Seattle Men's Chorus founded in 1979 in Seattle, Washington, bills itself as the largest community chorus in America, and the largest gay men's chorus in the world. It is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA Choruses).
In the early 1979, several members of Seattle's gay Grace Gospel Chapel went to San Francisco, saw the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus perform and said, "We can do that!" and came home to start a similar group in Seattle. C. David George, who is still a Seattle Men's Chorus season ticket holder, engaged in an extensive correspondence with Jay Davidson, SFGMC's Manager, who was extremely helpful in writing back with responses to his dozens of questions. The organizers found a conductor for the new group, Richard Dollarhide, who happened to have some connection with Seattle's First United Methodist Church, and they arranged for that church to be the chorus's rehearsal home from that first night.
The original pianist, Jerry Pierce, was also a member of Grace Gospel. The Chorus placed classified ads in the SGN and newsletters of various community organizations that summer recruiting singers, and 22 guys signed in the first night.
Some of the singers at the very beginning had very limited musical skills (some didn't read music at all and had to learn by rote memorization), so it took several months to learn the first piece, and 9 months to put together a full-length show (even with a subgroup, soloists, and duets taking part of the show).
I wasn't in the audience for that June 1980 show, in the auditorium at the Museum of History and Industry. I remember that there was a folk dance group meeting in rooms above the auditorium, and until they finished at 9 there were occasional loud thumps overhead. The Chorus sang It's a Grand Night For Singing, and when the verses came around about stars and moon, a few guys on the back row of the risers held up stars and a moon on sticks and waved them.
Shortly after that show, conductor Richard Dollarhide and the Seattle Men's Chorus board had one of those power struggles that organizations go through, and parted company. Consequently, the chorus left FUMC and moved up to the little German Lutheran Church just east of the Broadway Reservoir for a while. The conducting eventually was taken on by Edward M. Pounds, a very fine bass solo singer, who prepared Seattle Men's Chorus for its first Holiday show at Meany Hall in December 1980. The concert paid little homage to the season with a mere 4 holiday songs included.
Early in 1981, Pounds grew discontented with his position as Seattle Men's Chorus Director and gradually withdrew from rehearsals. Into the sudden leadership vacuum stepped Chet Forward, a member of the chorus who had been a junior college choir director, and Dennis Coleman, who was the Minister of Music for a local Baptist church, and who was in the process of coming out. They jointly prepared the chorus for the June 1981 concert held in the auditorium of Lincoln High School and split the conducting duties. Later, having been dismissed from his church position, Dennis got the nod from the Board to continue, at the slightly-less-than-living-wage of $200/month.
I still remember well the June 1981 show's rendition of Teddy Bear's Picnic (arranged by Dennis). A guy in a bear costume entered from offstage carrying a picnic basket, pranced in... stopped short realizing that his gait was less than butch, then strode purposefully forward, set down a picnic blanket, sat and unpacked his picnic of... Perrier and yogurt, the quintessential upscale diet of the early 80s.
A few weeks after that, SFGMC came to town and performed in the Opera House, the last stop on their 9-city national tour. We did not assist significantly in that appearance, nor house them (they stayed in a hotel). The Opera House was only about half full, but the show was electrifying. I had goose bumps about half of the whole evening. I have a recording they made of the tour repertoire, and it's still quite good.
The tour was not without problems: the airline unilaterally renegotiated its contract with them just before the trip, when it was too late for them to arrange any alternative, and concert ticket sales were below budget. The consequence: a loss of $250,000, a staggering amount in those days. Several of their members (including a non-singing associate!) put second mortgages on their homes to cover that debt, and SFGMC began many years of lean-budget programming and big-time fundraising.
While a financial failure, San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' tour was definitely a watershed in the gay and lesbian choral movement, and the effort it cost them is one of the reasons why they are still accorded a position of honor in the closing show of GALA festivals.
Seattle Men's Chorus expanded dramatically that summer, doubling from about 65 to 130; we put a lot of effort into recruiting that summer. Those efforts, along with the June show's increased quality, and excitement from the SFGMC show, resulted not only in more singers but also in the chorus attracting better-skilled singers. We eventually found that some of the original guys were having trouble keeping up, and we engaged a music teacher to come in an hour before rehearsals and give music-skills classes to those who wanted to improve.
