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Art Lee:
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Snowbirds, a.k.a. winter residents, flock to Southern states for the winter months and then come spring, like robins, fly back to their Northern nests.

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Wherever these travelers go in the South, they are strangers to the locals and each sometimes regards the other as, well, “different,” a useful euphemism for strange, if not weird. For example, in the South, these upper Midwest migrants still drink and order “pop’ while knowing waitresses still bring them “soda.”

The locals may believe the weather is cold while the ’Birds harumph at this nonsense, knowing what real cold is. Then, the Northern strangers complain it is too darn hot as the locals harumph back, all the while knowing what real hot is. Patience on both sides leads to toleration, at least most of the time.

While the ’Birds scatter widely in their cities, there is one April event in Tucson, Ariz. that brings a thousand geriatric ’Birds and some locals together in a restored big old movie theater: A good-ol’-days show.  Such is the combination of music and nostalgia, which appeal is explained in the newspaper advertisement for the performance:

“IN THE MOOD: A 1940’s Musical Revue, Featuring A Big Band Called The String of Pearls Orchestra.”

Obviously, the age-group appealed to for attendance were seniors, so much so that one wag suggested the box office have a sign reading: “No One Under 70 Admitted Unless Accompanied by a Grandchild.” My wife and I easily met this requirement. Our son, a year round Tucson local, drove us to the theater. When we got in the car to leave, we said “Turn on the air conditioning!” Somewhat perplexed, he suggested this was ‘Snowbird talk’ as it’s only 80 degrees outside. To us it was hot, and the cool air soon came forth. Ahhh, blessed be the A.C.

The show was listed to start at 2 p.m. and the big audience began filling the place at 1 p.m., but when the time arrived, no start, no show. We knew then that those in charge were not on-time-Scandinavians from Minnesota. So to mark time, we began idle chit-chat with our neighbors seated around us and this proved interesting, as always the question : “Where you from, then?” And to this inquiry came one reply: “Ahm fra Jo-ja.” “Huh?” A confused face had the bemused wife rephrase it: “We’re both from Georgia.” “Oh.” But we did understand the man’s commentary on our vocalization: “Ya’ll shor talk funny.”

The show did start at 2:07 p.m. and did not end until 4:30 p.m. On stage was indeed a Big Band in size and appearance — all in tuxedoes — that the senior audience remembered well: piano, drums, string bass, three trumpets, four trombones, four saxophones. And like the true Big Bands of the era — Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James — there were both male and female single vocalists, as well as a six-person singing group who also danced, actually danced with such energy and enthusiasm as to look at times like gymnasts.

To people over a certain age, it seems unfortunate but necessary that people under a certain age have to be told what pop-music -culture was like during the 1940s.

Once the musicians hit that first note, the musicians did not stop playing/singing 43 (yup, 43) songs from the ’40s, but often the band and singers would do only a few lines, just a few bars of a song before their seamless segue into the next melody. Result: the music just flowed steadily for the next two-plus hours and the audience loved it all.

One segment was strictly pop tunes from World War  II, with several lilting numbers sung by “The Andrews Sisters,” and this trio led to a very elderly veteran sitting behind us announce to his neighbor: “I seen ’em — the real sisters —in Rome when they were on a USO tour.” His same vintage partner replied: “I heard all these songs in Guadalcanal over the Armed Forces Radio. Jeeez. they bring back memories.”

For almost all in the audience, the music indeed did bring back memories, but not always good ones. Music can be powerful, in this case, resurrecting strong memories of the biggest, most destructive war in all world history. They knew that wartime songs were more than syrupy pop tunes to be dismissed as callow and pointless, notably so when the sextet sang softly “When The Lights Go On Again All Over The World.” These seniors knew well what that title meant because most of the listeners that day remembered too well the anguish of the times and the longing for peace and the hopes to bring-the-boys-home.

When one out of every 10 Americans was then in military uniform, when patriotism was never longer or stronger, when the national driving speed-limit was 35 miles an hour, when the rationing system determined what food might/might not be on the supper table, it was impossible not to remember those days, even if you were a kid at the time, as I was. Everyone then was caught up in the war effort.

As the performance neared its end, so too did the final songs being played mirror the near-end of the war, the lyrics reflecting the hopes and dreams of those times. When the band hit the first bars of “We’ll Meet Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When,” the entire auditorium became eerily silent, a kind of collective hush. The quiet continued with the sentimental song everyone knew: “I’ll Be Seeing You. . . In All The Old Familiar Places,” at which point the silence was interrupted by loud sniffles and the blowing of noses, but the multiple tears shed could not be heard.  At this point, it was less the music than the awakened memories.

So, it was appropriate that the final two songs — “Sentimental Journey” and “Thanks For The Memories” — movingly explained the tears in the eyes and the pride in the hearts. The listeners had not only heard the iconic “Sentimental Journey” for the last two hours, they had lived it. Their feelings of thanks for “Thanks For The Memories” was infectious; it was almost palpable, demonstrated by the prolonged standing ovation, which started long before the last note sounded.

The fulfilled audience exited slowly — many with canes, some with walkers, a few in wheelchairs — all reluctantly and quietly leaving but not forgetting their personal “Sentimental Journey.”

It had been great. And now it was over. Time to fly North.

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