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Former military personnel stationed at Argentia wade in on memories of naval base club and USO shows

Anyone who grew up in around the Argentia to Placentia area can likely remember the Windjammer night club … or stories about it.

The club, located on the United States Naval Base, hosted a number of United Service Organization (USO) shows through its history.

The USO, dating back to the Second World War can remember Bob Hope’s USO visits to countless locations around the globe and through the Korean and Vietnam wars and beyond with a full cast of celebrities stepping in to help entertain the troops while they were in service to the red, white and blue.
That history has been brought back to life for several years now by the Placentia Area Theatre d’Heritage (PATH) including this year’s incarnation denoting the year 1969 in “An Evening with the USO: The Windjammer 1969.”
The local community in and around Placentia and Argentia, as well as former servicemen who made the base home — and some who even married and stayed in Newfoundland and Labrador attended the closing night’s performance at Town Centre in Placentia.
They gathered under the original disco ball that hung in the centre of the Windjammer, a key centerpiece to the performance.

Related story:

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George Walters, who came to Argentia from Buffalo, N.Y., was on the base from 1976-81 and has lived in St. John’s since.

“I though the show was excellent. You feel like you were back at the Windjammer for a while,’’ he said.

He arrived in Argentia on the Ambrose Shea and he recalls the fog he endured for his first two weeks here, and despite that, and being away from home, he found a way to enjoy himself and even took a wager with his commanding officer.

“I remember them taking us to the Windjammer early in our time here and my commanding officer making a bet saying, ‘I bet you $20 that you will leave here married.’ I took the bet and a year later I handed him the $20,’’ Walters said.

What has always stood out to Walters throughout his more than 40 years in Newfoundland is the people and he gives special credit to his civilian boss, Mitch Ryan, for his contributions to his life.
“I learned so much from him over the years I worked with him,’’ he said.

“Those lessons, and his friendship, helped make me a better man.”

The audience was able to be transported back in time to be part of the Windjammer show hosted by Nickie Durante (Darren Ivany) and featuring the Lovely Ladies quartet accompanied by the Johnny Ray Band.
The Lovely Ladies, comprised of Georgia Draper (Connie Newhook) Caroline LeDrew (Maggie Follett), Mary Jo Richardson (Erin Murphy) and  Sally Keeping (Paula Milley), along with band leader and singer Johnny Ray Durante (Zack Newhook) took the audience on a musical journey through 1969 with smash hits that included “Hit The Road Jack,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Rose Garden,” “Tumblin’ Dice” and was capped off by an encore closing number of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” among others.

The songs were skillfully performed and when mixed with dialogue by Nicky Durante that recounted several of the big news items of the day, both globally and locally, the audience had a few good laughs.
There was even an interlude when waitress Carmelita (Laura Milley), who had eyes for the bass player (Jackson Davis) exchanged some banter with Johnny Ray who was asked where he is from and he said “Syracuse, have you heard of it,” and she countered with “Yes, I’m from Ferndale, have you heard of it?”

Another audience member Cammi Vidal, a member of the U.S. Navy Band and resident of Barracks 114 at Argentia was one of three former serviceman who attended the performance.
He was stationed in Argentia from 1962-64 and, like many in his time, married a local girl — Dorothy Smith of Dunville. In fact, their first-born child Camilla Elliott still lives in the area.
“I though the show was well done, even though there were some songs we (his wife) had never heard before,’’ Vidal said.
“I thought the guitar was too loud, but that is the musician in me. Also, I like the songs they did, but I would have liked to have seen a few more patriotic songs like the “Marine Corps Hymn,” “Anchors Away,” Star Spangled Banner,” and a few more from his day.
He said his favourite songs from that era included The Beatles, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Frank Sinatra.
Originally from The Philippines, Vidal joined the navy in 1959 and was stationed first in San Diego. A musician, he was sent to music school in Washington, D.C., before he was stationed in Argentia.
“When I got my posting, I thought it was Argentina,’’ he chuckled.

In keeping with the show’s timeline, Nicki Durante touched on the U.S.’s new president Richard Nixon by saying “he’s going to be a good president,” was saddened by the news The Beatles were disbanding and extolled the virtues of the Americans reaching the moon first and beating the Russians to the feat.
“Hopefully, this will be the last time Russia interferes in our politics,’’ he said.

In addition to Johnny Ray Durante (Zack Newhook), the band was comprised of Sam Carson (Shawn Bruce), Ralph Jones (Jackson Davis), Willy White (Will Hickey) and Shortie McGuire (Rudy Barry)
Special guests in the performance were Carmelita Murphy (Laura Milley) and Derm Hann (Robbie Pomeroy).

A third member of the audience was Bostonian Bill Flaherty, who was first stationed in Argentia in December 1969.
“I remember landing at the air strip that was there at the base then on a beautiful sunny day,’’ he said.
“I came in as a cook and the thing I remember most is the people from here made the experience as positive as it became for me. I got to know all their families and their dedication to their work was mind-boggling,’’ he added.
He said that dedication and the pride they had in their families touched him and he got to learn more about all this and more when he married Marg Dollmont from Freshwater.
“Being here tonight brings back memories of the Windjammer. We could be there right now with the way this show was done. There were a lot of good times there.”

Like so many posted to Argentia, Flaherty was excited when he got his posting, thinking instead he was headed to South America and would be in Argentina.
“But no, they pointed out to me it was Newfoundland. I asked them where that was … and they said, ’up North,’” he added.
PATH, Placentia’s summer theatre troupe, is a non-profit organization established in 1994. It presents a living interpretation of significant parts of the regions French and English history and providing visitors and locals with entertainment that reflects its unique culture.
PATH is proud to have an eclectic group of people with a wide range of skills, from students to professionals, bringing our summer theatre program to life.

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