In those days, we rehearsed from 7 to 9:30 each Monday, and we had sectional rehearsals at somebody's home once or twice a month. The sectionals had a consistent problem: there was fairly heavy absenteeism, and invariably the guys who were absent were the ones who really needed the rehearsal. Eventually, Dennis got the rehearsal time advanced to 6:30 and eliminated those sectionals.
Seattle Men's Chorus made its first Bumbershoot appearance the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and printed up a handbill with the program and our new "primarily gay" identity statement. Despite the Food Circus acoustics (we could barely hear the piano), the audience was great and stayed with us. I still have that handbill on my bulletin board.
A gay athletic group in Seattle organized a daylong festival at Volunteer Park for September 27, with booths on the lawn for various community organizations as well as entertainment on the stage, and we agreed to perform. The Friday before, it started to rain in Seattle. And rain. And rain. And rain. Buckets.
Amazingly, it cleared up late Sunday morning and got mostly sunny, so nice that I walked up to the park without a coat. Our brand-new risers and Chet Forward's piano had been delivered that morning, and left covered with plastic. We began our set, and got about 2/3 of the way through when it started sprinkling. On the next song, it got worse, and two guys went and got a big piece of plastic and put it over the piano and pianist Scott Warrender, who kept playing away! We finished the song and dashed to get our nice new risers into the truck, and then headed under some trees to wait out the rain.
The next morning, I got two phone calls before I got out of bed to let me know that I was on the front page of the PI! There we were, the basses and some baritones, with Scott's feet showing under the plastic. And... a big article identifying the event as a gay event. At this point, some people who were closeted decided the time had arrived to leave Seattle Men's Chorus.
For many years, the phrase "Remember Buckboards?" meant something special to long-term members. Buckboards To Bernstein (great American music) was our first attempt at a fully-staged, lighted, costumed, choreographed show with sets, lobby decor, and (partly) memorized music. Needless to say, we learned a lot from our mistakes!
The biggest problem was simply that we needed about two weeks more rehearsal to learn the music. The other was the movement: Our choreographer had never worked with our size group before. At a Saturday rehearsal, he asked the guys to group themselves into "good dancers" and "uncomfortable". In theory, the good guys would be downstage and the others hiding behind. However, in the course of wheeling long lines of guys around, he got them reversed, and got the klutzes downstage for most of the set!
Partway through the show, it was raining outside, and the roof over the stage at the "historic" Moore Theatre leaked on us. Just a fine mist, but it seemed to be our fate that Fall.
The group that eventually became the Emerald City Volunteers was formed that fall, doing a 45-minute all Cole Porter show with three performances at Broadway Performance Hall. Really good, though they reportedly had over 30 rehearsals!
We'd felt rather guilty about charging our audiences the grand sum of $7.50 for Buckboards, so we charged just $3 for our first true Holiday concert! One night at Meany, not sold out.
In late February, we did our first-ever joint show, Roses and Rainbows, with the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, once there and once here. The visitors did a slightly longer set in each city, for the benefit of audiences who didn't normally get to see them. At the end of the show we joined ranks and we sang Over the Rainbow, then they sang The Rose. It was pretty tough doing choral singing that way, with somebody standing between you and the next singer, but neat to listen. At the end, the Portland guys all unpinned the roses from their vests and turned and pinned them on ours. A magical moment, which we never thought of a way to match.
In June we were back at Meany for a Pride show. We had the white cyclorama curtain upstage, for various colored lighting effects. At that time, a bunch of guys in the community who all went to the same gym had formed a little "Disco Drill Team" with red shorts, white tank tops and gloves, nice tans, and army boots. For the show's finale, we did Strike Up the Band, with ECV, some flag twirlers, and the drill team. And at the end, red, white and blue streamers dropped from the loft behind us being blown by a hidden fan. The audience went nuts!
We had little time off that summer. The Organ Historical Society was having their national meeting in Seattle, with a big do at St. James, and we'd been invited to do a double-chorus work that was for a men's chorus and a mixed chorus. Difficult.
