Liberty Bells in Blowing Rock
Let freedom ring at the Hayes Center, one bell at a time.
The USO Liberty Bells are en route to entertainment in Blowing Rock for "Operation Hayes Center," a fundraiser to help restore full programming to the beleaguered arts hall, on Aug. 28-29.
The Liberty Bells are a New York entertainment troupe, falling under the United Service Organization (USO) umbrella.
The United Service Organization was founded in 1941 to work with the U.S. Department of Defense by offering entertainment and support to U.S. troops abroad and at home.
Comprised of Broadway and off-Broadway professionals, the Liberty Bells do just that, delivering troops a "home away from home" through their big band, Broadway and pop music revue, packed with lively singing and dancing.
"The USO Liberty Bells are one of a kind in that we are the official show troupe, called 'America's Show Troupe,'" said Ray Kennedy, director of programs and services for USO Metropolitan New York. "We're from New York, but we work for USOs around the country. We have extensive auditions in New York every year, and (the Liberty Bells) travel throughout the country and world."
"Support the troops," Kennedy said. "We have many different ways to support the troops, United for Reading, a big phone card program, and USO centers all over the world, which are places where people can go, get away, use a computer, have someone to talk to."
Having just returned stateside from a trip to Dubai, they're ready to hit a different climate:
Blowing Rock. Kennedy, who will accompany the Bells on piano for the upcoming show, has ties to the area, having directed two musicals for the Blowing Rock Stage Company about 10 years ago.
He'll return to the stage Aug. 28-29, with four of the Bells - Andre Garner, Ali Bertash, Nancy Emerson and Natalie Loftin Bell - to offer the High Country something fresh at the Hayes Center.
"Variety with a capital V," Kennedy said. "We do wonderful patriotic acts, but our performers are very diverse."
Diverse to the tune of three acts for the upcoming show, including a classic section featuring songs of the big band era with a distinct Andrews Sisters feel, a Broadway component with some of the genre's most popular show tunes, and a contemporary section for today's troops, including hits from the Black Eyed Peas and Beyonce.
"We're going to combine them, so we'll have lots of different music," Kennedy said. "The four people I've picked to come to Blowing Rock are really talented and diverse, so ... with this show we really get a chance to show they're not one-trick ponies, that they have lots of talent, can sing lots of different types of music."
The Liberty Bells come to Blowing Rock under the umbrella of USO North Carolina. According to John Falkenbury, president of USO NC, there are 145 USO centers around the world, with 80 in the U.S. North Carolina is home to four USO centers and one mobile unit - Jacksonville, Camp LeJeune (the oldest continuously operating USO in the world), Fort Bragg and Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte Douglas airports.
"We're separate entities ... so, in that regard, we have to raise our own funds to support activities in North Carolina," Falkenbury said. "Last year alone, just in North Carolina, we served over a quarter million men and women in uniform."
This isn't the Bells' first trip to North Carolina. The group performed a Memorial Day concert for the troops prior to a show at the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte.
"It was fantastic," Falkenbury said. "The troops loved it, because they cater to the troops in their contemporary music."
The show's already proving popular in Blowing Rock, and it's still more than a week away. So popular, in fact, that the original one-night only performance was extended to two.
The Aug. 28 show, expressly a fundraiser, has already been sold out, with the exception of a handful of $1,000 sponsor level tickets. Tickets to the additional performance for the general public cost $25 for general seating and $50 for premium seating, which also includes a pre-show reception with the Bells.
Proceeds benefit the Hayes Center, while 40 percent of the Liberty Bells' artist fee goes directly to the USO, enabling the Bells to continue their work, performing for active military, veterans and wounded soldiers.
"This fundraiser is vital for us to sustain operations until our grand reopening in summer 2011," Hayes Center board chairman Ronald Bryson said, "and it's also a wonderful way to help support our military troops."
With the economy in a nosedive last August, the Hayes Performing Arts Center closed its doors to reevaluate its finances and operating procedures. A year later, after numerous meetings and restructuring efforts, the center's board of trustees is ready to take the next step.
"There has been a lot going on behind the scenes to get the center onto sound financial footing," Bryson said. "The support has been tremendous, and things are looking very positive. It is very gratifying to see this show and fundraiser scheduled and to have activity in the Hayes Center again."
The USO Liberty Bells' Aug. 28 performance starts at 7:30 p.m. The second performance takes place Sunday, Aug. 29, at 2 p.m. To purchase tickets, call (828) 295-9627 or visit http://www.hayescenter.org.
The Hayes Center is located at 152 Jamie Fort Road, just off U.S. 321, in Blowing Rock.
How to Help the USO
The USO is launching a new program called the 21st Century Connect Card, a $7 card that anyone can purchase by visiting smilesovermiles.com/donate. These cards enable military members and their families to send unlimited secure e-mails, including 10 minutes of video at a time, for a full year.
"So, now families can remain connected, whether they're deployed or talking to grandma out in California," Falkenbury said. "It's a great program that was launched in ... North Carolina and will be launched nationally very shortly."
For more information, and more ways to help, visit http://www.uso-nc.org.
"The heart and soul of what we do here are North Carolinians," Falkenbury said. "Whether it's the over 700 volunteers out there day in day out, welcoming our soldiers or saying goodbye to them ... we're North Carolinians, and we need the help of North Carolinians."