Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking WAY Back

During Our 65th Anniversary Year

(The Alexandria Harmonizers Chorus – Our Roots)


By Jack Pitzer


It all began right in the same hall where we meet today – 1605 Cameron Street.  The Alexandria Chapter of SPEBSQSA, Inc., (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America) was chartered June 19, 1948.  You’ll hear us referred to as part of the Barbershop Harmony Society, since the public understands that better, but legally we’re still SPEBSQSA – or “The Society” for short.  We began to be called the Alexandria Harmonizers after an Alexandria Gazette article used the term to describe the new group in town that was having a concert.


Soon after we were founded, the marketing gurus coined the phrase “George Washington Sang Here,” and we had it on our name tags and chapter signs.  (It was a play on the popular gag in the Alexandria/Mt. Vernon area “George Washington Slept Here!”)


The chapter happened because a gung-ho barbershopper from the DC chapter, Dean Snyder, was active in spreading the word and helping men discover this singing hobby.  In the winter of 1947, he and his wife rescued Gene Barnwell and his wife who were walking along the road in a bad storm.  Dean quickly led the discussion to singing and as they say, “it is all history from there.”


Gene was into music and helped Dean rally enough singers to be ready to charter a chapter in Alexandria.  The chapter was sponsored in the Society by the well-established Washington, DC, Chapter.  Alexandria would later go on to sponsor six other chapters.  Gene was also the chapter’s first musical director.  Dean was also quick to suggest to Gene that, as director of the Alexandria Recreation Department, he should consider adding barbershop harmony singing to the department.  This is how our chapter came to be supported by the City of Alexandria, through Parks and Recreation, which is true still in 2013.  And they arranged for the chapter to meet at the recreation center on Cameron Street. 


True to its name to preserve quartet singing, the chapter had quartets form right away in those early years.  One quartet, THE VIRGINIA HAMS, was composed of several men who had been founders of the chapter or who had joined right after the founding: Al Siepert, Bill Bennett, Henry Brown, and Wilbur Schmidt.  They combined humor and good singing to entertain a lot of audiences in the area.  The quartet frequently changed members during their active years, with ten different versions involving 20 members, including our long-time registered agent and attorney, Jack Crickenberger.


Membership of the chapter started with about 20 guys, the required number to receive a charter document from the SPEBSQSA headquarters signed by Society Founder OC Cash.  The number grew pretty fast and stayed at about 60 for a lot of years until leaders in the chapter made a concerted effort to grow and get to 100 driven by the leadership of John Adams.  Eventually the chapter became the largest in the Society with over 200 members for many years.  It seemed many men joined and when they were transferred for military or work reasons, they retained their membership in Alexandria.  That is basically true still today.  We have had over 1,100 members join our chapter since its founding.  As of September 3, 2013, we had 231 members.


As you can imagine, the chapter was built upon a strong leadership and administrative foundation.  Many of the men who joined were leaders in government and the military and brought their skills and talents to bear in the chapter.  Our chapter has a reputation for doing things well and with class, at the chapter level, as well as providing leadership at the Southern Division and Mid-Atlantic District levels above the chapter.  Currently the following active members are serving in district leadership positions: Bill Colosimo is president, Bob Eckman is treasurer, Keith Jones is secretary, Dennis Ritchey is member-at-large on the board. 


The list of our guys on the district operations team includes Chuck Harner, Gary Plaag, John Santora, Alan Wile, and Mike Kelly. Dennis Ritchey, Mike Kelly, and Carl Kauffmann are members of the district events team.


Gary Plaag currently serves on the BHS board adding to a long list of Harmonizers who have served at that level including current members Alan Wile and Joe Cerutti.  Chuck Harner is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Harmony Foundation International.


Some of our members have also served at the Society level as judges, teachers, and administrative leaders.  Wilbur Sparks was president of SPEBSQSA in 1970.  Darryl Flinn, who was our coach and coined the phrase “Breathless Moments,” was also Society president and served a term as executive director.  Dean Snyder never served as president, but was Society Historian for years and was often called upon to speak or share his knowledge of the Society as an elder statesman.  (We had him on stage with us when he was 94, and he introduced a song as part of our swan song package at the 1996 International in Salt Lake City.)  Bud Arberg, a composer and one of our early music directors, was the first to use the phrase “barbershop craft” to describe teaching techniques and methods.  Bud worked for the Department of the Army and was assigned to develop materials used around the nation to help men sing better.  These four men, plus prolific arranger, Walter Latzko, are our chapter members enshrined in the Barbershop Harmony Hall of Fame.


