NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Decked out in 1940s throwback tailored dresses and perfectly coiffed curls, the Victory Belles seem delightfully out of place in the age of hip-hop.
They sing big-band classics at the National World War II Museum and flirt playfully with the audience, leaving bright red lipstick kisses on the smiling faces of America's aging war heroes. But these sexy, glam 20-somethings are not just singers in the tradition of wartime entertainers. They are a living museum exhibit about love songs in an era before texting and Skype, when saying goodbye meant you might not see a loved one for years — or maybe ever again.
With the World War II generation rapidly dying out, their performances have taken on new meaning.
"This music still makes me happy," said Forrest Villarrubia, who served as a Marine in the Philippines in 1944 and was celebrating his 88th birthday at the museum on Nov. 20.
After the show, Villarrubia posed for photos with the Victory Belles. As they serenaded him with a soft rendition of "Happy Birthday" and applied red lipstick kisses to his cheeks, his face broke into a wide smile.
For the museum, better known for its war machine exhibits than for big-band and boogie-woogie, the Victory Belles offer a different window into the culture of the era.
"There were just so many beautiful love songs written back in World War II," said Victoria Reed, the museum's entertainment director who founded the Victory Belles in 2009. "People really knew what it meant to miss each other. It was such a great time for music."
"It feels silly sometimes, putting on the lashes and the makeup," said Cristina Perez, who joined the Belles this year, and like the other performers, spends nearly two hours achieving a period look in hair and makeup before each show.
"Then you go out there and you see how these people connect, and the memories you bring back, and it's just so moving," Perez added.
The troupe just wrapped up a "Spirit of America" show and is now performing "A Swingin' Christmas," which runs through the end of the year and includes a mix of war-era classics and holiday tunes. During their last "Spirit of America" performance on Nov. 20, the crowd clapped and sang along with the troupe to such war-era classics as "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and "As Time Goes By."
Often they perform as a trio, a nod to the Andrews Sisters, who sang for the troops with Bob Hope and whose 1940s hits included "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," ''Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" and "I Can Dream, Can't I?" The sisters — LaVerne, Maxene and Patty — are deceased. Patty was the last to die, in January 2013 at age 94. The Andrews Sisters sold more than 75 million records, including many songs that kept spirits high on the home front and in the war zones.
Mandi Ridgdell, a Belle since 2010, said her grandfather had served in the Navy during the Korean conflict. He passed away in 2001, and it was her grandmother who encouraged her to audition for the Victory Belles by taping a newspaper clipping about the try-outs to Ridgdell's bedroom door, along with a note that read: "Your papa would have loved this."
"The rest is history," said Ridgdell, a Gonzales, La., native who studied theater at Northwestern State University. "I can't imagine doing anything else. This is not my job anymore. It's who I am."
The Victory Belles perform at the museum's Stage Door Canteen, a theater named after the armed forces recreational center created in New York during World War II where stars such as Betty Davis and Rita Hayworth entertained.
Elsewhere in the museum, exhibits mainly showcase war artifacts and memorabilia, from war planes and bombers suspended from pavilion ceilings to vintage photographs, uniforms, weapons, diaries, letters, medals and recorded testimonials from veterans. World War II veterans are on hand daily to greet visitors and share their war stories.
The museum is in the midst of a years-long $320 million expansion that, when complete in 2016, will have quadrupled its size. It opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum. The facility was later designated by Congress as America's National World War II Museum and is operated as a nonprofit. Construction is underway on a new pavilion that will house exhibits on campaigns in Europe and the Pacific. The first phase, titled the "Road to Berlin," is scheduled to open in November 2014.
The Victory Belles travel the world, and have performed at USO shows in Hawaii, Guam and Japan. Ridgdell said she believes strongly in the enduring therapeutic qualities of the era's music. She performed this past summer for service members in Okinawa, where more than 120,000 Allied and Japanese troops died in ferocious combat as World War II neared its close in 1945.
The crowd at Okinawa last summer included many 18- and 19-year-olds. "We didn't change anything about our show," said Ridgdell. "We sang 1940s music, and they loved everything about it."
If You Go...
VICTORY BELLES: At the National World War II Museum in New Orleans; http://www.nationalww2museum.org/ . Now performing "A Swingin' Christmas." Future shows include "New Year's Swingin' Eve" on Dec. 31; "Jump, Jive & Wail: The Music of Louis Prima" on Feb. 1-2 and Feb. 8-9; and the "Spirit of America" on Wednesdays from Jan. 15 through Aug. 27.
Follow Stacey Plaisance on Twitter @splaisance