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Updated USO Liberty Bells Troupe Cater to Vets, Troops of All Ages

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

By Christian Pelusi 

The USO Liberty Bells were born in the World War II era of the Andrews Sisters and their “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” but today, as the USO continues to morph with the changing needs of troops and military families, so too have the USO Liberty Bells. The show troupe still performs songs like “Jump, Jive and Wail” but also incorporates hits from every decade, all the way up to today's Grammy-winning hits.

“The concept that we come to know as ‘the Bells’ has evolved pretty dramatically over the last couple of years,” said Rachel Murray, Director of Entertainment for USO of Metropolitan New York. “We do veterans' shows where we still see World War II vets and a lot of shows where guys want to see disco and Motown and we’re doing Adele now and an Adele medley so we’re really trying to branch out and hit everybody.”

The troupe has not only expanded its song options but also the size of its cast. In the past three years, the USO Liberty Bells have grown from three women to 21 performers to accommodate the approximately 200-event schedule that the group now maintains. The schedule encompasses military shows, corporate events and high-profile media appearances. The 21-member troupe now also includes men to cater to the influx of women in the military, as well.

“As we would go out and perform on ships and different events, the gals would be like ‘What about us?’ so we took that into consideration and made a strong effort to bring a lot of talented fellas into the fold.”

USO Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff John Pray was one of the driving forces behind the expanded role for the USO Liberty Bells.

“The key was to update the show so it would be seen as more entertaining to our younger troops and families,” Pray said. “Bottom line: The Liberty Bells are a versatile group of incredibly talented performers who are terrific ambassadors of the USO and who are able to say ‘thank you’ through their performances and their personal interaction during meet and greets on behalf of the American public ... the impact is smiling faces and lifted spirits.”

Being in the backyard of Broadway has given USO of Metropolitan New York access to some of the world’s most talented performing artists. Men and women with shows like "Les Miserables," "Hairspray," "The Sound of Music" and "Spiderman: Turn off the Dark" on their resumes are now touring with the troupe.

“The days of just standing behind a microphone are way over,” said Ray Kennedy, Vice President, Programs and Services for USO of Metropolitan New York, mentioning how the choreographies, harmonies and solos are all areas in which prospective members are judged. Setting a higher bar has also translated into greater competition for those 21 spots and a higher quality performance.

Being a tremendous singer and dancer is just half of the job description. The Bells are also representatives of the USO and need to have the ability to be effective advocates for the organization in many different settings.

“We really look at them as the most significant USO ambassadors that we have out there day-to-day,” Murray said. “So they have to be able to do everything from play games with the children of a deployed service member and then be able to speak on national television on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

Said Bells performer Larissa Klinger, whose father served in the Army: “Being part of this group is meaningful in so many ways. As a professional performer living in New York City, it is easy to get caught up with furthering your own career and solely being around people in the industry. Being a member of the USO Liberty Bells allows me to do what I love most (perform), but use it as a way to give back!

“It pulls me outside of the world of climbing the ladder of success to a world where I can stop to focus on how truly grateful I am to all the many men and women who serve our country so that I have the freedom to live in New York and pursue my dreams.”  

For Bells performer Melissa Johnson, the importance of the USO and the troupe came into focus early in her career during a small spaghetti dinner event and a chat with veterans at a POW/MIA table.

“It changed my life. The way they explained the meaning of everything. I was in tears. It was at that moment that I realized what the USO really does. And that is to bring a kind word or smile to a family member that is waiting on their loved one. Or already lost a loved one. To let them know there are other people in this world that care about them and their loved one and the sacrifice they all make.”

The combination of ability and professionalism yields the kind of memorable moments that help accomplish the USO's mission of lifting the spirits of troops and their families. Murray recalled one that still stirs her emotions.

“I was on the USS Wasp last year [during New York’s Fleet Week] and there was just a sea of sea service members. We had done a two-act concert [on the ship] with every kind of songs, Lady Gaga, country songs and everybody was having a wonderful time and the very last thing we did – I get chills telling this story every time – was ‘Proud to Be an American’ and the girls were all standing up there in those beautiful costumes and you’re looking out at a sea of service members. You see these guys that were getting ready to leave there to go to the Middle East, to go to Afghanistan and to go to war and you see them all holding each other and hugging each other and singing the words and looking up at them. You’re part of that bonding experience that they have. So when you see that shear effect, the joy that they’re bringing to them, we really are lifting their spirits and it’s such a wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to do and be a part of.”

“And then, when you see them come out and stand for hours taking every last picture and saying hello to every last person who stood in line to see them, it’s a very special thing.”

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Photo caption: USO Liberty Bells performers entertain at a recent event in Irving, Texas. (Credit: John Pray / USO) 

Donate today to support our troops this Veterans Day during the USO’s "Grant a Wish for Our Heroes" campaign. 

Federal employees can help the USO fulfill its mission to support troops and their families though the 2012 Combined Federal Campaign. Please designate #11381. 

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