From the opening moments, everything about Expressions of America is big at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
There are big pictures – row after row of marching soldiers, big machines, imposing brick and steel walls, and enlarged propaganda posters calling on Americans to do their part, at home and on the front lines. Projected onto the multi-story facades of large museum buildings that surround the Col. Battle Barksdale parade ground, they dwarf an audience surrounded by loudspeakers blasting out versions of the greatest war songs performed by local musicians.
The production, designed by Mousetrappe Inc., is as overwhelming as the scale of World War II itself. Public performances begin at 7pm on Saturday. Tickets are available on the museum’s website.
Letters from home and from the front
The technically adept presentation betrays no emotion until the personal side arrives at home in the form of letters between soldiers and their loved ones — about 20 million mailings a week, according to the film. As Stephen Watson, the museum’s president and CEO, said in a remark ahead of Wednesday night’s preview, these people had no other way to keep in touch, so they poured their hearts out to each other, not knowing how or when the conflict would break out would end or if they would ever be reunited.
Images of stationery and envelopes fly across the screens, taking up every square inch, while excerpts of these messages are read aloud. One was written by Shannon “Gener” Estill, a first lieutenant in the 474th Fighter Group, who replied to his wife’s letter telling him that she had given birth to a daughter named Sharon.
Father and daughter never met. When Sharon was only 3 weeks old, her father’s plane crashed in Germany less than a month before the war in Europe ended.
This girl, now 77, was in the audience on Wednesday night, where she saw her parents’ likeness on the side of a multi-story building.
“It honored my parents in a way they could never have imagined,” said Sharon Estill Taylor, standing on the parade ground after the performance. Taylor is a museum trustee who recovered her father’s remains in 2005. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The multimedia presentation is “the culmination of a long quest to find my father and bring him home and share him with the world,” Taylor said.
Not all came back
A recurring theme throughout the program is Americans’ willingness to put their dreams on hold and do whatever it takes to win the war. A letter from a woman who worked in a factory said: “We thought that the faster we worked, the sooner our friends would come home.”
But the letters and songs also remind viewers of what warriors witnessed – emaciated soldiers marching through bombed cities – and the unsettling fact that not everyone made it home. “I have already made my will,” wrote one soldier. “Next time you go to church light candles for me,” wrote one GI. Multi-meaning vintage songs like “We’ll Meet Again” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” play in the background.
Photos and films by Bob Hope, who entertains the troupe, serve to lighten the mood. The footage not only demonstrates his relentless determination to lighten the spirits of men and women who faced death in war, but also recognizes the grant that made the presentation possible: $5 million from the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation.
At a VIP screening Thursday night, Bob Hope’s daughter Linda addressed the audience, and the audience included World War II veterans flown in for the occasion by the Gary Sinise Foundation.
“A glimpse of hope”
Hope’s wartime shows featured a combination of songs, jokes and beautiful young women who, the comedian joked in one routine, were there to remind soldiers what they were fighting for.
He received thousands of letters from grateful GIs and their families. An unnamed parent sent this message to Hope: “You were the only ray of hope for our 19 year old son who will not be coming back.”
Expressions of America is the brainchild of Bob Farnsworth, the museum’s senior vice president of capital programs, who came up with the idea after seeing works by major artists projected onto the walls of an abandoned bauxite mine in southern France.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. My thought was that we could combine the story with the technology, and we did that.”