Back in the '30s and '40s, Maxene Andrews was the sister on the right.
She was part of a team that lived and sang in close harmony, made 21 movies and sold more than 75 million recordings, including some that are still fondly remembered: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," "Beer Barrel Polka," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and -- perhaps the most memorable -- "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
In their teens and early 20s, the Andrews Sisters won a special niche in the fantasy life of America as the cute little girls next door who could sing up a storm. But there was a spit-and-polish precision in their voices and gestures that made it seem perfectly natural when they put on their tailored soldier suits in World War Ii, marched off to sing for "the boys" and added a new dimension to the image.
Then America's taste in music changed, and we didn't hear much about the Andrews Sisters anymore.
Tonight, 61 years old and at last on her own, Maxene Andrews is bringing her new solo act to the Cellar Door. She's not exactly nervous about it (she's has been doing the act around the country since July, and audience reaction has been good), but she is still a little disoriented:
"After being a part of a trio for so many years," she said in a luncheon conversation this week, "the whole feeling of it is completely different. I'm a fledgling leaving the nest."
Musically, she likes it better: "I think my voice is more mellow now, and I certainly know a lot more about what the lyrics mean. I can be myself without compromising with other people on which offers to accept and what wardrobe to wear, and I can sing a lot of songs that I would not have been able to sing as one of the Andrews Sisters."
Andrews ordered tea -- a bit of a surprise from someone who helped to make "Rum and Coca-cola" a household word, and who now earns her living singing to people who are consuming alcohol.
This turned out to be a part of a larger surprise: Maxene Andrews is undoubtedly the only nonsmoking, nondrinking, vegetarian, 61-year old born-again Christian to sing at the Cellar Door in living memory.
The born-again part came a little less than two years ago, long after she had tried and left her father's religion(Greek Orthodox) and her mother's (Lutheran), and it is part of an approach to life that she summarizes simply: "Never stop growing."
"I don't think people should be forced into retirement," she said. "It's not right to pick an arbitrary age and say to you, 'Okay, that's as far as you can go.'"
At the height of her first career, the Andrews Sisters lived in a protected environment, she recalled: "When our parents were alive, they traveled with us all over the country -- and when the show was over, we were papa's and mamma's girls at home. No dating in high school, no parties or proms.
"While other kids were enjoying these things, we were out singing. Of course I loved it, but I missed what the other kids were doing.
"Now, I'm getting a taste of all that freedom. I'm finally enjoying my teen age, and I think it's great to be a teen-ager with so much experience behind you."
Being a part of a trio also offered some protection which she sometimes misses now. "If you forgot the words for a moment, you could hope that everyone was listening to LaVerne and Patti, and if you got a run in your stocking, you could hope that they were all looking at your sisters.
"But you can't help feeling that you have talents outside of singing harmony, and that's what I'm working on now. At first, I was afraid that the solo act might be a real disaster, but the audiences have been good to me -- and anyway, I thought I had to try."
Bookings have been steady since she came back, keeping her shuttling back and forth between the East Coast and California, where she lives. "My last booking was at Studio One in Los Angeles," she says, "and from here I'm going to entertain on a cruise ship to Bermuda and back. I've never been to Bermuda."
"They don't pay much," added her manager and traveling companion, Linda Wells, "but it's worth it."
The Andrews Sisters never actually went out of business after the 1950s rocked-'n'-rolled in. The group was still singing together when LaVerne Andrews died in 1967, and they kept it up for a few years with another woman to fill out the trio. "But it wasn't the same," Andrews remembered, "and finally we decided to stop."
The two remaining Andrews Sisters were called back into the limelight a few years ago, when Bette Midler's recording of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" went to the top of the charts, and they played together in a Broadway show. But then they separated again, with Patti building a separate singing career. b
LaVerne's death also influenced Maxene's decision to write a still-unpublished book about what it was like to be one of the Andrews Sisters. "I remember, it was on July 16 in the year LaVerne died," she says. "I was in Houston, and I woke up at 3 a.m. and something was telling me to write a book. I finished it 11 years later -- I'm not really a writer, and I didn't want to hand the writing over to anyone else, but I think it's a good book and I think it will be published."
Meanwhile, she is enjoying the risk and the exhilaration of being out there all alone with the audience, with no sisters to share the spotlight -- or to distract attention.
"When it's going right," she says, "there is a magnetism, an electric current between you and the audience that is the greatest high in the world. I can't understand why people in show business feel that they need drugs, or even booze, when they can get a high like that.
"And I can't understand why people my age feel that they have to feel old."