BBC documentary based on professor's book to air June 23
June 18, 2014 - John Thomas started with one old black-and-white photograph and ended up with a BBC documentary.
While working on a freelance story several years ago, Thomas, guitar enthusiast and professor of law in the School of Law, discovered an image from 1944 that showed a large group of women sitting outside of the Gibson Guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. But according to company advertisements of the day, Gibson claimed they ceased production during World War II while "waiting for the safe return of our boys at the front."
"I couldn't figure out what those women were doing there," said Thomas. "So eventually I became sort of haunted about it. I decided to find one of the women. I found 12, and wrote a book around them."
Thomas spent the next five years researching and writing what would become his book, "Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson's 'Banner' Guitars of WWII," which was released in March 2013.
The story of the secret female factory workers piqued BBC producer David Cook's interest and he spent three days last fall with Thomas at the Kalamazoo factory interviewing the three surviving women profiled in the book. In December, 1970s rock star and current radio host Suzi Quatro interviewed Thomas about the story in London, culminating in a new one-hour BBC Radio 2 documentary set to premiere at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 23. "Kalamazoo Gals" combines Quatro's interview with Cook's audio recorded at the Kalamazoo factory.
Thomas found that Gibson employed a sizable female workforce that produced around 25,000 guitars, mandolins, banjos and violins during the war, despite what the company claimed in their promotional materials.
"The only logical conclusion is they thought the buying public, almost all men as they still are for guitars, wouldn't embrace woman-made guitars," said Thomas. "So they sold them as best I can figure as new old stock."
The documentary will also feature music from "The Light Still Burns," the companion CD to the "Kalamazoo Gals" book that Thomas recorded with songwriter Lauren Sheehan.
"To have an international media organization like the BBC recognize the value in a story that I uncovered and to tell it through my words is an extraordinarily humbling experience," said Thomas. "My interest is really doing justice to women whose role in American history was covered up. We all know about Rosie the Riveter, nobody knew about Laura the Luthier."