Evelyn’s underage, not even out of high school.”
“I will be before we go on the road.”
“You’ll be out of school; still underage. You wouldn’t be allowed in clubs.”
Noting concern on Pa’s face, Gladys said, “I talked about that with Jerry. She’ll be our leader and she doesn’t want any trouble. Until Prohibition’s over, and there’s talk it will be soon, we’ll play at family places, like we do now on the theater circuit. You’ll like Jerry and Willeen. They’re both my age. Jerry’s mother died years ago; she lives with her dad and I think she has two brothers. Willeen was raised by an aunt and uncle. Don’t ask me why.”
“Wasn’t goin’ to. But young women on the road? Folks will talk. Even men musicians have a reputation for bein’ wild.”
“Folks always find someone to talk about. We drove here from Minnesota by ourselves. And we’ve been on the road.”
“With Louise as chaperone. There are desperate men out there these days.”
“There are desperate men here in town. A guy pulled a knife on my friend Ida and reached for her purse. She screamed and he ran off.”
Mama sputtered, “Gladdie, you never told me that. Where did that happen and when? Were you with her?”
“No, I wasn’t with her. It happened along the river.”
“Dear me, what’s this world coming to? A girl can’t take a walk by herself?”
Evelyn punched her fists in the air. “Don’t worry. We’ll have safety in numbers. Let’s see anyone take on six tough Irishmen. Women.”
Mama continued, “With times so bad, who’ll be your audience? Who has money for dances?”
“We’ll have an audience,” Hazel assured her. “People need entertainment now more than ever. You’ve seen the lines at movie houses.”
Gladys recalled the pep talk Jerry had given them last night. “We’re not going to make a fortune doing this. It’ll cost money roaming all over the country. Jerry has connections with a network of small bands. One bandleader tells another. We’ll be competing with others, but Jerry says there’s room for all of us.”
“Gypsies,” Mama scoffed. “I suppose you’ll travel by train.”
Dorothy shook her head. “No; Jerry says it’s easier getting around by car. We’ll be more independent; not at the mercy of train schedules. That’s a problem sometimes when we travel with the circuit.”
“It’s not exactly a car,” Hazel added. “Well, it is, but it’s a professional car.”
“What in the world does that mean?” Mama asked.
“Jerry’s uncle retired and made her a good deal…practically gave her, his funeral service vehicle.”
Mama’s fork chimed on her plate as it fell. “For crying out loud, if you’re talking about a hearse, say so. We all know what kind of vehicle is used for a funeral.”
Hazel slipped into a giggle, through which she rambled, “Jerry said that’s what her uncle called it. A service…vehicle. It’s a Packard…almost new…big enough for all of us and our instruments and luggage.”
“There aren’t any leftovers in it,” Evelyn added, earning a laugh from Pa and a look of reprimand from Mama.
“A hearse, of all things. They make me think of gangster cars.”
“Think of it as a limousine,” Gladys said, and changed the subject. “We’ll be called the Texas Rangerettes. That’s respectable. We’ll wear western costumes, chaps, ten gallon hats. With hats, we won’t have to worry about our hair being perfect for every show. And with pants, no having to keep ourselves supplied with expensive stockings.”
“Pants? I don’t mind seeing them on women around the house, but in public? On stage?”
“Oh, Mama,” Gladys chided with a laugh, “you always claim to be up-to-date on fashion. Besides, this would be a costume, not street wear.”
Hazel kept things rolling. “Speaking of costumes; would you make them? No one sews better than you do.”
Mama batted her eyes at her oldest daughter. “Blarney will get you nowhere.”
“It’s true. You could’ve been a professional seamstress.
“None of you liked me making your clothes when you were girls. You wanted store-bought.”
“We’ve learned to appreciate quality. Will you make the costumes?”
“I suppose. It sounds as if you’ve made up your minds to do this.
The Texas Rangerettes, of all things, riding around in a hearse.”
“I guess we could ride horses,” Evelyn said. “Would you like that better?”
“You’re kidding, I hope. I don’t know what you girls are thinking anymore.” Mama rested her chin on her hand. “All right; I’ll let you do this Rangerette business. You’re good Catholic girls and I trust you.”
While Hazel and Gladys carried dishes to the kitchen, Hazel mumbled, “She’ll let us. I’m twenty-five, for Pete’s sake. She couldn’t really stop me.”
“I suppose not, but it’s nice to have her blessing. This all went better than I thought it would.”
Back in the dining room, Gladys said, “Jerry wrote a theme song for us. It’s called We’re All Pals Together. Come on Rangerettes, let’s sing it for the folks.”
“We’re all pals together, sisters, pals and friends, singin’ gals, swingin’ gals, rootin’ pals, tootin’ pals, rain or shine, we do fine, ‘cause we’re all pals together.”
Mama clapped her hands. “I like it. Maybe try a lower key.”
“Pa, do you like it?” Evelyn asked.
“Shoot; the only thing I know about music is what you lasses tell me. If you say it’s a good song, it’s good enough for me.” He raised his water glass and offered a Gaelic toast, “Slainte.”
Evelyn responded, “How about a toast to me? My birthday party has run amok. Where’s my angel food cake?”
“Your mother can bring the cake. I’ve got the toast: May brooks and trees and singing hills, join in the chorus, too. And every gentle wind that blows, send happiness to you.” Pa added, “That goes for all of you, the Texas Rangerettes.”
From that night on, the household buzzed with more activity than a nest of riled hornets. The six women spent hours studying road maps, planning the logistics of travel, and practicing as a sextet. “Mother Hen,” Evelyn teased Mama as she clucked around the musicians, urging them to eat or rest or advising them on tunes.
With all the hullabaloo going on, Gladys suffered from insomnia. As soon as her head hit the pillow, images and thoughts of life on the road emerged. Sure, they’d been out there for several years, but not to the far-reaching places Jerry had in mind. Not even praying the rosary quelled her fears and anxiety.
~ ~ ~ ~