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Kalamazoo Gals

Mini-fest celebrates women guitar makers

In January 1942, the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s recording of “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” was holding strong as the No. 1 tune in America. At the same time, gals in Kalamazoo were making their own music working in the Gibson guitar factory as their male counterparts left to fight World War II. That’s when the reign of the “Banner Gibson” guitars began.

To celebrate that era and the women who saved Gibson guitar production during the war, Downtown Kalamazoo Association Charities (DKAC) will hold Kalamazoo Gals Day Oct. 10.

The mini-festival will run from 5 to 8:30 p.m., mostly on the downtown Kalamazoo Mall but with related events at other locations. The festival will feature guitar music, a “show off your guitar” expo, a multimedia presentation and a tour of the former Gibson guitar factory (now housing Heritage Guitar Inc.) An after-festival open-mic event will be offered at Old Dog Tavern.

John Thomas, author of Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson “Banner” Guitars of WWII, coined the name “Banner Gibsons” to refer to Gibson guitars produced between January 1942 and the end of 1945 — guitars that had a small golden banner printed on their headboards saying, “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough.” The Banner Gibsons correspond precisely with the time when women worked at the factory.

“To me, there’s some kind of cultural message here,” says Thomas, a professor of law at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “Gibson was the champion of exaggeration — every Gibson guitar was more beautiful than a Southern belle, sounded more resonate than a rippling brook, except during the war. All of a sudden, it’s just good enough.”

Thomas will be on hand for the Kalamazoo Gals Day festivities, along with a few Banner Gibsons, including one that was shipped overseas during World War II and made its way back home. A Kalamazoo Gal herself, Irene Stearns, will be at the mini-fest as well. Kalamazoo Gals Day is a new event, supported by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

“Initially, Gibson denied making guitars during the war and denied me access to shipping ledgers,” Thomas says. “But once I talked my way into Gibson, I found shipping ledgers that showed 24,000 instruments were shipped during the war. At that point, I had a picture of the women in front of the factory in 1944, the ledger that proved production happened during the war, a marker that tells me when a guitar was made during that time, and I can now tie these women to the instruments.”

As a part of his research, Thomas partnered with the diagnostic imaging department of Quinnipiac University’s School of Medicine to analyze the measurements and production quality of Banner Gibsons compared to guitars manufactured before and after the war.

“A woman’s touch can really make a difference,” he says. “Beyond a doubt, there is a measurable difference between the guitars built by these women and those built before and after.”

The story of the guitars, their craftsmanship and the transition of the Gibson factory to wartime production is fascinating, but meeting the women themselves and hearing their stories have been the most transformative parts of Thomas’ journey.

“I still trade phone calls, cards and the occasional letter,” he says. “It’s way beyond just finding a piece of history. I forged relationships with these women.”

Thomas says the Kalamazoo Gals Day event is a great way to honor those women’s unheralded work. “This festival is for anybody interested in music, Kalamazoo history, American history or women’s history,” Thomas says. “It bridges all those gaps. We’ll have music, we’ll have a talk, and we’ll have fun. You’ll connect with the heart and soul of America and learn that the birthplace of that heart and soul is Kalamazoo.”

Tiffany Fitzgerald

As Encore’s staff writer, Tiffany writes — a lot. She is responsible for our Upfront, Savor, Enterprise and Good Works features every month, as well as other stories in the arts. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the editor of FYI, our new family magazine that debuted last month. When we aren’t working her to death, she hangs out with her husband and two sons and dreams of having the time to complete Pinterest-worthy projects.

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