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New Depot Players production reminiscent of WWII USO Camp Shows

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr Performers, from left, Kim Fratesi, Joseph Harrison and Brittany Jackson rehearse for the upcoming production, "A Red, White & Blue Christmas! A Tribute to the USO Camp Shows of World War II," which opens Thursday.

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr Performers, from left, Kim Fratesi, Joseph Harrison and Brittany Jackson rehearse for the upcoming production, "A Red, White & Blue Christmas! A Tribute to the USO Camp Shows of World War II," which opens Thursday.

If You Go

What: "A Red, White & Blue Christmas! A Tribute to the USO Camp Shows of World War II"

Where: Center Street Arts' black box theater, 910 Center St.

When: 8 p.m. on Dec. 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17; 3 p.m. on Dec. 11 and 18.

Cost: Tickets are $20 general admission and $16 for seniors and students. For more ticket information, visit www.conyersarts.org or call 678-374-3224.

CONYERS -- For some eight decades, the United Services Organization (known informally as the USO) has adhered strongly to its stated mission of improving morale, welfare and recreational services to military personnel and their families.

While the USO may be best known for providing the venue for legendary comedian Bob Hope and his famous friends to entertain troops both near and far, among the organization's first foreign forays came during camp shows held during World War II.

In recognition of both the USO and the Christmas holidays, the New Depot Players will stage "A Red, White & Blue Christmas! A Tribute to the USO Camp Shows of World War II," opening on Thursday at the Center Street Arts' black box theatre in Olde Town Conyers.

The two-hour, two-act revue will combine historical information on the camp shows with the most popular music of the era. An eight-person cast will sing songs from the time period with special guests contributing at each of the six shows.

"I guess it was my idea," director Bonnie Marshall said of the show. "We were trying to come up with an existing show -- 'The 1940s Radio Hour' -- but we couldn't get a lot of people to make the time commitment because it's Christmas time and a busy season, so we decided to do kind of a revue, and we'll include special guests."

Marshall added she developed the concept for "A Red, White & Blue Christmas" after reading the stories of performers who took part in the camp shows.

"The 1940s music is very nostalgic and everybody loves it, and when I started looking at doing a revue, I didn't want to just do something with song after song after song," she said. "I wanted something to tie it all together and I started reading a couple of memoirs online and a book that Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters wrote.

"I got caught up in the personal memories of the stars that were at the USO camp shows. The stories were delightful -- they made you laugh and they made you cry. That personal view of the patriotism of the entertainers of the age, and the fact that everybody jumped on board, made these shows -- which took place on airfields and aircraft carriers as well as in jungles and hospital wards."

The show includes an eight-person cast of singers, a Bob Hope-like host (played by Patrick Telley) and guest stars who Marshall said were unable to participate in every rehearsal.

Members of the cast include Kim Fratesi, Brittany Jackson, Miranda Tamaska, Katie Durham, Daniel Thompson, Gabe Couret, Joseph Harrison and Chris Strutko.

Special guest stars include Patty Maguire, Norma Jean Planners, Joyce Brown, Amber and Craig McCullough, Kelly and Lisa Whitmire, Gina Hay Bryan, Leah Ogletree, Jackie and Frank Lunsford, and Ric Chiapetta, and Marshall said each show would include two or three contributing "guest stars."

Although Marshall, the cast, crew and accompanist Brittney Jaynes are still nailing down the program, at least 30 of the classic songs of the time will be featured, some in their full-length glory and others as part of medleys.

"We'll have some classic Irving Berlin numbers, both Christmas and non-Christmas songs, and other things that were popular during the war years -- patriotic songs, holiday numbers like 'White Christmas,' ballads, and tunes from groups like the Andrews Sisters," she said.

Marshall spent years in the community as an educator and show director, retiring from Rockdale High School five years ago. She's now working with the state's Department of Education and finally was able to carve out time for a New Depot Players' production.

"They approached me a few years ago about doing a show, and I've worked with the New Depot Players before, but at the time I didn't think I was ready," said Marshall, who last worked on a stage production -- "The Secret Garden" -- six years ago at Rockdale High. "So I said, 'Ask me again in a few years.' This is the first show I've done in a long time but I've had a lot of fun putting it together and learning more and more about that era."

Although the music for "A Red, White & Blue Christmas" was popular dozens of years ago, Marshall said she felt the production would be of interest to patrons of all ages.

"It transcends age," she said. "So many people are interested in that time period and we've romanticized it because patriotism was at its height then. The stories told always include patriotic fervor and the songs featured are ones we continue to sing today. The combination of national pride and outstanding music has appeal for all ages.

"USO camp shows are interesting and I'm surprised with all I've learned and continue to learn. It's fascinating to delve into."

"A Red, White & Blue Christmas" will run at 8 p.m. on Dec. 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17; 3 p.m. on Dec. 11 and 18. Tickets are $20 general admission and $16 for seniors and students. For more ticket information, visit www.conyersarts.org or call 678-374-3224.