Seventy-five years after Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Winston-Salem native Erinn Dearth will perform in the historic spot for the veterans who risked their lives there.
Dearth’s singing-dancing-comedy troupe, “Letters From Home,” is performing today on the anniversary of D-Day on Omaha Beach — one of the five landing areas in the Normandy Invasion of World War II.
“Performing on D-Day is going to be epic,” Dearth said. “It’s pretty overwhelming, not only to be in France on the anniversary in the place where it happened, but to be with the actual WWII veterans and to see all the re-enactors.”
June 6, 1944 — known as D-Day — marked the beginning of the end of World War II, as more than 150,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers sought to free German-occupied France.
Throughout the war, United Service Organization (USO) acts provided live entertainment to soldiers overseas and far from home to boost morale.
Dearth’s USO-style show plays on that nostalgia, incorporating a mix of music, tap-dancing and jokes for their veteran audience, she said.
“Our show is a little bit off-the-cuff, wholesome, interactive and silly, just a lot of fun,” said Dearth, the founding artistic director of Spring Theatre in Winston-Salem. “It’s very cool to see some of the older guys who served are brought back to when they were 19. They have a spark in their eyes they haven’t had in many years.”
‘Have costumes will travel’
The international festival in Normandy marks the first international performance for “Letters From Home.”
The 75-year anniversary event will be attended by WWII veterans and their families from around the world and dignitaries, including the Queen of England.
“There will be a lot of reenactments happening, recreating what happened on the beach,” said Dearth, who was home-schooled in Winston-Salem and performed in shows at The Little Theatre growing up. “It’s going to be insane.”
As a duo, Dearth and her performing partner Dan Beckmann draw inspiration from icons, like comedian Bob Hope, who famously made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991.
They travel across the country, performing at VFWs, American Legions, air shows and retirement communities.
As part of their shtick, the couple wears 1940s-era clothing with Beckmann donning an Air Force uniform and Dearth dressing, what she describes as, Marilyn Monroe-esque.
“Getting the chance to perform in Normandy might be the coolest thing that’s ever happened to us,” Dearth, 34, said. “Have costumes will travel.”
Beckmann, 30, had been a cruise ship entertainer for nearly three years when he met Dearth through a mutual friend and joined the group last year.
Coming from a family with no military background, Beckmann said the experience has been humbling and eye-opening.
“Military guys are especially fun. There’s a camaraderie, kind of like an old-school, respectable frat house,” said Beckmann, who joined the group a year ago. “They toss back beers and pick on each other. It’s a really earthy, unpretentious nice time.”
It was during a post-show hangout with veterans in Cleveland, Ohio that the duo obtained an invitation to the anniversary celebration in Normandy.
The duo is accompanying members of the 83rd Infantry Division and their families to France, which Beckmann said he expects to be a very immersive experience.
“I’ve been to France, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go to Normandy,” he said. “Being able to go there and stand on the beach with the guys who served is chilling.”
A ‘life-changing’ experience
“Letters From Home” was born out of a Sunday night dinner conversation when Dearth’s father, Coast Guard veteran Pat Dearth, suggested she start a USO-style group reminiscent of WWII times.
“What these USO acts did was invaluable,” Dearth said. “Just about any song from 1938 to 1946 has that peppy, feel-good, heartfelt inspiration.”
In 2010, “Letters from Home,” was formed in Winston-Salem, initially as a three-part tribute to the WWII-era Andrews Sisters, who were known for their 1941 hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Dearth said “Letters From Home” aims to capture that same magic and light-hearted entertainment that inspired so many soldiers during their deployments overseas.
“Some guys we talked to from World War II said it was difficult to keep track of how many days they had been out there,” Dearth said. “These little spurts of inspiration that came from USO probably kept them alive.”
As the newfound “Letters From Home” began to perform at other venues around North Carolina, their act garnered the attention of VFW higher-ups, who invited them to do their show at their national convention in San Antonio, Texas.
The performance exposed them to other veteran organizations, spurring a host of new gigs in 40 states and counting.
Dearth’s accompanying performers have changed over the years, but she said she and Beckmann have a real on-stage chemistry.
Relying on his background in film and acting, Beckmann said he took a gamble and accepted Dearth’s invitation to join the group.
“This opportunity came knocking and I wasn’t sure, but it’s become way more life changing than I expected,” Beckmann, a Minnesota native, said. “The coolest thing is Letters From Home doesn’t put me in a box. I’m up there playing Dan, goofing off with the audience.”
Now a duo, the group spends about 150 days a year performing across the country.
“It’s a truly nomadic lifestyle. We have a suitcase, a backpack and a truck,” said Beckmann. “Once you learn home is where the heart is, you bring home with you.”