Many of our men have headed up committees at the national level (the organization became international when it included singers from Canada).  Now there are groups singing our style of barbershop in England, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand and other countries.  For many years Jack Pitzer headed merchandise and marketing committees, which included operation of the store where the Society sells CDs and clothes and other logo items.  Recently, Joe Cerutti and Alan Wile were on Society membership task forces.  And Joe was chair of the Society’s chorus director development committee along with Terry Reynolds and John Hohl.  Chris Buechler is on the Society Governance and Bylaws Committee and is one of the Society parliamentarians, and Bob Sutton is on the archives committee. Gary Plaag was Society chairman of the Young Men in Harmony committee (now called Youth in Harmony) from 1998-2000. And this is just a few of our members who have served on International committees.


Currently one of our members, Joe Cerutti, works for the BHS as a music education specialist from his home in VA; and another member, Sean Devine, works for Harmony Foundation from his home in PA.


Several members in the chapter have been or are now certified judges for contest events: Bob Wachter, Keith Jones, Scott Werner, Jack Pitzer, John Hohl, Jed Casey, Gary Plaag, Chuck Harner, Chris Buechler, Daryll Flinn, Craig Odell, Phil Stern, Sean Devine, Dan O’Brien, Tony Colosimo, John Santora, and Joe Cerutti.  Chris Buechler was named head of the contest administrator category for 2014.


Similarly, it was guys from our chapter who felt the need to provide better leadership training for chapter officers.  They developed a training program that became “COTS” or Chapter Officer Training School (now called Chapter Operations Training Seminar or Leadership Academy).  Those schools have continued in one form or another for over 45 years.  Regularly we have had guys from our chapter teach at these schools all over the U.S. such as Terry Jordan, Gary Plaag, Alan Wile, Dick Newton, Chris Buechler, Chuck Harner, Bob Eckman, Terry Reynolds, John Santora, Bill Colosimo and others.


One important aspect of the chapter history has been our efforts to communicate.  We used the typical formats for news releases, displays and radio announcements for ticket sales and recruitment.  Several Harmonizers have been honored at the Society level for their work in public relations including Alan Wile, Martin Banks, Father Joe Witmer and Scipio Garling.  Wilbur Sparks was well known as the editor (the original YeEd) of our chapter bulletin, The Echo, although he was not the first editor.  Scipio Garling served a term as editor and produced a landmark edition on diversity that garnered much attention across the Society.  Clark Chesser is current editor of The Echo which is used to communicate with friends, family, customers and other audiences. A future version of this abbreviated history will need to include information about our chapter’s extensive and successful use of social media and other technology for sales, marketing and recruitment.


Another important aspect of the chapter history was the early adoption of strong show production activities.  The annual spring show began in 1951 and was called the Spring Tonic.  The members, and their wives too, built elaborate sets and wrote funny and entertaining scripts.  The shows were most often held in local high schools.  In recent years, our major shows were held in commercial theaters and our sell-out holiday dinner shows are held at First Baptist Church on King Street.


Michael Organ joined the chapter in 1975 and brought a whole new approach to show production that members Bob Bates, Gary Plaag, and Steve White expanded upon for about a dozen annual shows.  Ken Fess is likely the top producer of big shows in recent years.  Greg Tepe now produces most local package shows for the chapter.


Popular productions were the Toyland show, which we took on the road to many chapters in our district and to the district convention; one show in a fraternity house; a knights and dragons melodrama; a pirate show; several westerns; a magic show; and we repeated a show staged in a local small town radio station with a sound effects guy, a detective, an office secretary and a crew of characters doing the radio ads.  Stories from those fun shows are often told when guys dig back into the past.  


Our uniforms from the past often get talked about too, such as the wild yellow and green suits that scored high in stage presence in 1978, or our popular red, white, and blue leisure suits when they were in style.  We have had a few tux outfits, including white ones, and the front row has used pop-up top hats and even snap canes.  And of course we have had a number of Velcro uniform changes over the years.  The end caps we brought back in 2010 were a signature item for the Harmonizers in contests and formal shows in the past.  In recent years we have added an annual holiday show with toys and elves and Santa and more recently turned it into a very popular dinner show where chorus members are both waiters and singers. 


Over the years we have had some special feature shows like the 2010 joint show with Westminster chorus from Southern California and seven top quartets from around the world.  In 1987 we hosted a joint show featuring the many-time-gold-medal chorus, the Vocal Majority, from Dallas, TX, at Constitution Hall in DC. Father Joe Witmer was the show chairman who had the courage to make it happen. Chuck Harner was instrumental in managing the two performances of the King Singers at the Kennedy Center in 1983 – their first in the DC area.


