Rangerettes raised spirits at Kilgore College
By Van Craddock
The year was 1939 and Kilgore College Dean B.E. Masters was desperate.
The Gregg County school had a good football program, but at halftime too many fans were spending time under the grandstands raising the wrong kind of spirits. Tales are told of liquor bottles being tossed onto the field when spectators disagreed with a game official's call.
Masters had heard good things about Gussie Nell Davis, a native of Farmersville (Collin County). The young woman originally wanted to be a concert pianist but in 1928 was hired to organize a girls' pep squad at Greenville High School. The group, known as the Flaming Flashes, had drums and flags and performed drills at football halftimes.
Masters wanted Davis to create something similar at Kilgore College. "A drum and bugle corps?" she asked. No, Masters replied; he wanted something really special … something that would attract women to Kilgore College and keep folks in the grandstands.
And that's when Gussie Nell came up with what has been described as a new American art form - the all-women's precision dance-and-drill team. The women were dubbed the "Rangerettes."
The women were decked out in their now-famous red, white and blue uniforms when they performed for the first time in September 1940.
The Kilgore newspaper called the performance "stunningly beautiful … They pirouetted, pranced, danced in perfect unison, colorful in movement and attire."
The Rangerettes were an immediate high and soon were much in demand for performances around Texas. The group made its first out-of-state trip to New Orleans in 1941 for the Lions International Convention. Said the college newspaper, The Flare:
"During a short period of time, the Rangerettes have become very well known and have been the subject of many favorable comments toward Kilgore College, the football team, and the college as a whole."
In 1950, football legend/broadcaster "Red" Grange called the Rangerettes the "Sweethearts of the nation's gridirons."
Through the years the Rangerettes have performed at the Cotton Bowl (annually since 1949), other bowl games, a Super Bowl, presidential inaugurations and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades.
The women have traveled the world, performing in Venezuela, Hong Kong, France, Romania and other nations. The Rangerettes have graced the covers of Texas Monthly, Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek and Esquire. There have been appearances on "60 Minutes" and the "Ed Sullivan Show."
Since 1940 hundreds … no, make that thousands of high schools and colleges have organized halftime dance-and-drill teams. But the art form originated with the Kilgore College Rangerettes.
With the Rangerettes successful beyond her wildest dreams, Gussie Nell Davis retired as director in 1979. She died in December 1993 at the age of 87.
In 2006 Kilgore College dedicated the beautiful $5.5-million Gussie Nell Davis Rangerette Residence, home to the group's sophomore and freshman members. The campus at 1100 Broadway also features the impressive Rangerette Showcase, a two-story museum full of displays, photos, props and videos.
In 2008 longtime Kilgore College photography instructor O. Rufus Lovett published a book, "Kilgore Rangerettes" (University of Texas Press), detailing the organization through text and photos.
By the way, the Rangerettes will be celebrating their 75th anniversary during 2014.