Then it was time to prepare an appearance at the first Gay Games and West Coast GALA festival Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, with 12 choruses performing for each other and then singing at the closing ceremonies of the Games. We had two well-qualified professional bus drivers in Seattle Men's Chorus, and we rented a yellow school bus for 40 of the guys to go very cheaply to San Francisco. A little bit too cheaply as it was not a pretty sight to see pairs of grown men trying to sleep on kid-sized seats! Many of the guys took advantage of an airfare sale and flew back!
We had to spend all day at Kezar Stadium, an old outdoor football stadium, to have our rehearsals for the two combined numbers we would perform for the closing ceremonies of the gay games (many sunburns!) When the athletes made their final entrance, country-by-country and city-by-city, we all stood and cheered for about 10 minutes solid. But my fondest memory is that when we started to sing, they got up from where they were seated out on the field, and moved over close to the corner of the stadium where we were, so that we were singing directly to them.
The Holiday 1982 show had one performance at Meany, plus our well-attended Tacoma debut at an Episcopal church there. In those days, our Gay Identity Statement in the program stated "...the chorus, which primarily consists of gay men ... ". My friend Joe Caruthers, who was out at work, brought a woman coworker to the Tacoma show. As we filed out onto the altar, she raved about how many handsome men there were. He had to tell her he had some bad news for her.
During intermission at that performance, Dennis reminded us to smile and look more excited. We had a Dutch member at that time, and he spoke up and pointed out that many of us had mustaches, so it's not enough just to smile, "you haff to show some teedt" in his Dutch accent. Something we still have to work at all these years later!
The most memorable highlight (or lowlight, depending on your point of view) was our small group called the Gentlemen's Harmony League, which had existed since the very first year of the chorus. They created a "symbols of Christmas" set of very clever costumes: a tree ornament, a star, a bell, the Virgin Mary, Santa, a nutcracker prince, a candy cane, and an angel. Santa was played by Tony Moore, and his costume was a little big, so he had to keep hitching his pants up through the whole set.
During their three-song set, Ricky Rankin as Mary gave a very witty monologue on the myths by which the various symbols had come to be associated with Christmas, which had the audience in stitches. At the Meany performance, he came out on stage as the Virgin Mary with a naked baby Jesus hanging from his robe!
Unfortunately, his wit cut very close to the bone for some of the Catholics in the audience. The Board had to write a humble letter of apology to Dignity, the support organization for gay Catholics, and we adopted a rule that all speeches on stage had to be scripted in advance for the Board to approve! I heard about that show for years afterwards from a friend in Dignity.
March saw us at Plymouth Congregational for a sold-out show of our first ever all-classics concert. Seattle Men's Chorus member David Ruberg was an accomplished Seattle organist, and we did a major Bruckner work in German with the Church's pipe organ. That show also saw the debut of the now-defunct subgroup Philandros.
The June 1982 show had a lot of Broadway and movie tunes, as we were preparing for the first national festival of gay and lesbian choruses that September at Lincoln Center. We were all busy that summer, with lots of fundraisers, including a raffle and a big Tacky-Tourist-style party, and weekly rehearsals before the big trip to Washington and New York. (In D.C., I told my host how many Monday nights we'd had off in the past year: one! I am not making this up.)
The night before we left for D.C., we sang at St. James Cathedral for the Dignity national convention's mass. Permitting the homosexuals to use the Cathedral and a gay chorus to sing was one of the things that got Archbishop Hunthausen in trouble with the Vatican.
Our flight to D.C. was about 7 in the morning, and we were supposed to be there two hours early; the airport cocktail lounge was not a pretty sight. Ricky Rankin wore his Flying Nun drag as we boarded the plane, and mimicked the flight attendants' announcements, which amused most but not all of them.
It was in the 90s in Washington and New York the week after Labor Day, even in the evenings. The hall in D.C. didn't have air-conditioning backstage, so many of us went outdoors on the lawn when we weren't on stage, and cadged coins for the Coke machine from each other. Many of the guys took their shirts off, which made us look like a bunch of penguins in our black trousers.
