SCRANTON — For Gracie Jean Zanghi’s family, the first blow was learning her Uncle Paul had been killed.
The second blow came soon after. Uncle Gene, the youngest of five brothers who had been serving in World War II, became a prisoner of war.
Zanghi’s voice caught slightly Wednesday morning as she recalled the ordeal, but she persevered.
“He gathered all the beautiful words he could imagine,” she said, describing how her uncle, Gene Boylan, lifted his spirits by writing a song in which he reminisced about the way the sun rose over the Keyser Valley back home, and about his 3-year-old niece who lived there.
The little girl is 78 now, living in West Scranton, and happy to sing the tune that helped her uncle cope with his captivity.
It’s one of several musical numbers and memories of World War II that a group of seniors and teens, led by co-artistic directors Rudy Caporaso and Rosemary Hay of REV Theatre Co., will present in The 1940s Canteen, a theatrical production set for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Oppenheim Center for the Arts on Jackson St. Admission is free.
While participants like Zanghi and Carlene Howard, of Clarks Summit, who sang as a child with the USO, will share their own recollections of World War II, memories supplied by other residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania are being presented by young “alums” of REV’s summer theater program.
Miranda Chemchick, 21, of Scranton, for one, is portraying a woman named Helen who was 11 years old in the 1940s, growing up in a Scranton-area “melting pot” where the neighbors were “Polish, Irish, English, Czech and Italian; we were Russian.”
Helen’s family didn’t have a telephone, and since she was the only family member at home who spoke English, she went to a neighbor’s house to take the call from a man who delivered the news her brother-in-law had been killed by a sniper.
“My sister was working at a munitions factory. I had to be the one to tell her her husband wouldn’t be coming back,” Chemchick said, closing her eyes at the horror.
“Even though he was buried in Belgium, we had a funeral in Scranton,” she continued, explaining how the neighbors contributed their best ethnic foods. “It was terrible, but it was wonderful, too.”
“You’ve heard of ‘Hogan’s Heroes?’ ” 16-year-old Joey Olsen of Scranton asked, in character as one of eight young men on an American aircraft. “I know a Hogan who was a hero.”
Speaking in the voice of a man who had enlisted in 1942, Olsen described a scene in which four German planes attacked and damaged the American plane in which he was riding.
His buddy, Staff Sgt. John Hogan, “went down into the belly of the plane and manually operated the guns by himself,” Olsen narrated.
Hogan shot down three of the enemy aircraft and kept on fighting after he took a shot through the spine. “He shot down that last damn German plane and saved every one of our Yankee asses.”
For the rest of his life, the heroic Hogan was paralyzed from his chest down. “He was the bravest man I knew,” Olsen said.
Along with the poignant stories, Caporaso and Hay have interspersed light entertainment, including an ensemble singing “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” which Guy Lombardo made famous in the 1940s.
Howard, the USO performer, will accompany herself on the piano as she sings “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan-dowdy” as well as “After You’re Gone,” which she recalled was a favorite that veterans would ask her to sing when she visited them in the hospital.
“I’d sit at their bedsides and ask what they wanted me to sing,” Howard said. “Bob Hope was upset that I couldn’t tour with him, but I was too young.”
“If I were Bob Hope, I would have smuggled you into a suitcase,” Caporaso teased the singer during rehearsal.
In other portions of the show, professionally trained guest artists will sing the difficult harmonies The Andrews Sisters made famous such as “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” and Scranton resident Mary Dux, 92, will dress up in a yellow dress and fruit-covered turban to sing and dance in the style of Carmen Miranda.
“My friend made this for me,” Dux said, showing off a necklace of plastic bananas.
Singer Gus Reed, 72, of Throop, said he’s glad The 1940s Canteen offers a chance to honor veterans.
“I really have a lot of respect for the servicemen and women and what they did,” he said.
Olsen, one of the younger participants, said he’s learned some history from the project.
“I knew bombs were dropped in Europe,” he said. “I didn’t know they blacked out windows over here (to be ready in case of air raids.)
Caporaso said he’s wanted to stage a World War II program like this for quite a while, giving people who experienced that era a chance to shine.
The music’s great, too, he said.
“My grandmother adored this music,” he said, “and it made its way into my consciousness.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT