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Edwin Shrake
December 16, 1974
The dance-drill team is an art form that was invented and brought to perfection by this indefatigable Texan, whose Kilgore Rangerettes were its first exponents and are probably still the best
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December 16, 1974

Trouping The Colors For Gussie Nell Davis

The dance-drill team is an art form that was invented and brought to perfection by this indefatigable Texan, whose Kilgore Rangerettes were its first exponents and are probably still the best

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It is cold water on the old Humbert Humbert fantasy to wander through Davis Hall. Without their uniforms and cosmetics, the Rangerettes do indeed look like mama's little girls. Not only that, they look like the girls mama would have liked to have had instead of the ones mama got. They are knitting, chatting, studying, listening to music, waiting for boyfriends to call and being so wholesome generally that it is hard to swallow at first. Where, one wonders, are those chorus babes in the cowboy hats and short skirts? Surely they aren't these kids with curlers in their hair carrying laundry down the hall? These teenagers with bright smiles and chirping voices crying out for pizza and milk shakes? These are the same prancing, glamorized dolls who do high kicks in red panties in front of millions? These girls could play Julie and Tricia to at least a tie when it comes to wholesome. "They're the quietest and most religious group I have ever had," Gussie Nell says. One of them won't even dance with her boyfriend. She says that kind of dancing is wicked.

That notion is part of the reason Gussie Nell invented the Rangerettes. She grew up wanting to dance in Farmersville, Texas, hometown of Audie Murphy, but if you danced in Farmersville you got thrown out of the church. Gussie Nell attended what is now Texas Women's University in Denton, with the warning that if she did not do well she would have to return to Farmersville and work in a dry-goods store. Then, in 1939, she was hired at Kilgore College by a stern Baptist president who ordered her to produce a halftime show that would keep the men in their seats instead of under the stands taking a nip. Gussie Nell had never seen the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, but for her first show she produced a fireworks display and a drill-and-dance group, and a lot of people saw the second half of the game in unaccustomed sobriety.

"I think the Rangerettes right now are better than the Rockettes," says Jeanne Hale, Kilgore College publicity woman, who is herself a former Rockette and Mrs. Texas. "It's remarkable when you consider that some girls work as Rockettes for 15 years, and Miss Davis keeps hers for two at the most, and we dance with greater precision."

"By the time a girl leaves here after two years of long bus rides, hard work and performances, she's usually got show business out of her system," says Gussie Nell. "She's ready to settle down. She's dependable, because anybody who's not dependable will not be in our line. She has good habits. She knows she can be courteous and be a lady and still be herself. She has what some people call old-fashioned virtues. But she's not worried about who she is."

Saturday morning it was raining again. The Rangerettes were supposed to pose for their official photographs on the lawn of a home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for a Kilgore oilman, L. N. Crim, but the session moved into the gym. At noon Gussie Nell went to the Town House Cafe, where she eats every Saturday if she is in town: fried chicken, cornbread, two vegetables, dessert and an iced tea for $1.84.

"We called over to Tyler, and the field is just slop," Gussie Nell said. "I do want the girls to look good. We're all hams, you know. It's just that most of us are afraid to put on a show by ourselves, but with others we can express the ham in us without feeling like we're being stared at individually."

Outside, the temperature had fallen. A norther was blowing in. "Well, the rain is going," Gussie Nell said. "It'll be muddy and colder. We've performed where it was so cold the girls were crying. We won't let them wear body stockings because they bag at the knees, and we've been on the field with the chill factor 16� below zero. The girls don't feel the cold while they're performing. It's while they're waiting that it hurts." The Rangerette motto is: Beauty Knows No Pain.

The two Rangerette buses left for Tyler from in front of Davis Hall at 5:30. The girls were in uniform, many of them with their hair in curlers. They were singing, stretching, clapping as the buses went down the highway. "These girls have tremendous stamina," said Deana Bolton, a former national twirling champion in high school and onetime boss of the Dallas Tex Anns halftime drill group before the pro football team moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs. "The girls are in much better shape than the football players."

"I've never seen the girls so nervous," said Gussie Nell.

Only 21 of this crop of Rangerettes had ever performed on a football field, and now it was at Tyler in the mud. As the buses pulled into Rose Stadium, the Rangerettes began unrolling their hair. Even the captain, Vicki Murray, a dance teacher in Bossier City, La. in the summer, was anxious. "I hope nobody kicks up mud and falls down," she said.

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