Among the highlights of the New York concerts was when Tom Mann announced to the New York audience on September 10 that Seattle Men's Chorus was founded just 4 years (to the day) earlier, and the audience then spontaneously sang Happy Birthday to us!
The birthday was truly celebrated the next morning when we received our first "rave" review in the national press, as Joseph McLellan in the Washington Post said of our performance, " ... beautifully blended tone, exquisitely precise diction and subtly calculated dynamic nuances."
The season began as we returned home from GALA I, which had been held in NYC just after Labor Day. We'd stopped on the way in Washington DC. to sing with the gay men's choruses from Los Angeles and Washington DC. Our performance in the nation's capital was reviewed by the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post. (Up to this point, we'd never had a review in a Seattle daily.) Our self-confidence as we entered this season was supercharged by our performance at GALA and by the following final paragraph from the Post: "Seattle Men's Chorus was the most purely musical of the three groups, singing more advanced repertoire with beautifully blended tone, exquisitely precise diction and subtly calculated dynamic nuances. And at the end, when each conductor in turn took the massed voices of all three choruses for a single number, the Seattle music director, Dennis Coleman, made the nearly 300 voices under his direction sound like the Seattle chorus."
In 1983, the Holiday show was expanded to two performances at Meany Theater. The highlight of the show had to be the Emerald City Volunteers' set, which started with Baby, It's Cold Outside, with the guys all bundled up in heavy coats and hats. Then they sang Steam Heat, stripping off their winter wear behind a white screen which revealed their feet only, giving the audience a glimpse of foot-sliding choreography on the ssssteam.
The sheets were dropped revealing the guys in "beach attire." There had been a rumor afloat that some of them were going to be in Speedos, necessitating a visit from the Censorship Committee (Dennis and the Producer). They ended up in baggy swimsuits or shorts, and tank tops or Hawaiian shirts.
They finished up with Heat Wave and Too Dam Hot. In one of the numbers, four guys sat on the floor wearing enormous black swim fins, waving their feet around and then getting up and doing choreography slapping the fins down on the stage. This was long before Bette Midler thought of doing mermaid attire and hopping around on fins.
March 1984 was our second "all classic" show, with a performance of a long piece composed for the GALA Festival by Ned Rorem. Rorem (who is gay) is known mostly as a composer of art songs for soloists, and as the author of gossipy autobiographies. He was present for the show, and we decided it would be fun to get him a little more involved, so we did four of his art songs with him at the piano, each song done by one section of the chorus in unison. They were very pretty songs, and it was fun to do a "sectional solo"; but we'd had to transpose one slightly, and when Rorem hit the page turn, he forgot, and played in the original key while the baritones struggled on.
Early in this year, Dennis had convened a brainstorming session where members could toss out ideas for things they'd always wanted to perform, and we combined all these ideas into our June show. We ended up doing a set of "sailor" songs, a jazz set, a set from the Wizard of Oz (stage version), and a set of Pride songs, in a fully-produced, costumed, lighted, and ultimately ... very, very long show.
The "sailor" set had the prow of a sailing ship at a wharf, and everybody provided his own costume, ranging from t shirt-clad deckhands to a French admiral in a huge 3-cornered hat. We even had one member in his own actual US Navy officer's uniform. The repertoire ran from Gilbert & Sullivan to traditional sea chanties to British novelty tunes.
Rob McVeigh was a Seattle artist who did a lot of Oz work, and he created painted glass slides for us which were put into big theatrical slide projectors behind the Meany stage, and back-projected onto a scrim behind us for the Oz set. The singers were in black pants and assorted yellow, red, and blue polo shirts. Four costumed singers doubled as Munchkins and the three principals. Tom Highsmith's Cowardly Lion was a masterpiece.
For the Pride set, we resumed our normal riser standing order, to reveal that the assorted jewel-colored T-shirts combined to form a pair of rainbows!
Never ones to say enough is enough, we also added two very long sets by ECV to the show; one as an oldtime radio station choir, with both live music and commercials; and a top hat and tails set, complete with tap dancing. There were 12 guys in the group then, and they worked their butts off for six months learning all the music, adding two extra rehearsals every week just for the ECV numbers. They discovered as time went by that the five guys who already knew how to tap dance were doing OK, but the others simply weren't gonna make it in time. So the big secret in the show was that only five of them actually had taps on their shoes; the rest just had patent shoes with plain soles! People who found out afterward just howled!
