Four former Pan Am stewardess will be in the audience during RiverCenter's 'Catch Me if You Can' musical'

January 27, 2013 

Four former Pan Am stewardess will be in the audience during RiverCenter's musical about famous conman


Please do not call these women flight attendants. Nancy Gillespie McAllister, Leslie Gray Manning, Joan Policastro and Wendy Johnson are proud to call themselves stewardesses. And not just any stewardess, but a Pan Am stewardess.

And McAllister warns people not to call them "stews."

For many years, Pan Am (Pan American World Airways) boasted the glamor girls of the air. In the movie and Broadway show, "Catch Me if You Can," Pan Am plays a big part of the plot as conman Frank Abagnale impersonated an airline pilot.

The four former stewardesses will be in the audience Monday night with more than 30 other members of World Wings International, an organization of retired Pan Am stewardesses as the national touring company of "Catch Me if You Can" comes to RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.

"We'll have chapter members from Mobile, Houston, Tuscaloosa and all over Georgia in the audience," McAllister said. "You have to have flown for Pan Am to be a member. Joan started in the 1960s; all of us flew into the 1970s. Leslie into the 1980s."

Yes, the 2011 television show, "Pan Am," showed them as being "glamorous."

"The show was dramatized," said Policastro. "The dramatization had to be appealing to the masses."

One part, however, was not true: "The captains were not as cute" in real life.

"We talked to some of the actresses in the show and they told us they wished they could have had the experience," McAllister said. "It was fun. That's why everybody wanted that job. It was another place in time."

But the height and weight restrictions were very stringent. In 1,000 applications, only one would be hired, McAllister said.

In fact, before one flight, Manning flunked the weigh-in. She was four ounces over the weight limit.

She was allowed to go on the flight because Pan Am couldn't find a replacement on such short notice.

McAllister said in the late 1960s, when the 747 plane was being built for service, Pan Am went on a recruiting drive. The slogan then was "Pan Am girls know their way around the world like most girls know their way around the block."

"It was a different time," she said, acknowledging that the slogan can be taken as a double entendre.

She also said they could be married, but not have children. All the women were furloughed or even let go when they had a child.

All of the women had to have a college degree and speak at least one language other than English.

When McAllister was hired, there were 300 women interviewed and three were hired.

Manning's mother was a Pan Am stewardess in the 1930s and all of them had to be registered nurses, she said.

By the time Manning became a stewardess, she didn't have to be a nurse, but was trained in CPR.

While none of them met Abagnale while they were working, Johnson met him.

"I haven't flown since 1976" as a stewardess, she said. But her last job was in check fraud detection.

"Frank was on a speaking circuit and he was a keynote speaker at a convention," Johnson said. "He was telling his tory and working with major corporations. I was fortunate enough to meet him. He's fascinating."

Besides passing himself off as a pilot, he impersonated a pediatrician and a lawyer.

"He's a brilliant man and he's extremely charismatic," Johnson said.

Policastro, the only one still flying, now works for Delta, met Abagnale in Las Vegas and recalls thinking the same thing.

Men were the first stewards when the airline started in 1927. They did a lot of heavy lifting, loading cargo into the planes. And on some routes in places like Africa and southeast Asia, they even built runways, McAllister said.

Women began working in the late 1930s and in the early 1940s. Men were phased out and weren't hired again until the late 1960s, McAllister said.

They would not trade their experiences with anyone she said. "Most of us have been in 100 countries," McAllister.

When she was flying, McAllister would often meet with people, or what she calls "normal people."

"We would be talking about our jobs and I'd say, 'I have to go to Frankfurt in the morning.' They would like I was bragging, but for me, I was just going to work."

Being in the play

Aubrey Mae Davis plays a Pan Am stewardess in the first act of "Catch Me if You Can." In the second act, she plays Brenda, who is engaged to Abagnale.

Born in northern California, she's now based out of New York City.

She's known that performing would be her life.

"When I was little, I told my mom that I would be famous on stage, wearing a sparkling dress," Davis said. "My dad told me that I would have to pay for that sparkling dress myself."

In "Catch Me if You Can," she wears a "pink kind of shimmery dress." And since it's part of wardrobe, she didn't have to pay for it herself.

Actress Amy Adams played Brenda in the movie version. When Davis saw the movie, she knew that if she had the opportunity, she'd play the role.

When she heard about the audition, she went to the open singer audition, and then was called back to dance. Then she was called back for the part of Brenad along with several other women. Later, she was asked to go to a workshop with two other women. After working with the director and performing in front of the producers, she was cast as Brenda.

Her first tour was "Sesame Street Live!" when she was 18.

"I knew after the first week that hands down, this is the what I wanted for my life and career," Davis said.

She went back to the Meisner Technique Studio in the Presidio of San Francisco and finished her training.

Then in 2007, she went back on the road with "Hairspray" and later with "All Shook Up."

Her sister, now in the fashion industry, grew up in the dance studio with Davis. She still takes classes but doesn't perform.

Her younger brother, however, "has a different talent than us." He's into computers and built himself a computer system recently, Davis said.

Even though her goal is to have a role in show on Broadway, she loves this show.

"I love being able to tell this story," Davis said. "It's so fulfilling. The journey I can take as this woman is wonderful."

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