With the piano's first chords, Jeanie Raney, Maggie Palmer Corry and Patty Moore converge at center stage, facing their audience at the Waterford at Ironbridge Independent Living Residence in Springfield, Mo. The performers' smiles brighten as they sing: "Gonna take a sentimental journey. Gonna set my heart at ease. Gonna take a sentimental journey to renew old memories."
For the three former United Service Organization (USO) performers, the song recalls a time when they entertained on truck beds in Vietnam and airplane hangars in Korea. For their audience, the 1944 classic "Sentimental Journey" turns back the clock to when their waists were thinner, their hair was thicker, and the program's songs first topped the pop charts.
Spectators tap their feet and quietly mouth the lyrics while the women sing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "This Can't be Love," "I'll Be Seeing You" and other popular songs from the past.
"I knew almost all the words," says Army veteran Richard Burdick, 71, of the familiar tunes performed during the hour-long show. "I learned them long ago."
"'Sentimental Journey' just about got me," says Doris Bookout, 83, another Waterford resident. "I just love that song."
The appreciative audience reminds Rainey, Corry and Moore that they made the right decision to perform again after 40 years. "We enjoy each other, and we see our audiences have a good time," says Moore, 60. "Their faces light up. It just lifts my spirit."
The women first met in Missouri State University's drama department in Springfield. From 1965 to 1970, they sang and danced in various USO shows at military bases and outposts around the world.
In Vietnam, Raney flew to remote locations with Corry sometimes belted into the helicopter's gunner seat. In hospitals, men watched from beds and wheelchairs as Raney, Corry and Paula Thompson, now the group's musical director, sang "South Pacific" and "Wonderful Town." Moore spent time on a different USO tour traveling under machine-gun escort in Korea. In remote locations, mud-spattered soldiers came from the field carrying M-16s. After the shows, the women visited with the servicemen.
"We were the girls back hometalking, playing cards and dancing," recalls Corry, 62. "You felt you were doing something useful."
Leaving the USO, Corry and Raney taught English and vocal music in Missouri. Thompson settled into university teaching and professional theater in Texas and Ohio. Moore moved to California. But the women stayed in touch and resumed their friendship when Thompson and Moore eventually returned to the Springfield area.
In 2003, their alma mater asked Raney to reconstruct a USO show for its Veterans Day celebrations. "I jumped at the chance," says Raney, 64, who quickly recruited her former classmates. "You won't find a better audience than veterans."
The ladies added two male singers and created a show of patriotic songs and comedy routines like those used during their tour days.
"It was just like the past," says Corry of the veterans' response. "They wanted to know where you were from, tell you where they were from, and show you their ribbons and medals."
Inspired by the Veterans Day shows, the women began performing at military reunions, senior citizen centers, nursing and veterans' homes. "We like the old standards, Broadway shows and the great American composers," says Thompson, 62, who oversees the troupe's half-dozen shows each year. "This music appeals to older groups. It's the soundtrack of their lives."
Each show ends just the same as it did during their USO days, with the audience singing along to "God Bless America."
For Waterford residents, it's a show they won't soon forget. "It was one of the best shows we've ever had," says Ted Von Willer, 87, a World War II veteran. "When I talked with my friends, there wasn't a guy in the group who didn't like it. We'd like to have them back."