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SPAM and legs: 'Hormel Girls' danced, sang, sold

Hormel Girls
Courtesy of Hormel Foods Corp.
Though Jay Hormel founded the Hormel Girls to create jobs for women veterans of World War II, the troupe eventually consisted of just professional performers. Still, they carried on the regimented attitude of their military predecessors.

 

You had to have talent — plenty of talent — to be a "Hormel Girl" in the decade after World War II. Plus you needed a "pleasant" look, a strong sales aptitude, the endurance of a plow horse and a thorough knowledge of Hormel products, such as SPAM and Dinty Moore.

Oh, and it goes without saying that you were expected to behave like a proper young lady, especially when wearing your green Hormel suit, black pumps and jaunty garrison cap.

Never heard of the Hormel Girls? A play opening this month in St. Paul could change that.

Jay C. Hormel, the canny scion of the Austin, Minn., canned-food family, went hog-wild for show business before his early death from heart disease in 1954. His all-female company of comely young performers sang, danced, played instruments and paraded into cities across the country in a fleet of as many as 40 matching white Chevrolets.

At their peak, after the group had grown to more than 60 performers, "Music with the Hormel Girls" was a top-rated weekend show on three different radio networks. But when the troupe was disbanded late in 1953 — a victim of early TV advertising — the Hormel Girls quickly disappeared from cultural memory, save for scrapbook clippings by hundreds of women.

Now they're back — at least, in the form of a theatrical homage.

When she set out to find and interview former Hormel Girls for a musical commissioned by St. Paul's History Theatre, playwright Laurie Flanigan discovered that many of the "Hormelovelies" still retain the kind of vitality they needed to endure the grueling schedules of their early road-show careers.

"These are hardy women," Flanigan said. "In the beginning, the rule was that they had to be military veterans — so they were used to a regimented life, with lots of rules. That attitude continued long after the veteran requirement was eliminated."

Hitting the road
Violinist Shirley Lillehaugen Santoro, who now lives in St. Paul and continues to perform with a variety of local orchestras, found time for a recent interview between rehearsals. She remembered the fight she had with her parents when a job offer from Hormel tempted her to join the troupe before finishing her last semester at the University of Minnesota's School of Music.

"My dad said, 'If they really want you, they can wait until after you graduate,' " Santoro recalled. "I was crushed. I was sure I'd missed a big opportunity."

But when Santoro graduated in May 1952, the Hormel Girls were waiting.

"I graduated on a Saturday and the next day, mother and dad drove me to Madison to join the tour," Santoro said.

Sing along with the Hormel Girls at their 1947
Christmas radio broadcast from Fort Meyer, Va.
Video courtesy of Hormel Foods Corp.

Embed this video:

 

A few months later, she talked Carolyn Wilson Eklin, her former roommate when both were attending St. Olaf College, into auditioning when the troupe was appearing in the Minneapolis Aquatennial. Eklin, an English major at St. Olaf, had accepted a high-school teaching job. But she was a good singer, played the flute and had the lithe look of a potential dancer.

When a job was offered, Eklin swallowed hard, reneged on the teaching contract, and hit the road. The two women paired up and were soon driving around the country in their official white Hormel-inscribed Chevrolet.

It was a demanding life. Santoro had to learn to play the alto horn and Eklin took up beating a drum so that they could perform in the show's trademark drum-and-bugle finale or march in occasional parades. Eklin also took dance instruction from Marie Kuhlman, the company's steely choreographer and all-around rule enforcer.

"She was Simon Legree impersonated by a woman," Eklin said, recalling the time she got into trouble for forgetting to wear false eyelashes during a stage show.

Santoro, who played violin with the troupe's 24-member orchestra, said she was once chewed out for scratching her nose while sitting onstage. How unseemly.

Finding jobs for female vets
All-female bands and orchestras were not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century and the use of women to provide a face for brand products was a well-established marketing device. For instance, General Mills hired actresses across the country to provide radio voices for their fictional "Betty Crocker," and the deception was so successful that a survey taken in the 1940s found that Betty Crocker was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of name recognition.

Betty Crocker was widely perceived to be a real person, and because General Mills hired local actors to portray her on the radio, listeners in Georgia were charmed by her Southern lilt, while listeners in Maine were convinced she was a no-nonsense Yankee.

Hormel Girls
Courtesy of Hormel Foods Corp.
Violinist Shirley Lillehaugen Santoro, standing, left the tour in fall 1953 to take a job with the Duluth Symphony. The Hormel Girls wore green flight-attendant-like uniforms when they were "on duty" but weren't performing.

