The Girls with the Misbehavin’ Shoulders
September 25, 2015
Caleb Pirtle III
DEAN B. E. MASTERS was a troubled man.
It seemed to him, during the fall of 1939, that too many fans had a habit of leaving the bleachers during the halftime of Kilgore College football games. When there was a lull in the action, students simply got bored watching an empty field, stood up, and went on back home.
In addition, he realized that the college had an average of six boys to every girl who attended classes. His job was not only to recognize problems but also find solutions, and Dean Masters decided he could solve both issues with a single idea.
Masters had become intrigued with the color, pageantry, and precision of the Flaming Flashes, an all-girl drill team at Greenville High School. Maybe that was the answer for which he was searching. Maybe Kilgore College could create some kind of drill team to perform at halftime with H. L. (Major) Walker’s Ranger Band.
He moved quickly, hiring Gussie Nell Davis away from her teaching and drill team duties at Greenville, persuading her to invent, devise, and develop a marching unit that would add color and excitement to Kilgore College Football games.
A high school was one thing, she knew.
A college was something else.
A college drill team had to be different and distinctive.
A college drill team had to be spectacular.
Relying on her years of instruction in ballet, jazz, and tap dancing, Gussie Nell Davis created the Rangerettes, selecting girls for their beauty, grace, coordination, sense of rhythm, and dedication to hard work, especially hard work.
She recalled, “All my life, the only thing I really ever wanted to do was to dance on the stage. I decided that I would put a line of girls out on that football field, and we were going to dance. If they did good, I did good. If they made a mistake, I was the one who made the mistake.”
Gussie Nell Davis was seated in the hotel coffee shop when she was first introduced to Liggett Crim, and she recalled: “Somehow, the subject of fireworks came up. I don’t know where I got the idea, but I wanted fireworks with the Rangerettes’ first performance. I had no idea that Liggett Crim had fireworks.”
Crim was fascinated with her imagination. For him, it was a great opportunity to promote the town he revered while indulging in his favorite pastimes, showmanship and fireworks. The manager of his theater, Knox Lamb, designed a special display – a red, white, and blue explosion that spelled out “Rangerettes” in script.
All Liggett Crim ever said to Miss Davis about the premier performance of her drill team was: “We’ll go and shoot off the fireworks again at the game in Monroe next week.”
The Rangerettes were indeed charting new territories, and, in time, they would become one of the nation’s top and most admired group of entertainers, performing at the Presidential inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades in New York City.
Their high kick became famous worldwide as the Rangerettes took their own energetic style of entertainment to Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Korea, and Venezuela.
Television broadcaster Red Grange dubbed them “Sweethearts of the Gridiron,” and a Chicago Tribune writer labeled the Rangerettes as “the gals with the misbehavin’ shoulders.”
Gussie Nell Davis drilled her girls for long, grueling hours on the football field. They became bundles of aches, energy, sweat, and nerves, but she always told them, “Beauty knows no pain.” Her Rangerettes had their share of both – pain and beauty – and she said of them, “I do have lovely girls. They are dependable. They learn discipline, which we can’t work without. They learn to dress properly and present a good appearance. They learn good posture.”
She paused and laughed before saying, “But there are two things I can’t do anything about. That’s hair and short skirts.”
As she watched the Rangerettes leave Kilgore College each year, she knew: “They are going to forget the routines, but they won’t forget how to stand, how to be gracious, how to be good citizens. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I think these are the things that matter.”
Gussie Nell became such a legend that she walked into a financial institution one morning, intent on borrowing enough money to buy a home. She was asked to fill out a credit application.
That didn’t bother her.
It was, after all, a standard request.
Gussie Nell smiled and simply wrote: “Gussie Nell Davis. Kilgore, Texas.”
She left the rest of the application blank.
It didn’t matter.
Gussie Nell Davis of Kilgore, Texas, had her loan before the day ended.
The Kilgore College Rangerettes are seventy-five years old this year.
May the party last forever.