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Medley of Memories

Dallas Morning News

By Marc Ramirez,
Staff Writer

July 29, 2019

Medley of Memories
Big band singer opens up about her adventures on the road

At 91, Hilda "Tinker" Rautenberg doesn't make a big production of her storied past. Still, she might occasionally break into song, reminded of a ditty or two she sang as a member of the Moonmaids, who did vocals for popular big band leader Vaughn Monroe in the late 1940s.

Born Hilda Cunningham, Rautenberg had just started at North Texas State Teachers College — now the University of North Texas — when she and three fellow students formed a collegiate quartet. Several lucky breaks put them in the spotlight and then on Monroe's national circuit, where they met stars like Frank Sinatra, Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney and appeared in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall.

Only rarely now does Rautenberg bring out her tattered, overflowing scrapbooks of news clippings and black-and-white photos of big band concerts, fancy banquets, beach frolics and life on the road.

"I really don't tell people," she said recently at Mustang Creek Estates in Keller, the senior community where she now lives.

The keepsakes sometimes surprise the staff and residents.

"When I found out who she was, I was, like, 'Oh my God,'" said La'Fonda "KK" Mathis, an activity director at the community. "We didn't know who we were taking care of."

Those years were a dream come true for a girl from Denton who'd sung since third grade, earning the nickname "Tinker" as a toddler for her habit of getting into things. She and schoolmates Mary Jo Thomas, Arline Truax and Katie Myatt loved big bands and their vocal groups, catching shows when they came to town and practicing their own arrangements. By 1943, the four had formed the North Texas Swingtet.

A talent show victory the next year put them onstage at Dallas' Majestic Theatre — and helped land them a national United Service Organizations tour gig performing in hospital wards.

"It was our first inkling that maybe we'd like to do this as a career," Rautenberg said.

One night, they drove to Lake Worth to see bandleader Stan Kenton, who graciously agreed after the show to listen to them sing. Also there was a writer for Band Leaders magazine, who was trailing Kenton for a profile and said he knew of someone who needed a vocal group: Monroe, the deep-voiced crooner whose existing quartet was disbanding.

As one academic journal noted, Monroe's low voice earned him monikers like "the baritone with muscles in his throat" and "the voice with hair on its chest." Known for classics like "Riders in the Sky" and "Let It Snow," he was among post-WWII singers like Sinatra and Bing Crosby who embraced slow, romantic love songs over the hot jazz sounds that preceded them.

Hearing their demo, Monroe hired the singers sight unseen and sent them two dozen arrangements to practice. They flew to New York in March 1946, and he renamed them the Moonmaids — a nod to his signature tune, "Racing With the Moon."

"We had no idea our boss was so popular," Rautenberg said. "But he was a good family man, which we all appreciated."

One of Monroe's former singers stayed on with the group, showing the fledgling vocalists, who Monroe called his "Texas kids," the ropes of big band performance and being on the road.

Hilda “Tinker” Rautenberg
Hilda “Tinker” Rautenberg rarely brings out her tattered, overflowing scrapbooks of news clippings and black-and-white photos from her years as a member of the Moonmaids, but every once in a while she breaks into song, reminded of one of the many ditties they sang.

"She took charge of us," Rautenberg said. "We had to get gowns and suits fitted. She'd say, 'Run off the stage quick because Vaughn's going to ask for a curtain call.' But we were ready for the challenge."

There were flubs. Once, Rautenberg and another Moonmaid were backstage playing cards when they heard a song intro onstage, where they were supposed to be.

"We were so apologetic," she said. "It never happened again, and Vaughn forgave us."

Being in the national spotlight meant a life constantly on the move.

"You learned to be organized, to carry your necessities, to not worry about getting your clothes clean if you couldn't," Rautenberg recalled. "You learned to make the best of it. You would be so tired that you could fall asleep on the makeup table. The buses were drafty, and you were at the mercy of wherever you stopped for the bathroom."

Still in their late teens, they lugged their own bags full of cumbersome costumes and cowboy boots on and off the bus. Musical equipment rode in a separate truck, while Monroe flew his own private plane.

Occasional flat tires prompted impromptu picnics or penny-pitching sessions against a curb, but it was one day in 1948 that stands out: The Moonmaids and band members were half-asleep en route to a show in West Virginia when someone shouted, "There's smoke coming out of the floor!"

The driver pulled over and they scurried off the flaming bus, grabbing whatever was closest at hand. "I took my bag, but left my cashmere coat," Rautenberg lamented. "We just stood on the side of the road, watching it burn."

By 1950, the "Texas girls" had tired of the constant touring, and besides, they'd promised their parents they'd return to finish school.

In her early 20s, Rautenberg returned to Denton to finish her studies and met her future husband, Bill Rautenberg, on a blind date. They married in July 1951, and he enjoyed a 30-year career as a Dr Pepper executive while she found gigs doing commercial and radio station identification jingles, just happy to sing again.

Fellow Moonmaids followed similar paths, and as years passed some periodically reunited for benefits and other shows. "We sang in nursing homes, Rotary Clubs, anybody who wanted to hear us," Rautenberg said.

These days, only two other Moonmaids remain — Thomas, who lives in Dallas, and June Bratone, who'd joined after one original member left and now lives in College Station. Rautenberg sees them only occasionally.

Her husband died in 2004, and she's been a beloved member of the Mustang Creek community since early last year.

"Tinker radiates happiness everywhere she goes," said Candy Jiwa, the community's executive director.

Rautenberg's fingers are barely strong enough to forge a solid guitar chord anymore, the calluses of regular friction long gone. But that doesn't stop her from periodically doing what brings her joy. One morning, she retrieved her instrument and played one of her old favorites: "Try to Remember," from the musical The Fantasticks.

Try to remember when life was so tender

When dreams were kept beside your pillow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

When love was an ember about to billow.

Afterward, seeing the scrapbooks spread on the table, a facility staff member told her, "It's an honor to meet you."

Rautenberg smiled.

"I'm just a normal person, like anybody else," she said. "I'm old. But I had a fun career."

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