Sam Tomlin heard Dean Martin crooning "For Me and My Gal" over a loudspeaker yesterday, and he could no longer stand still. With a Lena Horne button pinned to his striped shirt and a wooden cane in his right hand, the wiry 82-year-old broke into song and dance.
Tomlin, like many others, had come to Market Square in Old Town Alexandria for the music, and he got an earful. At the city's first festival honoring the World War II generation and the United Service Organizations, or USO, nostalgic music and entertainment were given center stage.
"Music is the only thing I still hear," Tomlin, a World War II veteran, joked as he bounced under the shade of a magnolia tree. "I turned off people long ago."
It was the second day of "Alexandria Salutes! A USO Weekend," the city's contribution to the World War II-themed events that have packed the capital region's calendar this summer.
Under the hot afternoon sun, a couple of hundred people -- many veterans, many passersby -- gathered on the brick plaza to hear 1940s-era music, take swing dancing lessons and chuckle at the jokes of Abbott and Costello impersonators.
Organizers said the festival was a way for Alexandria to pay tribute to what has been called the "Greatest Generation" and for the USO to draw attention to its work, which has evolved since the World War II era, when it comforted soldiers with dances and Bob Hope shows at 3,000 clubs worldwide.
These days, the much smaller organization focuses on helping military personnel and their families, said Elaine Rogers, president of the USO of Metropolitan Washington, which sponsored the festival with the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association.
"The USO used to be just an entertainment piece," Rogers said. "Now we have become almost a social service organization."
In addition to the period tunes, the festival offered participants two personal ways to show support for the militaries of the present and the past: Inside City Hall, visitors taped video greetings and e-mailed them to troops overseas. Outside, they boarded buses that shuttled them across the Potomac River to the National World War II Memorial in Washington.
The USO Liberty Belles, a red-lipped, brightly uniformed trio reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters, was a big hit. Crowd members tapped their toes as the women sang standards from yesteryear, and they roared when the group left the stage to serenade audience members, including Alexandria retiree Mike Oliver, 66.
One of the Belles took a seat on Oliver's lap and covered his face with kisses, leaving lipstick smooches all over his face. After the show, he got the women's autographs.
"They are flat-out good," said Oliver, a former Army reservist who came to the festival decked out in red, white and blue. "They are not Milli Vanilli-ing the Andrews Sisters."
The festival will continue today with another performance by the Liberty Belles and a World War II memorial service.
Yesterday, on a sidewalk next to Market Square, campaigners for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry passed out stickers and pamphlets.
But Alexandria City Council member Ludwig P. Gaines (D), who emceed the day's events, said politics was absent on the square itself.
"We all have a real appreciation for the sacrifices that the servicemen made, as well as their families," he said.
"It's really a chance to say, 'Thank you.' "