Back in 1988 when he was the pianist for the United States Air Force Band in Washington, D.C., Bud Forrest put together a female singing group in the style of the Andrews Sisters. Word got out about the act, and it wasn’t long before they were in demand to perform at parties and functions around town. Forrest, a businessman as well as an artist, knew he was onto something.
Anxious to add the song “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” to the repertory, he hired a trumpet player. Next, he signed on a nine-piece band. Soon, Forrest had “In The Mood,” a full-out celebration of music and dance from the Swing Era. Currently on a national tour that started in Montana two months ago and will end in Michigan later this month, the show, in its most recent version, will come to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Sunday, November 14.
“My goal, when I started this, was to take the music of the Big Band Era and make it more theatrical,” says Forrest, who is the show’s creator and producer. A classically trained musician who used to appear with the show as its conductor and pianist, Forrest now leaves the performing to others. “It’s a sampling of what it must have been like to experience the big bands,” he says. “I added swing dancers, so it has become a real variety show that gives audiences a flavor of different styles and sounds from the era.”
It was in the 1940s, the Swing Era, that Big Bands were dominating the radio and drawing record crowds to ballrooms and theaters. Soloists and vocal groups were singing a repertoire of popular songs. Culturally speaking, the era was unique. “It was the middle of World War II, really the last time that all Americans were listening and dancing to same kind of music,” Forrest says. “It was THE music, on radios, jukeboxes, and in live concerts. There were only 130 million Americans in 1940, and 16 million of them were involved with the war effort. The spirit and energy of the music helped us win, no doubt about it.”
“In the Mood” follows no specific plot. “The music is the story,” says Forrest. The show is billed as something more than a concert: a retro 1940s musical revue. The 13-piece String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra is made up of musicians well-versed in a host of styles. Along with the dancers, they come from all over the country but are chosen from auditions Forrest holds in New York. The show is directed by Alex Sanchez, a former member of Ballet Chicago and a veteran of several musical theater productions.
“These are not just kids,” says Forrest. “They are versatile, experienced musicians and dancers. Some of them are younger, but they go back and research what it was like to be a young lady in the 1940s. A woman of 18 in 1940 was a lot more mature than that of today, and they need to know that.”
As part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of World War II in 1993, the National Archives brought “In the Mood” to the steps of its building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The response was extraordinary, with people lining up for hours before curtain time. The engagement was extended, twice.
“In the audience were people who worked for the USO,” Forrest recalls. “They asked if I could put together a show and take it around the country. So we did that for the next two years.”
Once the tour ended, Forrest decided to continue running it on his own. He never expected to be doing it for this long. “If you asked me then if I would still be doing this in 10 years, I would have said ‘No,’ he says. “And here I am, 14 years later.”
Forrest was raised on Long Island. He was a serious piano student who attended the Juilliard School’s prestigious preparatory division during his high school years. Both of his parents were schoolteachers. “My dad played the violin a bit, but the only artistic person in my family was my uncle, Herbert Brodkin, who produced ‘The Holocaust,’ ‘The Defenders,’ and other TV shows,” Forrest says. “I don’t really know where the musical talent comes from.”
Forrest majored in music and accounting at Ithaca College in 1970. Later, he served four years in the Air Force while working on an advanced degree at Catholic University in Washington. It was then that he began serving as the pianist for the U.S. Air Force Band and its official chorus, the Singing Sergeants.
Working on “In The Mood” for all of these years, Forrest has become something of an expert on the music of the Swing Era. Most people associate that repertoire with the 1940s, but it isn’t exclusively from that time, he says. “Take a song like ‘Stardust,’ which was played by Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller and is one of most recorded songs in history; it was actually written in 1927. What the Big Band era did is that it took popular music of the 1920s to 1940s and added that element of the big band. The music had a good melody and an ability to make it swing.”
It is to be expected that audiences of a certain age, many of whom were young during World War II, are fans of the show. But the touring itinerary of “In The Mood” makes regular stops at college campuses. “Certainly across the country, there are college-aged kids who are very much into swing dancing, and they love to watch us,” Forrest says. “The swing dance clubs are among the largest at universities and colleges. Then you have the baby-boomers, who are all coming to hear what their parents were crazy about. This is a family show. It reaches all generations. It a chance for all of us as Americans to look back and experience a little history, a little patriotism.”
Future plans for “In The Mood” include a winter tour, an appearance at West Point, and, Forrest is hoping, a tour to Australia and New Zealand. “As long as the bus can get us there, we’ll put on the show,” he says.
After 17 years of “Stardust” and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” does Forrest tire of the music? “Absolutely not,” he insists. “It’s invigorating. It’s from a special time. There’s really nothing like it.”
In the Mood, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, November 14, 3 p.m. String of Pearls Orchestra with singers and swing dancers perform a big band theatrical swing revue. $32 to $52. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.