The season ended with a more somber note: at the last show, our very first member lost to AIDS was announced (Tom Davies), and two days later we sang our very first memorial service. Despite the short notice and challenging 4:30 Tuesday time, about 70 of us showed up, including a large number of former members who were moved to come and sing, which I thought said a lot about us.
In September 1984, Dennis got a call from Seattle Opera, which was going to perform Tannhäuser, which requires a large men's chorus. They were a little short of singers and asked if we could "spare" some, which would involve a number of Monday rehearsals. Dennis agreed, and seven of us volunteered; Seattle Men's Chorus got a credit line in the program, and Dennis got lots of grateful feedback from both the chorusmaster and the General Director. We felt very good that our young chorus could do a favor for such a big organization.
In our "fifth annual" Holiday concert, we took the big step of engaging our first "name brand" guest artist, Marni Nixon, an accomplished Broadway actress most famous for ghost-singing on films of musicals, for example singing the songs that Audrey Hepburn was miming in My Fair Lady and those of Natalie Wood in West Side Story. She was a big hit with the audience, and (ta da!): we got our very first ever concert review in the Seattle Times!
March 1985 was our third all-classics concert. (We were never quite able to define "classic", but we called it that anyway.) We performed Mozart's only two pieces written for men's chorus, in German, with Steve Kuntz and Chet Forward doing exquisite work on the four-hands piano parts. The second half was a new commissioned work by Seattle composer Bern Herbolsheimer, with an 8-piece orchestra; its most memorable moment was an eerily beautiful introduction to one movement played on a pair of tuned, water-filled crystal goblets by stroking the rims so they rang! Dennis joked that we didn't need to worry about packing the glasses to be warehoused afterwards, he would take care of them.
The Pride 85 concert saw a number of firsts, including the visit of 3 other gay men's choruses: Los Angeles, Portland, and Vancouver. Because L.A. was also performing in Portland, and they wanted to keep their trip as brief as possible, we shifted from Meany to the Opera House so that we could perform just one night. It was our Opera House debut, and we were damn proud to see our name on that marquee. After the show, we had a nice party with the other choruses on the Banquet Level of the Needle, and sang together at the Pride March the next day.
We commissioned gay playwright Doric Wilson to create a short play for the Holiday concert, on the theme Home For the Holidays. Using the technique made famous by A Chorus Line, he came to several of our rehearsals and had private interviews with numerous chorus members, collecting tales of their experiences at the holiday season.
ECV did a long set in that show with many all-time greats, including the debut of their Hawaiian Christmas number with beach-ball choreography and a very funny number with six dancing bananas (do we still have those banana costumes somewhere?). There was also a hilarious dream-sequence takeoff on Waltz of the Flowers, with soft blue lighting and fog and three members on roller skates. Originally all 12 members were going to be on skates, but they just barely started rehearsals and one fell and broke his wrist, so they decided that only those members who had good medical insurance should learn the skate routine!
The March show was yet another all-classics show, mostly German pieces, with some French and a Norwegian piece, and a little Bernstein for the encore. It was our first time with a large 58-piece orchestra of Seattle Symphony members. The highlight was Richard Strauss' Die Tageszeiten, a piece very rarely performed in the U.S
In June, for the first time, we performed with the Seattle Women's Ensemble. We had engaged feminist singing star Cris Williamson, and we asked SWE to round out the bill. We had some concern about whether SWE members would feel trepidation about performing under the aegis of a men's group, but if they did they put it aside because they couldn't resist performing with Cris. I think we were more nervous about performing with the women than they were with us.
At the end of the season, we flew to New York to perform with New York City Gay Men's Chorus and then to Minneapolis for GALA Festival II, which had all of 17 choruses in 1986! ECV created serious choral envy by doing a dynamite tap number that had many other ensembles going home to buy tap shoes the next year. Seattle Men's Chorus sang our commissioned Eulogy paired with Not While I'm Around (an exquisitely beautiful arrangement by Dennis), and scored big with the adoring GALA audiences.
