READING, PA – Marlene Dietrich – the sultry star of such cinema classics as Morocco, The Blue Angel and Destry Rides Again – did not venture into war-torn Europe during the 1940s on a photo-op campaign. To the contrary, Hollywood’s first true sex symbol – an avowed enemy of Hitler’s Third Reich – crossed the pond to remind the boys of what they were fighting for.
Dietrich has been gone for four decades now, and most of the “boys” she entertained, encouraged, consoled and embraced are gone too. Those who remain are in their 90s and remember the feisty frau fondly. Hopefully, the photos and newsreels of Dietrich’s selfless travels will be with us forever.
Cindy Marinangel – a New York-based actress – has been performing an electrifying one-woman show about the life of Marlene Dietrich since 2017. Post-Examiner contributing photographer/model Lady Camille and I caught the show in 2019, and came away feeling like we had truly spent an evening with the legendary star.
The only thing “missing” from the show are the gleeful grins of all of Dietrich’s soldier boys.
Camille wanted to “rectify” that necessary omission (it is, after all, a one-woman show.) Not by adding actors to Cindy’s script, but by bringing the actress, along with the real Marlene’s war-time photos, to this years Mid-Atlantic Air Museum WWII Weekend (MAAM).
Their mission, over the course of the three-day event, would be to re-create a dozen of the iconic images. This reporter was lucky enough to be on hand for Saturday’s shoot. And by “lucky”, I mean that Camille got me into my WWII war correspondent’s gear, and insisted I bring my camera along.
Elements of the idea had actually been in the works since Camille and I saw “Dietrich” in New York. Logistics, Covid closings, and Camille’s yen to portray a Japanese pilot in 2021 put the Dietrich-shoot on hold until this year. But once we were sure we could make this happen, Camille was off and running.
The first task Camille undertook was to pick photographs which might meld with the WWII Weekend setting. You can’t re-create a hospital scene, for example, without a working field hospital.
There was also a hand-painted sign to be constructed, and calls made to several re-enacting units to get them on board. Plus, we wanted to keep our media contacts at MAAM in the loop.
The hardest part was obtaining accurate costuming for Cindy.
Cindy’s stage costuming includes a neatly-pressed Army dress uniform, which while admittedly smart and fetching, doesn’t correspond to what we know from the photos to be Dietrich’s war-time field apparel.
Period-correct attire in general can be expensive to procure, and women’s WWII army wear somewhat difficult to find.
This became increasingly evident through a series of emails where Camille was bouncing blog posts and catalog clippings off of me.
“Ever seen any photos of Dietrich wearing canvas leggings?”
“What about plastic frame sunglasses??”
“How hot and itchy is a wool uniform in June, anyway???”
Camille and Cindy collaborated on (mostly) comfortable work-arounds to meet the challenge, with some scavenged pieces going through several dye jobs to get the correct shade of olive drab.
Once she had the various puzzle pieces in place, Camille assembled a story-board notebook for the shoot and put her HBT directors cap on. The rest would be up to Cindy, the photographers Camille had wrangled, and scores of helpful re-enactors around MAAM.
What no one expected from the tribute shoot was the way the project will likely inform Cindy’s “Dietrich” stage show moving forward.
“I was really blown away by the whole structure of the event,” exclaimed Cindy. “I went to air shows growing up as a kid – I’m the only non-pilot in my family. But this was a blast.
“I suppose I knew a little bit about re-enactors, but I really didn’t know what I was getting into. The different stages around the airfield and all of the different effects. I mean, the little French village is to die for! And those vendors! I could have shopped for three days straight.
“I also wanted to just sit in the theaters and listen to the radio show and simply watch everybody, but then I was drawn from one area to another. I would go back and see something different each time. I mean, I didn’t get bored for one second.”
We wondered how Cindy might have gotten bored, running into Dietrich’s old friends and former lovers?
“You know, I had so much fun running into the likes of Frank Sinatra (retired USMC Colonel Frank Cubillo) and George S. Patton (Denny Hair). I feel like I made a lot of new friends, and to be honest, I didn’t expect that. It’s really a community. I also got to see the take-down when the show closed and that was another lesson – like, ‘Is this how they really moved a camp?’ I mean, it was a lot of work!”
With so much to see and do – on top of moving about for her photo-shoot – we wondered what stands out from Cindy’s first visit to MAAM?
“I was really impressed with all the veterans – greeting people and signing things in the hangar and out on the field. I had the opportunity to shake a few WWII veterans’ hands. To see the light in their eyes was the main thing I’ll always remember.”
Cindy told us she had done a lot of research into in preparing for her stage presentation but feels her interactions at MAAM afforded an invaluable dimension she otherwise might never have had.
“It’s added a whole layer, because I was kind of putting this sober note of, ‘It was war and I risked my life and so that’s that.’ You know, ‘Patton gave me a pistol in case of capture at the Battle of the Bulge and said you always save the last bullet for yourself. You don’t want them to take you alive.’ But what I realized at MAAM is that she was this bombshell rolling through the camps to entertain the boys. She’d be surrounded by thousands, and the next day it would be a hundred. So she was very aware that this could be the last night of their life. For me, I finally understood that sensuous greeting, ‘Hello, boys’ and they would all shout ‘Whooo’ at her. I think that had to be such a high for her – that she really felt like she was doing something important to help the soldiers.
“Being at MAAM also helped me to understand her role with the war bond drives. Dietrich sold the equivalent of a million dollars worth of war bonds, which was more than anyone. She traveled the U.S. doing bond drives, and she donated an entire film’s salary to rescue Jews and help them relocate and get jobs when they came to America. She really, really did a lot.”
Cindy’s New York show has been on hold for two years while the city wrestled with onerous Covid restrictions. But in Reading – where sanity rules the day – the question many asked is: Will future audiences at MAAM have a chance to visit with “Dietrich”?
Reenactor Chuck Niccolls certainly hopes so. In recapping Cindy’s visit with Niccolls’ group – the Big Red One Living History Organization – he said in part:
“Cindy as Marlene Dietrich made her way into the area where I camped with my re-enacting unit, and portrayed the silver screen icon to perfection. She added an element of reality to her appearance in front of our soldiers that as re-enactors, is what we strive to achieve at our events. Cindy stayed with us and greeted everyone as Marlene, took pictures with our troops and joined us for dinner. All the while she never broke character. It was truly amazing the effect she had on all of us. Her visit was capped by her beautiful and haunting rendition of “Lili Marleen”. All I could think of is how much MAAM audiences would also appreciate the Marlene Dietrich experience. There’s an authenticity she (brings) to the stage… something (MAAM audiences) have never seen before.”
For Cindy’s part, she said she feels tomorrow will take care of itself. Right now, she’s still enjoying her own high.
“As an actor, portraying Marlene Dietrich, I always had to kind of imagine that time of her life. I came away from MAAM going, ‘Wow, her life was in danger. But she also had a really good time.’”
That she did.
Oh, I should add that Camille considers the Dietrich shoot a resounding success. No surprise, really. A lot of good people pulled together to make everything she had planned turn out right. Next up? A retrospective of Camille’s vintage shoots – including her Baltimore Streetcar Museum fantasy, and her turn as a Japanese pilot at last year’s WWII Weekend – is in the works for a prestigious art gallery in Pittsburgh. Stay tuned.
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Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”