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.