Hormel Girls prepare for the big stage

Published 7:21 am Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Just after World War II, a band of saleswomen crisscrossed the nation peddling Hormel’s famed line of canned meats and other dishes — by day.

By evening and on weekends the women gave concerts in the towns they visited. The entertainment factor was such that more than half a century later, their acts are still being performed.

The most current re-telling of their story takes place later this month at Riverland Community College when Summerset Theatre presents the musical “Hormel Girls.”

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“Hormel Girls,” which was originally staged in 2007 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, is about the all-girl swing band Jay C. Hormel formed for G.I. Janes home from World War II; the performing group later accepted women who were not in the service, too.

Minneapolis-based producer Perrin Post said she came up with the idea for a musical about the singing saleswomen several years ago during a trip to the SPAM Museum.

“Instantly I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a show,” Post recanted Monday while visiting Austin for her grandmother’s 103rd birthday. “I said to myself, ‘these women are so interesting.’”

Post, born in Austin, was raised in Buffalo, Minn., and started the theater company Buffalo Gal Productions in the mid-1990s. In her work, she said she has been drawn to stories about women and their opportunities — productions that would offer good roles to women actors.

The Hormel Girls — said to be an early symbol of independent women — had a top-rated radio show at their peak and though they were also a marketing tool for Hormel, about half of them held college degrees. Starting in the late 1940s, up to 65 of the performing saleswomen would caravan at once into towns across the country riding in a fleet of white Chevrolets.

Laurie Flanigan, Minneapolis-playwright and friend of Post’s, got to work writing the script for the show shortly after Post returned from watching reels at the SPAM Museum that summer.

“The research was a fabulous process,” Flanigan said. “We started with the archives in the SPAM Museum… I got my hands on a few scrapbooks.”

Flanigan went on to interview about a dozen real-life Hormel Girls and a couple of men who were involved with the marketing campaign.

She then, with composer Hiram Titus, narrowed the scope of the story into the experience of Hormel, the show’s manager and six women.

The characters do not each represent individual real Hormel Girls, Flanigan said, but are rather each a compilation of their stories.

Summerset Theatre will be the third company to produce Hormel Girls — following the History Theatre and Anoka-Ramsey Community College — and holding the show in the homestead of the original singing troops has long been an ambition of the musical’s creators.

“I’m so thrilled that there’s going to be a show in Austin,” Flanigan said. “All of the women I interviewed were so fond of their time in Austin; They show a fierce loyalty to the town and to Hormel… This is a nice way to honor them.”

Post, who would like to develop a nationwide “Hormel Girls” tour, said she especially hopes to see representatives from Hormel Foods at the show.

“It’s such a positive part of Hormel History,” she said of the musical’s subject matter.

Post said she would love to bring a tour of “Hormel Girls” through various cities that have Hormel operations. Someday, she said, she can even see it being re-written with a much larger cast for Broadway.

“This story has potential for a big, big show,” Post said.

“Hormel Girls” takes the Frank W. Bridges stage at 7:30 p.m. July 20-24. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at Coffee House on Main and at the box office. They may be reserved by calling 433-0595.

A reception will be held for some of the original Hormel Girls and the creators of the musical at 5:30 p.m. at the Historic Hormel Home. Reception tickets are $35 and are available at the box office.

Hormel Girls

When: 7:30 p.m., July 20-24

Where: Frank W. Bridges Theatre, 1600 Eighth Ave. NW

Tickets: $15

Hormel Girls Reception

When: 5:30 to 7 p.m., Saturday, July 24

Where: Hormel Historic Home, 208 Fourth Ave. NW

Details: Real Hormel Girls and the creators and cast of the musical visit; hors d’oeuvres buffet and wine served

Tickets: $35