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  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

My First USO Dance

Happy Holidays friends of The Greatest Generation, enthusiasts of The Forties Experience, and readers of my WWII novels when they posted online.

Throughout the years, I've been to my share of dances: weddings, swing clubs, ballroom lessons, but I'd yet to experience a real USO (United Service Organizations) dance. This past year on October 3, my husband and I attended the 4th Annual Stars & Stripes USO Show sponsored by Bright House and the Armed Forces History Museum located in Largo, Florida to benefit the USO. Back in 1941 at its creation, the organization was made up of various service associations and they provided wholesome recreation for servicemen during WWII. Of course, I think of Bob Hope and his variety show - the USO's trademark tour that brought celebrities to soldiers, airmen, and navy around the globe. Laced with oftentimes irreverant humor, his in-person (with beautiful women) and radio broadcasts reminded the boys "what they were fighting for," especially at Christmastime! During the war, the USO also hosted dances in halls around the country, enlisting the help of volunteer hostesses and, of course, chaperones. They were, after all, a respectable organization.

The USO and the tour still exist today - 75 years later, boosting morale by bringing a piece of America and it's support to the fighting men and women. Still very active and still touring all over the world, but their job isn't limited to just entertainment. Their assistance and morale support reaches to family members, too, and provides services to even assist each troop as they transition from active service to home. So you can see why the Stars & Stripes dance was an important fundraiser. Consider a donation, particularly now during the holiday season. Donate Here

The Fashion

Well ... so that was a little history behind why I wanted to attend - besides the opportunity for a swell time. It began with a dress, a search that brought me to Etsy and a shop in England for one my size. It seems that everyone in America during the forties was slender since I had the toughest time finding something vintage for my curvy figure. When it arrived, it fit perfectly and I couldn't help thinking that someone in England wore this dress 70 years ago!

I took great care to get the details of my appearance right - hoping to be as authentic as my re-enactor husband on my arm. He wore an Army summer uniform. My make-up, half-moon painted fingernails, nude stockings with a black back seam, purse, hat, even my undergarment stayed true to the era. The latter three items were also vintage, but my gloves were from the 50s (best I could find.) The shoes were a problem. Oh what I wouldn't have given to find an authentic pair of sandals or peep toes! Just before leaving the house, I slipped into a pair of 3 inch black peep toes from Nordstrom - and I gotta tell ya - I felt foolish. My ensemble conveyed the 40+ woman I am, as she would have dressed in 1942, but my shoes said I was trying to dress like her 20 year-old daughter! In the end, I pulled out an old pair of low-heeled Mary Janes and, by God, they completed the outfit perfectly! No doubt, these modern shoes and their rubber soles would have been coveted by the Office of Price Administration during the war! Rubber was on the ration.

Take a look - what do you think? Do you like my patriotic, victory red lipstick?

(In a future post I'll cover things like nail polish and lipstick and introduce you to my favorite vlogger on 1940s fashion sense and style.)

Once we arrived at the dance, I couldn't help but smile at all those who attended dressed for a swell 1940s time! Many ladies wore a rockabilly, pin-up style (an exaggerated comic look of 40s based on art,) overly large victory rolls, super thick, long wing eye liner, etc. I just loved how everyone got into the spirit. One young man dressed as a 1940s Los Angeles police officer - all vintage, right down to his night stick as he patroled the venue in his spectacles!

As you can see, my DH was ready for his role with his unit (the 1st Infantry Division out of Bradenton, Florida.)

The Venue

Once the location of USO dances, victory balls, and big band headliners such as Harry James and Glenn Miller, the landmark St. Petersburg Coliseum in Pinellas County, Florida was the perfect venue. Built in 1924 and nicknamed the "Pleasure Palace," the building was a major hub for the thousands of service men and volunteers in the area during the war. In my soon to be published novel, A Moment Forever, we will visit the Tampa Bay area and the role it played, specifically for our hero, a B-26 pilot.

From the moment I stepped into the coliseum, I was transported to wartime Pinellas County. The music - about as authentic as you can get with a big band and the "Andrews Sisters." There were taxi dancers provided by a local swing club at the ready to partner with singles! On the perimeter of the building were various vendors, organizations such as The Honor Flight and The Bomber Girls, and men like my husband representing, giving honor to the fighting force of the 1st Infantry Division. Of course, I cannot miss mentioning the opportunity to meet true veterans from all wars, some dressed in uniform.

The Recap

It was an amazing experience, and we had a gas! I have to say, I felt proud to be a part of it and dressed in a piece of history, able to honor the Greatest Generation in even this small manner. I was surprised by the many - and I mean many - compliments to my attire, but the greatest compliment I received was at the end of the evening as I walked passed an elderly woman holding onto her walker, waiting for her daughter. She stopped me at the door with her New York accent.

"I have to tell you, my husband was in the war. We lost a lot of boys in our neighborhood."

"They were brave men. Thank you for his service."

She sighed then smiled.

"You look so authentic. You dressed just like my mother did. Perfect."

"Thank you so much. That means a lot. I tried to get it right and it's the first time."

Her daughter joined us (a woman who complimented me earlier) and the mother said, "Doesn't she look great?"

"I know! I told her that earlier. She really nailed it!"

The "dressed just like my mother" comment struck me because it had been the source of my shoe debacle. And although I missed out on swinging as I wanted due to the rubber soles, I was soooo happy I made the snap decision, choosing my Franco Sartos over the peep toe. Although I'm not an old gal by any stretch of the imagination, someone my age, during the war, most likely had a young son serving in the South Pacific or Italy. Perhaps her daughter was a riveter on the USS New Jersey, built by Rosies! That reflection gave me pause. The woman at the door was just a young woman back in 1942. She had her whole life ahead of her, and these are the type of women I bring to you in my novels.

The coliseum will have other events, which I plan on attending. February 13 will be a tribute to Harry James and the Andrews Sisters! I can't wait.

Leaving you with one of my favorite Andrews Sisters songs, "Rhumboogie" (1940) featured in my upcoming novel. Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth!

K*Images and article content are the exclusive property of Cat Gardiner

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