Toward the midpoint of The National World War II Museum’s “America’s Sweethearts: A Tribute to The Andrews Sisters,” war veteran Dan Cantor reached over to place his hand gently on the hand of his wife of 60 years, Joani.
Smiling, both moved their lips along with the song “Rum and Coca Cola.”
Watching Mandi Ridgdell, Shelbie Mac and Cristina Perez flawlessly syncopate, harmonize and tap their way through the story of Patti, Maxine and Laverne Andrews is a pleasure unto itself.
“America’s Sweethearts” has all the logistical perfection audiences have come to expect from the Stage Door Canteen: high professional polish, beaming enthusiasm from the performers and choreographer Heidi Malnar’s precise replication of dance moves from long ago.
But with the Cantors in the audience, the show took on a special resonance.
Cantor’s small gesture to his wife fulfills the mission of entertainment director Victoria Reed and her Victory Belles at The Stage Door Canteen.
“Working while this generation is still with us is one of the great pleasures of my life. Working here is like a family. A lifestyle. Knowing this music will go on,” said Reed.
The senior Victory Belle, Ridgdell speaks of her pride in being able to perform for veterans like Cantor, who is also a dedicated volunteer at the World War II Museum.
“This music kept hope alive in a dark time,” Ridgdell said. “To watch them sing along, to have them tell you one song or another is their favorite, makes it hard for me to even call this a job.”
A Marine who served both as an MP and a truck driver, Cantor has volunteered at the museum almost every Friday since 2001.
“I wasn’t there before it opened,” he said. “But when it did, I never left.”
His wife Joani calls him “one of the originals.”
“Except for eight months when he received treatment for lymphoma, he has not missed a day,” she said.
Both from Staten Island, the Cantors have experiences from the war that are simultaneously unique and not uncommon to their generation.
Joani Cantor’s father was an air warden and her mother a lieutenant in the Army motor corps.
“She drove USO entertainers when they arrived in town,” Joani Cantor said of her mother. “More than one celebrity slept at our house, including Jimmy Durante when he’d had too much to drink.”
Cantor himself originally enlisted in the air corps, but when that program was filled, he found himself in the Marines.
In 1945, after moving through Paris Island and Camp Lejeune, he prepared to be shipped off to the Pacific where intense fighting still raged on islands like Okinawa.
“Harry Truman saved my life,” Dan Cantor said, with the decision to drop the atomic bomb.
After Japan’s unconditional surrender, Cantor’s service adventures took him from Farragut, Idaho, to California’s Terminal Island before returning to Staten Island.
There he met the future Mrs. Cantor.
Both were born and raised in Staten Island, and their families knew each other. A mutual friend made an arrangement.
In 1953, ostensibly invited to a party, Cantor was in actuality the guest of honor for an audience with Joani, her mother, and Joani’s twin brother.
By May of ’54, the Cantors were married.
“I walked by a recruiting office — this time my mother-in-law’s — and the rest is history,” Cantor said.
After flirting with the idea of moving to Japan, the Cantors lived in both New York and Pennsylvania, had three children and then, in the 1980s, moved to New Orleans where Cantor made a successful living running his own business involving both home improvement and security.
He has spent much of his retirement at the museum, reliving the history of his youth, where he finds time to enjoy the Stage Door Canteen.
A lifelong fan of the Andrews Sisters, Cantor saw them play live “five to six times. At the Hollywood Canteen, on radio shows, and at The Paramount Theatre.”
“I own over 32 of their albums. On 78 rpm. They’re still in my attic.”
He counts “Apple Blossom Time” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” among his favorite songs but is quick to point out, “they’re all favorites.”
And if you see him spend time with the performers after the shows, it becomes clear, as Ridgdell says, that he is one of the museum’s favorites as well.