It was a night of firsts.
It was the first time the entire cast had been together, in place, ready to guide small groups through the halls and rooms of the historical Luther Hotel. It was the first time I’ve been approached before the show by an audience member who asked for a cast photo – and certainly the first that when we gathered on the steps, the buzz of a drone caused a stir. It hovered, taking photos and film clips, whizzing away as we waved and teased about Nazi spy crafts. We were happy to wave.
Then it was, “Places!” and a flurry of getting chairs on the porch for the audience, last minute tweaks, and the tour began.
The Luther Hotel was one of the first buildings erected in Palacios, Texas in the early 1900’s. During the 1940’s the local base was turned into Camp Hulen. During that time Mr. and Mrs. Luther restored the old hotel, opening it on their 20th anniversary.
Jeanie and Bill portrayed the grand re-opening, welcoming the audience and sharing the restoration projects along with mentioning famous people who stayed in the hotel in older days. They welcome musician Artie Shaw portrayed by Mitchell, (who came equipped with a clarinet from the school where he works as a music teacher.) His performance was interrupted by the announcement that Pear Harbor has been attacked and the soldiers burst into action. Once the war started, Palacios became so full of soldiers who brought along their wives that people began renting out spare rooms and even chicken coops to provide shelter for
the throngs. The hotel was full providing a social life for both soldiers and locals. Many stars came to entertain the troops at Camp Hulen, staying at the Luther while they performed. The audience was invited in by Mr. and Mrs. Luther and treated to a barbershop quartet, local talent “Spare Change” branching off of the “Coastalaires.”
One film star who stayed at the Luther Hotel was Rita Hayworth. In the tour, the actress descended in a portrayal of Rita, posing to speak to a soldier where her photograph had been taken on the stairs of the Luther. She’s asked for an autograph, and with nothing to offer to sign, the soldier bums both pen and a cigarette box off a nearby comrade. She promises to save him a dance while the second soldier demands back his pen but sacrifices the cigarettes, making his way to the telephone booth. It’s already is use and his request for the soldier to hurry is met with, “Who you calling, kid? Your mother?”
The soldier in the booth has more important things in mind than ensuring a soldier gets a chance to call home. He’s decided not to wait until he returns from the war to get married and wants to know if his girlfriend can travel down by train to make things official. The distraction of the knocking boy has derailed his plans and his allotted time slot runs out, leaving him with a dead line and no answer. He also has empty pockets, but his plight is rescued by money from the waiting soldier with an, “Oh geez. Call her back and good luck.”
Across the room a couple on the couch is finding their own way to love, via an invitation to the singing held at the church. It’s a good time for the girls and guys in a sanctioned activity the parents couldn’t approve. Or can they? The couple’s conversation is interrupted by the entrance of her younger brother, who’s all too happy to remind her that Father said she wasn’t allowed to date the servicemen. The spunky girl’s been living on her own, working at the dry-goods store, and informs her brother that the servicemen behave like gentlemen which is more than can be said for a few of the local boys. After reminding the boy about the watermelon rinds from a neighbor’s garden that are hidden behind a tree in the backyard, and a recounting of repercussions of watermelon-stealing from the soldier, the boy welcomes the soldier to the family.
Mrs. Luther begins to book small parties to go upstairs, talking about how busy they’ve become since the war began, and how excited they’ve been by the guests in the hotel. One guest is the renowned Shirley Temple, who is now thirteen years old. She’s been attending boarding school after retiring from film, but she’s beginning to work on a new script, and she’s staying one one of the rooms. Peeking into the room offers a glimpse of Shirley most people don’t often see. A sophisticated, smart young woman, ever hopeful that even if her career in film doesn’t make a comeback, she will continue to flourish, making new friends at school and studying – perhaps to become a brain surgeon or even work in politics.
Moving on to the next room, the audience discovers time passing in the hotel, glimpsing a woman cradling a baby. Letters from her husband lay near the radio which plays a command performance of Bob Hope’s Christmas special, aired not only to the troops but for that night, to their families as well. Occasionally, that room received a cameo appearance by the show’s director ad-libbing an impromptu story from a young secretary working at Camp Hulen.
