The Old South Jamboree in Walker looked every bit the part of a World War II-era USO show April 8, complete with bandstand, a 10-piece band dressed in period costumes and a cast of 10 wearing victory rolls in their hair.
“We’re rehearsing for the show Friday (April 10),” said Charlotte Reynolds, wearing matte red lipstick and a wool pencil skirt. She and her husband, Rob, the band leader, drummer and founder of the Denham Springs-based band, Rosie and the Swingin’ Riveters, are part of a cast of 20 who put on a radio play and swing music program every year in honor of the World War II veterans they’ve come to know and love.
The USO show takes a massive effort, Charlotte Reynolds said, but has been a labor of love for the past two years. This was the third year for the show, she said, which was the kickoff of a weekend of activities meant to create an immersive environment at Sidney Hutchinson Memorial Park in Walker.
“My husband has been building the pieces to re-create a wartime French village. Most of them have been under my carport for the last three weeks, but he’s started setting up the village now,” she said. “He would be even more elaborate if I didn’t kind of rein him in.”
He does it, she said, because of a love for the era he developed as a child, listening to records with his grandmother.
“He’s always loved that time period,” said Charlotte; and every year, they took a trip to the World War II Museum in New Orleans for his birthday.
The museum has volunteers who work as actors in the living history program there, Reynolds said, all of whom dress in period costumes to give patrons a more authentic feel for what the time might have been like.
The volunteer program fascinated Rob, and he began volunteering himself, learning about military dress code and searching for authentic uniforms or replicas.
At first, she said, she was not interested in putting on wool uniforms.
“I’ve also never been able to do my hair the way Miranda can,” she said, pointing to her daughter, wearing a party dress and victory rolls.
But then, she began meeting veterans.
“The first time I ever dressed up (at a Veteran’s Day parade), I had a veteran come up to me, unable to speak for a few minutes,” she said. “He was looking around at all the people in costumes, and the only word he could get out was ‘memories.’ ”
A woman who served in the Women’s Army Corps had tears rolling down her face at the sight of Reynolds.
If it was a powerful emotional experience for them, Reynolds said, that feeling was multiplied for her.
After that, she didn’t need to be convinced.
“I mean, why not honor them, and do something special for our veterans while they’re still here with us?” she asked.
They began participating in re-enactments like the one they did this weekend, and volunteering with the living history program on weekends, and putting on shows at the Jackson and Reserve War Veterans’ Homes.
“I can’t tell you how many wonderful people I’ve met along the way,” she said.
Her eyes filled with tears more than once as she talked about the people she’s gotten to know, and who have died.
One special veteran, Robert “Bob” Lyle, a Marine who served in the Pacific Theater, died on Good Friday, she said. Lyle went to her church and was very close to her and her family. It made putting on the show harder to concentrate on, she said, but his wife, knowing how much the shows had meant to her husband in the past, delayed his memorial service until Sunday, after the show, in part to wait for traveling family to come in from out of town, but also in part to allow the re-enactors a chance to attend.
He was honored at the show along with Edwin “Eddie” Lohr, who died in February. Lohr served as a shooting instructor stateside.
Reynolds said she and her husband enjoyed hearing the veterans’ stories so much that they decided to start documenting their memories, “otherwise that rich part of history would be lost to us,” she said, and she enjoyed the process so much she started seeking out other veterans and documenting their stories, as well.
They became a resource for finding veterans for the museum’s video documentation project.
This year, the WWII Museum, in recognition of the Reynolds’ contributions, sent the Victory Belles, a singing group that performs regular shows at the museum theater, to perform a few songs at the show.
“It’s not a full show, but usually to see them live, you’d have to pay $30. Our show is $10,” she said. Proceeds from the Walker show went to supporting the Veterans’ War Homes.
Reynolds pointed out that the effort of their band and the players, plus many other volunteers, is what makes the show a success every year.
“And we want to keep doing it. We have swing dancers who will be performing off to the side, and the front area is where veterans dance, if they choose to,” she said. “They are why we do this.”
Along with the Reynolds family, volunteers are actors Chase Bernard, Michael Verrett, his son Chris, Susan and Branden Burette, Toni Bennett, Tracey Ardoin, Patrick Mitchell and Michelle Morgan, who plays Rosie in the band.
Other band members are Pris Ashworth, keyboards; Nathan Heck, bass; trumpeters Alan Honeysucker and Carey Griffin; trombonist Richard Kilpatrick; and saxophone players Jim Wilson, Brian Feigles and Stuart Sonnier.
“We just love the era and the men and women who served. We want to thank them and let them know that they will not be forgotten,” Reynolds said, her eyes getting teary once again as she thinks about Lyle. The Reynolds’ recently completed a book about his life and service, she said, that is currently in shipment.
For information about the Denham Springs-based group, visit their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Rosie AndTheSwinginRiveters.