Last surviving Andrews sister died in January
Tom Rockvam displays a lobby poster for Private Buckaroo, one of 17 movies the Andrews Sisters made. Others were Buck Privates with Abbott and Costello and Road to Rio with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Photo by Chuck Sterling
Minnesota’s singing Andrews Sisters, who boosted Americans’ spirits with their jazzy, upbeat tunes during the dark days of World War II, are gone now.
Patty, the last and youngest of the superstar siblings, died Jan. 30 at age 94 at her home in Northridge, Calif. Her singing partners died years ago, middle sister Maxene in 1995 of a heart attack at 79 and LaVerne in 1967 of cancer at age 55.
But the legendary trio won’t be forgotten in their summertime hometown of Mound on the shores of Lake Minnetonka thanks to the efforts of Tom Rockvam, who’s probably their biggest fan.
The retired salesman was the driving force behind the city’s decision to name a walking trail in honor of the sisters. In the process he struck up a long-distance friendship with Patty during her last years, and she helped him write a book about their ties to the town.
He reminisced about Mound’s most famous former residents during an interview last month in the condominium home he shares with his wife, Kathy, overlooking the beach where LaVerne, Maxene and Patty spent some of the happiest times of their lives.
“Nobody has any idea how many great memories we have growing up as kids in Mound,” Rockvam said Patty told him in one of their many phone chats. “She was very proud” of the city’s tribute to them.
A celebration of Patty’s life is planned this summer at The Andrews Sisters Trail in Mound, he said, but no date has been set.
The Andrews Sisters’ career spanned 60 years, from the 1930s into the ’90s, during which they sold nearly 100 million records and had 12 No. 1 hits and dozens that made the Top 10 including Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree and Rum and Coca-Cola.
They starred in 17 movies during the ’40s, with the likes of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, entertained tens of thousands of GIs overseas and at home during the war, hosted a long-running national radio show and made frequent TV appearances in the ’50s and ’60s.
The trio and some of their most memorable hits are inseparable from the war, a dark period for Americans, Rockvam observed in his book, The Andrews Sisters and their 100 year connection to Lake Minnetonka and Mound, Minnesota.
“Their upbeat attitudes and songs of hope were just what the country needed during its days of struggle.” People were able to forget about the war while listening to their records, he explained. “They gave everybody a few minutes of relief when they came on the radio.”
But before all that the sisters lived in north Minneapolis with their immigrant parents, Peter and Olga Andrews, and spent their summers, between 1917 and ’31, in Mound. They often walked up to 20 miles to reach the little resort town on the southwestern edge of Hennepin County, now a city of more than 9,000 people.
The Andrews family stayed with the girls’ grandparents and uncles, Pete and Ed Sollie, who owned a grocery store there, and the sisters swam the days away at Mound’s main beach on Cooks Bay.
The beach was next to Chapman’s Casino, a restaurant, bar, bowling alley, roller rink and dance hall. Patty told Rockvam the sisters would set bowling pins there to earn 35 cents so they could go roller skating.
According to Internet biographies, Patty was born in Mound and her sisters were born there or in Minneapolis, but he said Patty told him she didn’t know where any of them were born.
Even after the sisters broke into the big time with their first hit record, Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, in 1938, they returned to Mound every summer until 1964 to visit their bachelor uncles, staying three or four days in the same house where they grew up.
“Patty Andrews told me that no matter where they were in the world or how busy they were in their very successful career,” Rockvam wrote, “they always took off one week each year — usually in July — to come back to Mound.
“They would spend time with their uncles – their only living relatives – eat, dance, and roller skate at the Chapman Casino and spend a lot of time at the Mound swimming beach reminiscing about their childhood.”
One Mound resident recalled it was one of the social highlights of the season during the ’40s when the sisters and their entourage would blow into town in a disorganized band of a half-dozen new Buick convertibles provided by a Minneapolis car dealer.
On one visit, they presented the uncles with a jukebox filled with all the Andrews Sisters records. Another time they gave them gold wrist watches.
Pete Sollie died in 1959 followed by Ed in 1964. Their house is gone, but the building that housed the store still stands along Mound’s main thoroughfare where it’s home to another business.
Rockvam said Patty told him that, in the early days on the tough vaudeville circuit, the girls would try to cheer themselves up by sitting on the bed in their hotel room and talking about what a great childhood they had had in Mound.
At the dedication of the trail in 2006, she told townspeople by phone: “The only way I can describe Mound is it is heaven on earth.” And at a 90th birthday celebration arranged by Rockvam in 2008, she told well-wishers, “You’ll never get rid of me because I’ve got Mound in my blood.”
Maxene once told a Minneapolis Star columnist, “I spent some of the happiest summers of my life in Mound,” Rockvam wrote. And at her request, half her ashes were spread on the Pacific Ocean and half on the Mound beach.
Rockvam, 73, said he grew up to the sounds of the Andrews Sisters. His father, Byron, owned a bar and restaurant called Roxy’s on Maxwell Bay in Mound. As a young boy, Rockvam sat next to the jukebox and listened, “and every fourth song was the Andrews Sisters.”
