Any celebration of our American Independence Day would be incomplete without an acknowledgement of the many brave men who have risked their lives to keep our country safe and free—and that’s exactly what The Andrews Sisters inspired South Florida harmony group The Victory Dolls is all about. Their repertoire of World War II era hits and vintage looks bring a little slice of history to life for a new generation,while bringing those who do remember that time a much appreciated portal to their past.
“We sang to a bunch of World War II vets that are still living, and they just, it’s so satisfying. They just love the music, they know every word, they mouth every word, it’s amazing,” local actress and group member, Aaron Bower, reflects.
For producer, Kevin Barrett, The Victory Dolls’ roots reach all the way back to his childhood, when he immersed himself in the era’s history.
“I would walk to the library about a mile away from my house, I lived in a small town and really in the summertime there wasn’t a lot to do, so I would go to the library and check out 5, 6, books on World War II… I was completely fascinated by that particular war,” he says.
Years later, a visit to New Orleans’ World War II museum, which hosted a similar group, inspired his idea to bring the concept to South Florida.
“But I never really found the right group of people, and so it really stayed just an idea until three years ago,” he reflects.
Shelley Keelor – Victory Dolls cast member and brand ambassador
That was when he found exactly the right person in Shelley Keelor, Victory Dolls cast member and brand ambassador. After she performed her own World War II show as a part of a cabaret series at the Delray Playhouse, one of Barrett’s many local theatrical ventures, he approached her to help him implement the idea.
“So we talked further, and we recruited nine of the top musical theatre actresses in South Florida to join the group,” Barrett says.
Aaron Bower – Victory Dolls cast member
One of these actresses was Aaron Bower, who was eager to get involved. “It was kind of a thing that we talked about and kind of fantasized about, so then it just came to fruition and was a dream come true,” Bower says.
“I love all of this classic music, and it’s so much fun to do three part harmony with other women, it’s wonderful to blend and I wanted a new generation to embrace and enjoy this music because it’s something that I’ve always loved.”
Jinon Deeb – Victory Dolls cast member and assistant Musical Director
So did Jinon Deeb, who would eventually go on to become the group’s assistant Musical Director.
“The music is built around jazz and big band styles, and that’s always been something I love, and being out of college, we don’t always get that experience anymore unless I get a gig with something like that, being able to sing in tight harmonies,” Deeb says.
But putting the group together was by no means an easy process. Between the busy schedules of the actresses involved and the difficulty of learning the intricate harmonies their original musical arrangements required, it took almost a year of work before the group was ready to take the stage.
“We all wanted to kill each other,” Deeb reflects. “It was brutal.”
But conquering the difficult material together cemented a lasting bond between the dolls.
“It’s like this level of respect that you don’t get in theatre because you’re only with them for a certain period of time, and you don’t get to establish that kind of relationship that we got to establish because we’re committing to this group… it’s definitely a sisterhood that I’ve never had,” Deeb says.
“In the end, we had this beautiful product,” Keelor reflects.
The group finally made their debut in September of 2019 with a series of shows at the Delray Beach Playhouse and the Mizner Park Cultural Center, where they were an instant hit.
“They sold out very very quickly, we could’ve probably done a week at each venue,” Barrett reflects.
“From there, we booked the dolls, at all different kinds of events, and it was really catching fire with the South Florida community and beyond and then unfortunately COVID hit,” he says.
It was a frustrating setback, but the dolls have made an effort to keep their connection going via regular Zoom calls and a few small gigs during the pandemic. And the pre-pandemic performance experiences that they were able to have were incredibly meaningful ones.
“At the end of every show we ask someone in the stands, in the seats, to stand up if they are a veteran, and it’s very emotional when they do stand up and they get a standing ovation from the rest of the crowd, it brings it all home. We also go to a lot of retirement homes where certainly there are many veterans. Some of them are alone, and they don’t have very many friends or family that come and visit them, and this is a very heartwarming show for them to watch and remember, and for some of them, it could be the last chance that anybody ever says thank you for your service and we’re really touched to provide that special moment for them,” Barrett reflects.
Keelor, whose father is a Vietnam vet, and Bower, whose grandfather served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, feel similarly.
“The emotions that we see coming from these veterans is just so beautifully heartwarming and overwhelming, and so it’s really just enhanced my appreciation for veterans and what they have been through, and what services they have done for our country.” Keelor says.
And for Deeb, whose grandfather was a World War II marine but who was initially drawn to the group more for its musical aspects, her involvement in The Victory Dolls was a way to feel closer to her family’s legacy.
“I had a little regret that I didn’t get to sit with him more, and I think being a part of this group and kind of learning the history…has kind of helped me feel a little bit more connected to my grandfather in that sense.”
The show has had a meaningful impact on other loved ones of veterans as well.
“Some of their spouses have been at some of the shows, or some spouses of veterans that have passed away. It’s quite special,” Keelor continued.
“Getting the opportunity to perform for actual World War II vets has been really endearing. Now, because that generation is definitely dying off, we’re doing it for their children and their children, and it’s just been, it’s been a really wonderful experience,” Bower adds.
Barrett and the dolls are also enthusiastic about being able to use The Victory Dolls’ platform to fundraise for and raise awareness of two high profile charity organizations that they have partnered with. One of these is Honor Flight, which gives veterans the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials there honoring them.
And the dolls’ connection with another organization, Homes For The Troops, began when Bower brought along some of her fellow dolls to sing the national anthem with her at one of their events.
“I feel so proud and pleased that…I could’ve just done it myself, that would’ve been great…but I was like, no no, this is what the dolls are all about, and they absolutely loved it…they literally were jumping out of their seats,” she says.
For their upcoming season, Barrett is hoping to increase the size of the troupe from nine dolls to twelve to fifteen, allowing them to embrace more performance opportunities despite the involved actresses’ busy schedules.
“I would love for it to be something we can do all the time, I would love it to grow and have more girls in it…I hope it grows into something that we can do year-round,” Bower reflects.
“We have so many ideas, but obviously bringing these ideas to life is another story, but I hope we can start entering into schools, talking about the history of the music and the World War Two scene,” Deeb adds.
“I think we’ll be very busy,” Keelor says. “We’re just kind of on the cusp of it all happening.”
And, in fact, the post-pandemic era may be a uniquely fitting time to harken back to a simpler past, a time when the country was able to come together against a common enemy instead of standing divided against itself.
“You kind of feel that, in the crowd, at the end of every performance,” Barrett reflects on the dolls’ positive energy.
“If anything, I don’t feel togetherness,” Deeb says, reflecting on our country’s current climate.
“And that’s the thing, we need to. Groups like us that are going to help everyone remember where it all started, to bring it all back together, like, let’s all take a deep breath, and we all need each other to create a beautiful world.”