This was the first year in which we commissioned an artist to do a set of posters for all three shows of the season. Late chorus member Ron Bills painted a set of watercolors of flowers, which became very popular; we even printed and sold tee shirts.
The event of the season that drew the most press was commissioning Mark Morris's dance company to create and perform a new dance work. Contemporary American composer Lou Harrison set his choreography to an existing piece. The Chorus performed behind a sheer black curtain, along with instrumentalists from the Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Our performance was taped, as Mark liked the work well enough that he wanted to perform it on a world tour.
The show opened with a long four-movement piece based on texts from the Rig Veda in Sanskrit! Even though we used books, the singers' terror was evident.
The Pride show that year was a lighthearted collection of various periods, including a medley called Beehive Hairdos and Motorcycle Boots. The set opened with the sound of a motorcycle roaring offstage, followed by a crashing noise... followed by one motorcycle wheel rolling onto stage by itself and coming to rest. Then a helmeted, fully leather-clad motorcyclist stomped on stage, ruefully contemplated the wheel, turned to the audience, pulled off the helmet, and shook out her long blond hair. At one of the shows, we had a small problem... the wheel didn't quite follow its planned role, and rolled off the stage into the audience. We were luckily able to mollify the run-over patron with a pair of season tickets.
We opened that show with a set of train songs, which inspired our production team to new heights. In the dark before the curtain rose, a lighted model train ran across the lip of the stage with sound effects. The curtain rose to reveal a pre-war train station, with the risers tucked in one corner and the band hidden inside the newsstand.
Several minutes of comings and goings of costumed "travelers" followed. Bertha, swathed in furs and toting a small dog, appeared as a movie star trailed by flashbulb-popping photographers. Fred and Greg did a 15-second mini-drama as the boy leaving to join his army unit and the sweetheart being left behind, hemming and hawing over whether they were going to part with a kiss (they did). Topping it off, Dennis Coleman appeared in a conductor's uniform and hat, consulted his pocket watch, shouted "all aboard" to the audience, and turned and started the music.
Our engagement with Channel 22 came about, in part, because of a landmark commission. Fearless Leader Dennis Coleman had used his charm to connect with opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who agreed to create a new Christmas-themed work for us. The $15,000 cost was also a landmark for us; while we hoped to get grants to cover a lot of the expense, as well as additional costs for transcription, travel accommodations, and instrumentalists, it was a staggering sum at the time, much of which had to be coughed up in advance at a time when we were not too flush. Two very confident members volunteered to guarantee the advance, and forward we went.
While the resulting work didn't turn out to be a barn-burner, and was never picked up by other choruses, we eventually got all the costs covered by grants, and we got enormous publicity in the press and TV news, as well as that first video. Channel 22 worked under a significant handicap: they did only one taping, at a live show, and had only about a week to edit the tape before the first of two broadcasts. Despite that, they did some very handsome jobs of professionally showing varied, interesting points of view, getting good stereo sound quality.
They advertised the show heavily before its premiere; we were told that it attracted 150,000 viewers. We were floored!
This season marked the first time we commissioned a non-chorus artist to paint an entire season's posters: Michael Ehle, the noted Northwest artist who died in the late 1990s. The most memorable of the three was a very jazzy poster for the March show depicting a jazz combo with our guest artist, Diane Schuur.
Now, when we told friends about Diane, we either got "Wow! You're singing with her? Incredible!" or "Who's that?" One of the reasons we engage guest artists is that we outreach to their audience, and they outreach to ours. We got great publicity, all the shows were sold out, and it was the beginning of a very long relationship for us (and many other gay choruses) with "Deedles." It was also our first and only all-jazz show, including some a cappella arrangements we commissioned of Nylons pieces, one of which the New York City Gay Men's Chorus sang nine years later.
A significant event for a few members was the Small Ensemble Festival in New Orleans in May, attended by both Philandros and the Emerald City Volunteers. Philandros created such a sensation that when they entered the balcony to be seated later in the evening they got another ovation! Although most of us don't get to participate in appearances like these, they contribute to Seattle Men's Chorus' reputation and status within GALA, and to the networking that is what makes GALA grow in size and artistic quality.