 

However, Jay Hormel's idea of creating the Hormel Girls was launched by post-war patriotism. As vice chairman of the American Legion's National Employment Committee, Hormel was part of an all-out effort to find jobs for returning soldiers. Finding jobs for women veterans who wanted to work was particularly challenging.

In 1946, Hormel hit on the idea of augmenting his company's male sales staff with ex-service women who would market products directly to homemakers. Hormel recruited G.I. Janes — Wacs, Waves, Spars, Women Marines and nurses — and he specified that they should have some musical talent so that they could occasionally entertain at women's clubs.

That same year, Hormel helped establish the all-female American Legion SPAM Post 570 in Austin, and he required his new Hormel Girls to join it. Decked out in green uniforms that made them look like flight attendants, the Hormel Girls were soon traveling around Minnesota and Wisconsin, appearing in grocery stores to pass out samples of Hormel Deviled Ham and Hormel Liver Pate, among other things.

The following year, Hormel recruited and trained 60 women veterans in an unsuccessful effort to win the formerly all-male American Legion National Drum & Bugle Contest in New York. Despite months of intensive training, the women failed to "bring home the bacon," as one of them ruefully put it. But their appearance at the New York convention created such a sensation that a national marketing program was born.

Hormel Girls
Courtesy of Hormel Foods Corp.
Before disbanding in late 1953, "Music with the Hormel Girls" was a top-rated weekend show on three radio networks.

 

Parading through towns
By the time Eklin and Santoro joined the tour, the Hormel Girls had evolved into a well-oiled machine of professional-level performers, almost none of them military veterans. An advance team would precede the Hormel Girls into a selected city, setting up events, making contacts with grocery stores, and distributing coupons that promised prizes to homemakers who located a particular Hormel Girl at their local market.

Driving in two-person teams, the troupe would meet at a prearranged spot and then form into the "Hormel Girls Caravan" for a Chevy parade into the community. The routine after that was usually the same.

"From Monday to Wednesday, we'd be in the field, visiting every grocery store and supermarket within 150 miles of the main city," Eklin remembered. "Wednesday afternoon we'd come back and rehearse on Thursday — we'd always be booked into the biggest auditorium in the city. Then we'd do a show. Friday we'd tape the radio show before an audience. On Saturday we'd sometimes rehearse until noon and then we'd leave for the next city.

"We had Sundays off."

The cost of all this was substantial. A fleet of cars and trucks carrying equipment and instruments was expensive, as well as the cost of hotel rooms. "We were well paid, and we got an allowance for food and laundry," Santoro said.

Hormel Girls, then and now
Courtesy of Hormel Foods Corp./David Hawley
Then: Carolyn Wilson, left, and Shirley Lillehaugen pose with the white Chevy they drove to appearances. Now: 54 years later, Carolyn Wilson Eklin, left, and Shirley Lillehaugen Santoro reunite at Eklin's home in Plymouth.

 

Jay Hormel also insisted that each Hormel Girl get 10 paid days off every three months, along with a free trip home. It was patriarchal — "a very sheltered environment," Santoro recalls. But Hormel was also a bottom-line kind of businessman who believed the Hormel Girls were terrific sales representatives for the 40-odd canned products sold by Hormel & Co. at that time.

On their days off, Santoro and Eklin did what artists often do: They went to see other artists — including jazz sax player Gerry Mulligan, opera singer Enzio Pinza, and Leonard Bernstein conducting at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. They also saw a lot of baseball games, particularly when the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing.

 

End of the road
Santoro left the tour in fall 1953 to take a job with the Duluth Symphony, but Eklin stayed until December, when the troupe was disbanded after their final appearances in Florida. She lived for a time in California and toured Europe before returning to a career in education and research. Both women later married and reared children — three for Eklin, two for Santoro.

Both remember their experiences as Hormel Girls as times of adventure. Good and proper adventure, they insist. Did they ever do anything reckless?

Well, there was the time they set out early and were driving to their next appearance in California when they got pulled over for speeding. The officer looked puzzled when he saw two women in green uniforms with a "Hormel" badge above their left suit pockets.

Showing the officer her Minnesota driver's license, Eklin explained that "back home" there was no posted speed limit in rural areas. Yeah, you betcha.

"I said we were members of the Hormel Girls Caravan and that 39 identical cars would be coming by later that day on this highway," Eklin said. "He got this horrified look on his face and then he said, 'Will they all be doing 70 miles an hour?' "

Eklin said he let them off with a warning. Being a charming Hormel Girl had some advantages.

David Hawley, a former writer for the Pioneer Press, can be reached at dhawley [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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