Oldies School
From Penny Loafer to Swing Doll.

By Andrea Lee Davis | Southern California may be famous for its sunshine, but on this late fall evening—November 14, 2006, to be exact—it’s drizzling and cold on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Midway, docked at San Diego’s Navy Pier. In three hours an audience of 3,500 business executives will arrive, without umbrellas, expecting to be entertained.

“We might have to move the show to the Hyatt,” says Amy, our stage manager, as we gaze out over the deck. An enormous stage adorned with patriotic banners and strip lights overlooks long rows of army canteen tables and cocktail bars covered in camouflage netting. Beyond the tables, vintage helicopters and fighter planes frame a striking view of the Coronado Bay Bridge in the distance. A man is wet-vacuuming the stage. A woman with a broom is doing her best to sweep water off the tables.

“No—we’re staying on the ship,” Amy confirms on her headset.

Robin looks over Amy’s shoulder at the new production schedule. “Oh look! We’re singing ‘Apple Blossom Time’!”

It’s a good thing we’re prepared for anything. That song wasn’t requested when we were booked.

We are The Swing Dolls: Robin, Christina, and me (the one on the right). We specialize in the close harmonies of 1940s and ’50’s girl trios like the Andrews Sisters and the McGuire Sisters.

Though I majored in Italian at Penn, I owe this gig to singing my way through school with the Penny Loafers, who last year celebrated their 20th anniversary on campus. Back when I started, they were an oldies a-cappella group. So I set out to write vocal arrangements of all the oldies I knew at the time, which was pretty much limited to the Animal House soundtrack.

Cut to Los Angeles, 1997. An M.A. in Italian from UCLA and a series of musical-theater tours later, I set out to conquer Hollywood—but Laughlin, Nevada called instead. Robin, Christina, and I met when we were cast in a 1940s and ’50s revue in a casino on the Colorado River. I was back in the oldies business again. My hobby was now my profession. The three of us formed The Swing Dolls in 2000, and worked our way up from a crazy audition for The Gong Show to being featured on Gilmore Girls.

Tonight we are The Andrews Sisters, whose music inspired the nation through one of its darkest periods. By 1945, when this ship was commissioned, The Andrews Sisters were “America’s Wartime Sweethearts.” In August of that year, performing in Naples, Italy, before thousands of soldiers about to be shipped off to the Pacific, they were given the honor of announcing to the troops that Japan had surrendered and World War II was over.

Sixty-one years later, on a carrier filled with memories, we pause between songs to share stories of that time with an audience mostly too young to remember the courage and bravery of a generation slipping away. We couldn’t ask for a more fitting backdrop. The Midway served from World War II all the way to Desert Storm in 1991. In 2004 the ship was permanently docked at Navy Pier and transformed into a museum. It is longer than three football fields—too large to fit through the Panama Canal. With more than 35 exhibits, a guided tour, two-dozen vintage military aircraft, and flight simulator rides, it’s worth a day-trip even without tonight’s Vegas-style festivities.

The show kicks off with an emcee, a big band, and a swing-dance troupe. Next we perform our Andrews Sisters hits, culminating in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Our act is followed by spot-on musical tributes to Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, and Cher. Then we return to lead the crowd in the Armed Forces Medley, where we ask those in the audience who have served our country or who have loved ones in the military to stand for the song of their branch of service. The show closes with a full-cast grand finale.

Before the show, the performers gather in two tents set up on the windward side of the deck. One tent is freezing; the other is a sauna.

Elvis appears from the sauna. “Hi, I’m Scot.” He is the spitting image of the young rockabilly boy from Memphis. Hawkeye from M*A*S*H* walks by looking for the bathroom. Cher sends him around the corner. Marilyn Monroe arrives with her hair in curlers. Welcome to the world of Look-Alikes.

6:45 p.m.: “Meet and Greet.” This consists of 45 minutes of Love Boat-style waving to the guests as they arrive.

“Do you want me to walk you to your plane or are you good?” the producer asks, popping her head in the sauna. “Our plane” is the C1 Trader Cargo Transport plane, the first aircraft you encounter as you step onto the flight deck. It serves as a nice backdrop for photos. Thankfully, the sky has cleared.

Guests like to get their pictures taken with us in our 1940s army uniforms. Whether or not they know who The Andrews Sisters are is debatable.

Since every gig has a totally different format, we perform a ritual “Who’s on First?” just before going on stage.

“Are we The Swing Dolls or The Andrews Sisters tonight?”

“Which one am I this time?” “You’re Laverne, I’m Maxene, and she’s Patty.”

“Who leads us from stage right?” “You do.” “How’s my hat?”

“What’s our cue? Should we go??”

But on stage, the bright lights send us into a zone. We’re a finely tuned machine channeling another era.

The National Anthem completes the show. Then the lights dim and fireworks explode off the end of the flight deck. But there’s no time to watch. The entire cast is being whisked to the elevator for more Meet and Greet in the Hangar Bay.

“Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, Cher, and The Andrews Sisters walk into an elevator ...” I joke, as the elevator door shuts on the seven of us.

“A wild fantasy of mine,” Elvis retorts.

We look at each other nervously. Hours earlier our dinner got stuck in here.

10:30 p.m.: Guests still linger in the Hangar Bay as the event ends.

We’re back in the elevator making the same joke, then hugging one another like long-lost friends. We never know which Elvis or Marilyn or Cher we’ll be working with next. We can only hope we’ll be reunited again on the Midway, where a deeper sense of history brings us closer to the legends we portray.


Andrea Lee Davis C’92 is a Los Angeles-based actress and member of The Swing Dolls. For more information, visit www.theswingdolls.com.


FIRST PERSON: Essays

Notes from the Undergrad Fencing with an idol
Alumni Voices Swinging history
Elsewhere Happiness and frozen fingers
Expert Opinion Everybody’s slash-ing

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“Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree”

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Last modified 02/28/07