Storyteller Ellouise Schoettler affects no actorly airs in “The Hello Girls,” part of the Capital Fringe Festival. She just brings a little-known chapter of World War I to life by telling it straight. In a single concession to theatrical convention, she changes into different eyeglasses for each woman she profiles.
Dressed casually and with the sunny demeanor of a favorite high school teacher, Schoettler talks about American women who served in uniform at the front in 1917 and 1918 as bilingual switchboard operators. The Army Signal Corps advertised in American newspapers for operators who were fluent in French. They were needed to speed up and clarify messages transmitted between the trenches among the English- and French-speaking allies. Soldiers and officers called them the Hello Girls.
Apart from the excitement, danger and patriotic thrill of it all, one aspect of the story got Schoettler’s goat: It took decades for the women to receive proper recognition for their wartime service. Though the operators were sworn into the Army, put in uniform and sent very near the front, says one of the women she profiles, they were denied proper discharge papers and medals honoring their battlefield service until nearly 60 years after the fact. Many had long since died.
After a brief prologue, Schoettler launches into an account based on one 89-year-old Hello Girl veteran who recalls her delight laced with frustration on the day she finally got a formal “thank you” medal and discharge from the U.S. Army. “I just ask you. What were we if we weren’t veterans?” she declares.
Next, Schoettler takes up the story of Grace Banker, chief operating officer in charge of a key group of American operators at the front. In Schoettler’s account, Banker and her operators were set up with portable switchboards in barracks near enough to one battlefield to be issued helmets and gas masks. “We knew that if we didn’t make the right connection and we weren’t speedy with it, we could cost people their lives.”
Schoettler’s “who knew?” look at women in the Great War does what she no doubt intends. It makes you want to learn more.
“The Hello Girls” will be performed four more times from July 15-26. Visit capfringe.org .