(Side note: This particular theater baby doll is creating an impressive resume. After surviving the sinking of the Titanic, and sleeping as a newborn in a manger, it was nice to see him cradled and cozy by the fire, finally receiving the treatment he deserves.He may or may not have ended up participating in a practical joke on me by peeking out the back window of my car (all the way to my house) from the prop box.
No hotel is complete without its staff, and
the maid at the Luther has plenty of juicy gossip to share about President Lyndon B. Johnson who is returning to America, called home from the front. She recounts that he too has stayed in the Luther, and describes the overheard story about his narrow escape when a trip to the “little boy’s room” caused him to miss boarding a bomber which crashed, killing all on board. Her friend brings up more local disasters, gossiping about the hurricane that recently hit Palacios and the damage that it left behind.
A delivery of towels brings the audience to the next room where Gerald and Francis, husband a wife, played Col. Phillip Younge and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Younge lived at the hotel during the war while he worked as a judge advocate for Came Hulen. In the scene, they readied for dinner while discussing the growth of Palacios and the effect of the camp on the town. Reaching the hallway, they run into a young man lingering in a uniform just large enough to raise suspicion. The young hopeful has a photo and a pen, hoping to gain the signature of Mrs. Rita Hayworth.
Mrs. Hayworth arrives, giving the tongue-tied fan his wish, then enters her room to find another fan waiting. This time, it’s a little girl in possession of Rita’s love letters. The child wants to go to Hollywood and Mrs. Hayworth offers tidbits of encouragement, and the warning that being a star takes a lot of work and demands a lot from childhood.
Her own childhood was filled with dancing performances with a demanding father, never-ending rehearsals, and an early marriage living in an apartment with no furniture while her husband spent his money on advertising her as the “it” girl. But she’s made it, found a new love, and is drawn by the singing from the kitchen where a young lady does her own rehearsing.
Ann is queen of the kitchen, and dishes won’t stop her from being a star as she sings along with the record player. Darla sits at the table engrossed in deciding how to pen a letter to her husband who is in the war. A photo of the army group hangs above. Despite Ann’s reassurances that Dave’s letters will arrive in a large stack like they always do and she’ll have worried about the lack of them for nothing, Ann’s nerves don’t go away.She has news – a baby is on the way – but after the last miscarriage, she fears to raise his hopes too high. A knock at the door startles them both. A soldier delivers, not a stack of letters, but a single page with the condolences of the country. Dave’s body was recovered in Cecily. The sympathetic soldier ushers the audience through a small hallway into the next room, leaving Ann to comfort Darla.
The mood in the next room comes to an abrupt turn around as we meet a woman in a bright red dress with the personality to match. She is voluntarily husbandless after being given the ultimatum by her husband between “the real thing, and an emotional affair with the voice on the radio.” The voice belongs to Bing Crosby and she’s spent so much time listening to him on the radio that she’s neglected the house and her husband. In this, she is not alone, for more than one divorce paper has stated neglect caused by Bing Crosby binges, but this woman has a plan. She’s going to be a star and she’s staked herself at the Luther after hearing that Bing has come in the past. She’s not sure when he’ll come, but she’ll be ready. And his friend, Bob Hope, is in the next room.
Bob Hope brings up the final room of the tour. He’s been out on the front bringing smiles and a bit of home to the boys, hoping to chase away a few of the shadows on their faces. Even now, he practices his routine with the audience, until he is interrupted by an announcement on the radio.
Japan has accepted the terms of surrender.
The war is over, and so is the tour. At least, until next year.
Over 70 people went through the tour, raising over $700 to help restore the building. Audiences and actors alike enjoyed the evening. After the last guest left, the actors helped break down the set, carrying pieces to a trailer to be returned to my house. Several of us went to Dairy Queen, invading the place in street clothes and a few costumes. The conversation turned to, “What’s next for Palacios theater?”
I make no promises. But if it happens, it will be next Summer. And it will be “Swing,” brought to life on stage. Despite my vow to take things easy and turn my focus back to publishing, I returned home excited. For, what is better than putting out books, is watching them be brought to life? For me? Very little. And this show-despite the hours of prep, sweat, and lost sleep-was fun.