Later, he cut their photos out of magazines and saved them in a box. About a decade ago, after heart trouble forced him to retire, he came across the photos and realized neither the city nor any civic club had ever acknowledged, with a sign or plaque, that the world-famous sisters had grown up there. Almost everyone in Mound once knew about the Andrews Sisters connection, but the number was shrinking, and Rockvam feared those memories would be gone forever with the passing of his generation.
“I thought, ‘Well, you know, maybe it’s my job.’”
Rockvam said he expected it might take two weeks to get approval for a couple of plaques, but it actually took up to 1½ years to accomplish his mission.
After two possible locations didn’t pan out, he hit on the idea of naming a new half-mile walkway along the lakeshore through the heart of Mound, part of a downtown rejuvenation project, in honor of the sisters.
He proposed The Andrews Sisters Trail to the Mound City Council in September 2005, and the city approved it a month later, but it took many more council and parks commission meetings to pin down the details of two cast aluminum trail signs, and he had to pay $2,000 out of his own pocket to cover half their cost.
Despite some initial opposition and a lot of red tape, the city “bent over backwards to help,” he said. The Andrews Sisters Trail was dedicated in August 2006.
Patty Andrews, whom he had contacted earlier to tell her about the trail effort, thanked him with a famous publicity photo of her and her sisters from their 1941 movie Buck Privates. “To Tom — Thanks for being a friend,” she wrote on it. “Love from Patty Andrews.”
He had been anxious about calling her, afraid she might dismiss him, Rockvam said, but he finally summoned the courage. “I told her, ‘I’m Tom Rockvam, which means nothing to you, but I’m from Mound, Minn.’ It was just like she melted.”
She told him she hadn’t talked to anybody from Mound in years and offered to help the trail-naming campaign in any way. “She was very gracious.”
They talked “at least 100 times” over the next several years, he estimated. If a week went by without him calling her, she would call him. “It got to be a very good relationship.”
“I always got her to laugh,” he said, remembering her deep belly laugh. “It wasn’t that hard to get Patty Andrews to laugh.”
Though they became friends, they never met, and Rockvam said he believes she wanted it that way. “I think she wanted to be remembered the way we remembered her.”
Patty helped him write the book by furnishing many of the stories in it and authenticating or debunking other information. He self-published the 72-page, softcover chronicle in 2005 and has revised it four times since.
“My intention … was to get my $2,000 back,” Rockvam said, and he’s sold thousands of copies around the world via the Internet. The book is available by calling him at 952-472-0759 or emailing him at HURL2ROCK@aol.com.
The Andrews Sisters sang three-part harmony, he said, Patty singing the lead, Maxene singing high harmony to Patty, and LaVerne singing low harmony to Maxene. “You had trouble separating it – it was one voice.”
They combined it with some sassy dance moves, and it was a mystery how they were able to maintain a quality sound.
“They ruled pop music in the late 1930s, the 1940s and early 1950s,” Rockvam wrote. They recorded 46 Top 10 hits throughout their career, more than Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined.
“They were definitely superstars,” he said. “My gosh, they had 14 years of basically no competition” from other female groups, until the McGuire Sisters came along in the early ’50s, followed by the Supremes in the ’60s.
“They sang a lot of stuff in the war years with Bing Crosby,” he said, “and everything that they sang with Bing Crosby was a million-seller.” Those hits included Don’t Fence Me In, Pistol Packin’ Mama and Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.
Their last No. 1 hits were I Can Dream, Can’t I? and I Wanna Be Loved in 1950 with Patty singing the lead and her sisters providing the background.
Rockvam said Patty was married to Wally Weschler, who had been the group’s piano player, from 1951 until his death in 2010, and another source said she had a foster daughter.
LaVerne was married to trumpet player Lou Rogers from 1948 until her death, according to wikipedia.org, and Maxene was married to Lou Levy, their manager, from 1941 to ’48; she adopted two children.
The sisters didn’t always get along, according to Rockvam, and the act split up in 1954 but regrouped two years later. Patty and Maxene had a falling out in 1975, and the two remained estranged the rest of their lives though they occasionally made appearances together.
The Westonka Historical Society plans to move into the old Mound City Hall this summer, Rockvam said, and establish a museum featuring the Andrews Sisters, as well as a couple of other local claims to fame – Tonka Toys and actor Kevin Sorbo.
The Andrews Sisters exhibit will include a treasure trove of memorabilia collected over 60 years by Frank Bivins of Moultrie, Ga., and donated to the historical society through Rockvam. Among the hundreds of items are vinyl records, sheet music, albums, scrapbooks, movie posters, photos and news stories.
The exhibit will also feature the 1890s Harvard piano, now displayed in the city’s community center, that the girls’ uncles bought for $5 sometime in the 1920s and installed in their home in Mound.
“From that time on,” Rockvam wrote, “Patty, Maxene and LaVerne, along with the help of their musically inclined mother … practiced, sang and danced around that piano until they … began their long drive to stardom.”