We also sang jointly with some Sweet Adeline choruses, including gold medalist Ramapo Valley, and silver medalist Pride of Baltimore.


In 1961 the chapter hosted a Sunday afternoon show featuring the famous BUFFALO BILLS from “The Music Man” Broadway and movie fame.  Another fun show was when we did a couple of our exchanges with the Cincinnati Western Hills chorus.  They came to Virginia and did their zany Robin Hood show, and we went to Ohio and presented our Toyland show.  More recently Ken Rub produced a show featuring ROCKAPELLA to help us attract a younger and diverse musical audience.


Many of these shows were financially successful.  However, the Harmonizers’ largest fundraising project might have been our sales of WI cheese products.  Over the years we sold over 20 tons of cheese from 1976 through 1998.  Jack Pitzer started the sales project and Dick Hall managed it for many years until the market changed. Currently we sell White House Christmas ornaments with Sandy Stamps as honcho; and we sell Entertainment books with Chuck Harner as honcho.  Our scrip sales program has also been an important source of income.  Ian Poulin has been the honcho for this effort in recent years.


Over the years we have produced several albums and then CDs to market our singing and raise money.  The most recent holiday CD, Comfort & Joy, was a huge success.


While the chapter grew in numbers and administratively, it also grew strong musically.  We have been so fortunate to have gifted chorus directors: Gene Barnwell – 1948-50; Werner Paul – 1950-61; Bud Arberg – 1951-62; Oz Newgard – 1963-70; Scott Werner – 1970-80 and 1984-2002; John Hohl – 1980-83; Richard Lewellen – 2003-06; and Joe Cerutti – 2007 until now.


The chorus began to make its mark and finally won the Southern Division contest in 1975.  It was not until 1978 that we won our first Mid-Atlantic District contest.  Over the years the Harmonizers have won the district championship 24 times and have earned 18 International medals, including four golds: 1986 in Salt Lake City, 1989 in Kansas City, 1995 in Miami Beach, and in 1998 in Atlanta.  Some will say that one of the best successes was when we won the district for the first time and went to the 1978 International in Cincinnati and earned a fourth place medal.  There are still 18 chapter members who sang and earned that first medal – five of those long-timers sang in the third place medalist chorus in Toronto in 2013. 


The good singing and excellent performance packages led to opportunities to showcase ourselves at the Kennedy Center Honors show several times, to sing for the Supreme Court Historical Society, to sing two times at Carnegie Hall, to sing at Disneyland with Dick Van Dyke, to do Wolf Trapp’s 20th anniversary gala with Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein and the Canadian Brass; to do a Wolff Trap 80th birthday special for Victor Borge which is often shown on cable TV; and help Elizabeth Taylor launch her new perfume. 


Stage presence teams helped the chorus expand its entertainment skills beginning with chairmen like Jack Pitzer, Jed Casey, Craig Odell, and Jay Hargrove, and continued by Chuck McKeever, Chris Buechler, Dean Rust, Gary Plaag, and Scipio Garling.  Special coaches helped us shine – Geri Geis and Cindy Hansen.  For several years Geri was artistic director and helped us establish our reputation for artistic performance. Carlos Barillo joined in 2013 and did the choreography for our Toronto package, with the help of Craig Kujawa as front row captain.  Out-of-chapter coaches for musical and visual matters are still an important part of the current Harmonizer story and that list is like reading “most famous names” from around the Society.


The growing music program yielded many quartets and some of them earned high marks in the international barbershop contest world.  Their successes led to more chapter and chorus successes as coaches and good musical arrangements came our way because of them.  For sure we should mention the NOVA CHORDS with John Adams, Scott Werner, Brian Rodda and Dick Whitehouse who won a third place bronze medal in1976, and then VAUDEVILLE, with John Casey, Scott Werner, John Hohl, and Bill Cody, who took home a 2nd place silver medal in 1985.


But other chapter quartets helped the chapter make history, such as PROFESSORS OF HARMONY; THE BUREAUCRATS; FRIENDSHIP FIRE COMPANY (with Mike Everard always on bass and about a dozen leads and baritones over the years); HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, which is registered each year by the chapter and made up of our section leaders; and FOUR FROM THE HEART, a group of guys headed mostly by Bruce Lauther who will sing any time or place and do so several times a month. 


Over the years there have been many district champ quartets with Harmonizers in the quartet.  Some of those members have earned the honor more than once. (The bold names were members at the time they won, but some men have joined our chapter later and are now members – so it is a little confusing.)


