A USO Show

WWII-based musical marks 75th anniversary of USO building

A theatrical production this week pays tribute to two hospitable Wilmington “ladies” who distinguished themselves in wartime.

Mrs. World War II Wilmington, an original musical theater show set in the 1940s, honors Hannah Solomon Block, who used her theatrical skills and seemingly limitless energy to make Wilmington a welcoming place for GIs during the war. Show performances also mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the other “lady”: Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center, home to USO activities during the war and later named for Block in recognition for her local efforts to provide entertainment for war-weary service men and women.

Both the wartime impresario and the historic building play a role in the upcoming musical, written by composer, theatrical director, and producer Tony Stimac, who moved to Wilmington a year ago. It’s being presented by the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center in partnership with The World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Coalition.

The show kicks off Friday – in time for Veterans Day on November 11 – with a gala before opening night. More shows are scheduled for the rest of the weekend. (Ticket and show times info can be found here.)

The plot revolves around Frances, a Broadway starlet who joins the USO tour and falls in love with Bob, a GI, during a performance at Wilmington’s USO building, as it was known then. She’s also inspired as an entertainer by Block, a former cabaret singer turned local civic leader, show producer, and general mover and shaker.

Rasa Love (shown above) is “flattered” to be cast as Block, whom Love describes as “such an integral part of the USO.”

“I’ve started doing a little bit of research on (Block),” Love says. “She did everything.”

When answering the Thalian Association’s call for auditions to read for the part, Love says, she was told, “You’ll be perfect as Hannah. You’ve got the right look, the right voice.”

One thing she needs to drop for the part, Love says with a laugh, is her Southern accent.

At its heart, the musical’s plot is a “sentimental love story with a glimpse into the lives of the men and women who sacrificed so much for our country,” says Susan Habas, executive director of Thalian Association.

The romantic musical features popular standards from that period, including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Sentimental Journey,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Mrs. World War II Wilmington is the result of a happy encounter. A year ago, not long after moving to Wilmington, Stimac and his wife, Marilyn, met Habas at a local event. A few months later, he, Habas and Home Front Heritage Coalition Chairman Wilbur Jones were having a conversation about the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center, which the Thalian Association manages and programs.

“They mentioned that the building was going to be having a seventy-fifth anniversary celebration,” Tony Stimac says. “About twenty years ago, I wrote a show about the USO during the Second World War. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the organization that does so much good. I told them about the show, and they asked to read it.”

Habas and Jones liked the play. They asked Tony Stimac if he could adapt the storyline to Wilmington and told him about Block’s many contributions to wartime morale-boosting. He agreed.

“The more I researched the Second and Orange (streets) building and Hannah herself, the more excited I became about the project,” he says. “My intention is that the audience revisit a time when America was at her best. Everyone in the country was pulling together, and they accomplished a miracle.”

That’s an era close to Jones’ heart and is central to the mission of the coalition, which works to keep the city’s wartime history alive and to help preserve important relics of that period, including the former USO building and the Battleship North Carolina. Jones says although the USO sold the building to the city of Wilmington after the war, and the city still owns it, the coalition is “the de facto historian and preservationist for the building.”

Mrs. World War II Wilmington – the name taken from Jones’ nickname for Block, his lifelong friend – will be performed in the building, which has been restored and furnished over the years to reflect as closely as possible its appearance in the days when Block staged upbeat shows for the troops with young women who performed at the USO building and elsewhere.

“She had a stable of girls ready to go to Camp Davis, Camp Lejeune, ready to entertain the troops,” Jones says, adding that the musical is not Block’s story, but a reflection of the way she inspired those around her.

“It is a tribute to her, and she plays a role in the play,” he continues. “She was sort of the mother hen of the activities, intermingling between hostesses, entertainment, and troops. The piano she played is in the (building’s) Linda Lavin Studio.”

 

To view more of photographer Mark Steelman's work, go to www.marksteelmanphoto.com.