Maxene Andrews, the middle sister in the trio that delighted generations of Americans with wartime swing songs such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Rum and Coca-Cola," has died of a heart attack at the age of 79.
Andrews, who lived most of the last three decades in Los Angeles, died Saturday while vacationing in Cape Cod. The day before, she had signed autographs for fans a quarter her age at a local bagel shop, where a rare piece of Andrews Sisters sheet music--"Shoo Shoo Baby"--decorates the wood-paneled walls.
With her sisters Patty and La Verne, she catapulted to the top of the pop charts in the late 1930s. They became one of the country's most popular female recording groups, collected 19 gold records, scores of Top 10 hits and dozens of movie credits during World War II, when the Andrews Sisters were the singing sweethearts of American GIs at war bond rallies, battlefield hospitals and USO performances.
Of the three sisters--none of whom knew how to read music--it was Maxene, the vivacious soprano, who reinvented her career many times over, surviving the advent of rock 'n' roll and continuing to perform up until her death, even after a near-fatal heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in the mid-1980s.
In September, she joined President Clinton and her fellow USO trouper Bob Hope in Honolulu for a rousing chorus of "America, the Beautiful" at ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Andrews' career included success as a soloist after the 1967 death of one sister, La Verne, and a falling out with Patty. But Andrews did not limit herself to performing. She spent several years as a drama instructor and top administrator at Paradise College in Lake Tahoe and enjoyed modest success as the author of a book called "Over Here, Over Here," about the performers of the war years.
In recent months, Andrews drew raves as a guest in an off-Broadway musical revue, "Swingtime Canteen," and in a touring show of Stephen Sondheim numbers. She was scheduled to perform in early November at four sold-out shows at Leisure World in Laguna Hills, and at the Academy Plaza Theater in North Hollywood.
"She went out like a supernova because she never stopped," said Lynda Wells, Andrews' 50-year-old daughter and manager. "When she started new careers at ages most people are thinking about retirement, she showed us that no matter what you want to do, it's never too late."
In spite of a decade of heart trouble, Andrews' sudden death was a blow to her friends, who knew her by her nickname, Mackie.
"Mackie was the best friend anyone could have," said actress June Allyson, who had known Andrews for 50 years. "But she's not gone. She's right here in my heart. Although the world will miss her so much, she'll still be here with us because the brightest star you'll see shining in the sky will be Mackie."
Andrews was born in Minneapolis in 1916, the child of Greek immigrant parents. She and her two sisters were junior high school dropouts who took to the roadhouses and vaudeville stages of the Depression-era Midwest to help support the family. By the mid-1930s, the three girls made their way to New York--so poor that they stretched a single chicken for a week's worth of meals.
But an executive at Decca Records liked their close harmony and swinging delivery, and signed them to a modest contract: Four singles at $50 each. The first was a bust. The second, which featured a tune called "Nice Work If You Can Get It," was released with a Yiddish song rewritten into English by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin.
That was "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," which vaulted the three Gentile girls from Minnesota to fame and fortune. With Patty singing lead, Maxene soprano and La Verne alto, the Andrews Sisters recorded some of the most popular--and a few of the campiest--songs of the swing era, including "Roll Out the Barrel," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time."
For a time, they had their own radio show and performed and recorded with Bing Crosby, Gene Krupa, Danny Kaye, Al Jolson, Carmen Miranda, Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller, among others. Their screen credits included several Abbott and Costello comedies and a 1944 Warner Bros. wartime morale booster called "Hollywood Canteen."
Along with Hope and Crosby, the Andrews Sisters headlined tours of American military installations and operations around the world. One of their most memorable concerts was in a dirigible hangar in Naples, Italy, in 1945, where the commanding officer asked the sisters to interrupt their songfest to make an announcement to the 5,000 assembled GIs. On the slip of paper he passed to the three women was the news that the war in Japan was over.
Shortly after La Verne's death from cancer in 1967, the Andrews Sisters act broke up and Maxene spent a few years in academia in Lake Tahoe, which she later told Billboard magazine was the "biggest kick I've ever had."
But a strange twist brought the two surviving sisters back to public attention, and a new generation of fans: the 1973 release of Bette Midler's version of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." The following year, the Andrews Sisters, minus one, were again the rage, starring in a hit musical, "Over Here," which ran for a year at Broadway's Shubert Theater.
It was to be the last joint performance for the two sisters, who had a falling-out that industry insiders say had to do with a conflict between Maxene and Patty's husband, Walter Weschler, the group's conductor and arranger.
According to published reports, the sisters, despite being longtime neighbors in Encino, had only seen each other twice since 1974--once at Maxene's bedside after her 1982 heart attack, and again at the 1987 dedication of their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1989, Maxene Andrews moved from Encino to Auburn, Calif., near Sacramento.
Past 60 years of age, Maxene Andrews embarked on a solo career. She was sidelined by a heart attack at 66, but was back on stage a few months later, rehearsing strapped to a heart monitor. She showed an indomitable will, performing five weeks after heart bypass surgery.
In 1990, Andrews released her only solo album, called "Maxene: An Andrews Sister." A year later, her music was brought to life on the stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, in a ballet choreographed by Paul Taylor and set to nine Andrews Sisters songs. "Now our music will go on forever," Wells said her mother exclaimed at the time.
In addition to her daughter and her sister, Andrews is survived by three other children, Aleda Hunt and Peter Todd, both of Salt Lake City, and Steve Sharp of Los Angeles, and her former husband, Lou Levy of New York City.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Weschler, Patty's husband of 44 years, said his wife was "too emotional to speak." Of the sisters' estrangement, he would only say, "We wished it could have been otherwise, but it's one of those sad things."
Plans for memorial services in both New York and Los Angeles are pending.
Times staff writer Efrain Hernandez Jr. contributed to this story.