1977—SUSSEX COUNTS – Ron Allen, Jim Marberger, Carroll Beard, Jon Lowe

1985 - ALEXANDRIA’S RAGTIME BAND – John Adams, Mike Wallen, Alan Durick, Craig Odell

1988 – COPYRIGHT 86 – Bill Colosimo, John Casey, Mike Wallen, Steve White

1994 – BINGO BROTHERS – John Casey, Fred Womer, Dennis Malone, Gary Parker

1996 – THE BAY RUM RUNNERS – Ed Cazenas, Lynn Conaway, Barry Galloway, Steve White

1997 – PREMIERE – Rick Savage, Fred Womer, Dennis Malone, Bill Clark

1999 – HIJINX – Gary Plaag, Will Cox, Howard Hull, Chip Guffey

2000 – CASINO – Mike Wallen, Scott Disney, Michael Gellert, Mike Kelly

2004 – PHAT CATS – Ed Cazenas, Scott Disney, Mike Pinto, Steve White

2005 – IGUANAS IN FLIGHT – Joe Sawyer, Tony Colosimo, Andrew Kay, Wayne Adams

2006 – FOUR ACES – Ed Cazenas, Nick Aiuto, Richard Lewellen, Scott Risley

2007 – RINGERSRob Seay, Scott Disney, Mike Pinto, Al Mazzoni

2008 – NEW RELEASE – Ryan Griffith, Shawn Thomas, Noal Morrison, Joe Eckert

2009 – OLD SCHOOL – Rick Taylor was tenor, who also won as bari with ARCADE in 1992.

2011 – TOUCHSTONE – Steve White was bass and Jay Butterfield was Bari.

2012 – MAD HATTERS – Steve White was bass and Rick Taylor was Bari.


More recently we have had some senior quartets earn high marks (CITY SLICKERS, AULD LANG SYNE)  and one won the BHS Seniors contest – REMINISCE in 1995 with John Adams, Scott Werner, Alan Durick and Dick Whitehouse. 


On the other side of the coin, some of our younger members have done well in the collegiate quartet contest and ROADTRIP won the gold with Tony Colosimo on lead in 2007.  Eric Wallen sang bass in CRUNCH TIME and earned 5th place in the 2008 collegiate contest.


More recently, DA CAPO with Ryan Griffith, Tony Colosimo, Joe Sawyer and Wayne Adams took tenth place in the quartet contest in Toronto in 2013.  Sean Devine sang in the seventh place quartet in 2013 – THROWBACK.


Also we launched CAPITAL FORCE – an ensemble of under-30-years-of-age singers from the Greater DC area.  Tony Colosimo is director.  That group competed in the youth chorus contests at Society midwinter conventions in Vegas in 2010 and in Orlando in 2013. Several of our chapter members have sung in CAPITAL FORCE.


The chapter held its fourth Youth Harmony Festival in 2012 and taught over 80 students – about half boys and half girls.


Joe Cerutti is president of the board of the No Borders Music Consort for young men to sing at Carnegie Hall on December 26th  in recent years.  Scott Kahler is secretary and Alan Wile is treasurer.  Many of our members have sung in these concerts and/or helped with logistics and operations for the event.


The chapter has had an important connection with the Alexandria Arts Forum (a consortium of artists, arts organizations and advocates) for many years.  Our involvement is significant as we are the largest organization and well known. Jack Shields, Paul Lensch, Alan Wile and Martin Banks have all served in leadership capacities for the Forum.  Clyde Crusenberry is our current chapter community service vice president.


If this brief and much consolidated Harmonizer history whets your interest, dig into your copy of our 50th anniversary book, “Breathless Moments.”  (Ask for a copy if you don’t have one already.)  Also you should check out the back portion of the Chapter Directory/Roster regularly published by chapter secretary Chris Buechler.  You will learn such things as who has served as Harmonizer president or as chair of our auxiliary group.  It used to be The Harmonettes but was changed to FRIENDS IN HARMONY a few years ago.  The current president is Sandy Stamps.  And you will learn who has won the major chapter awards that we present each year.


You will also see that several of our members have been named to the Society Hall of Fame, and a lot of our guys have been inducted into the Mid-Atlantic District Hall of Honor, are members of the District Honor Chapter, DELASUSQUEHUDMAC; and are in the District Association of Quartet Champions (MADAQC).


As always, it is “great to be a Harmonizer!”




                                                                                Compiled by Jack Pitzer
                                                                                                              with Chris Buechler, Alan Wile, Steve White and John Pence

                September 1, 2013

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