The American Boychoir

Early History of the American Boychoir

Part I: Huffman Era Began with Dream of “America’s Singing Boys”

By Lori Chambers

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the early history of The American Boychoir. The next installment will highlight the launch of the first national tours, the founding of the summer camp at Chatauqua, the establishment of the boarding school, and the move to Princeton.

Early one Saturday morning in Columbus, Ohio, 10-year-old Hank Speaks, ABS ’41, entered the La High House on the grounds of the Broad Street Presbyterian Church. As instructed, he located the stairs that led to the second-floor office of the church’s music director, Herbert Huffman, and saw 11 boys, one to a step, in line in front of him. Hank took the next place. It was 1937, and he was the 12th boy in line for the first-ever audition of an after-school choral group that would one day become America’s premier boychoir.

“Mr. Huffman had me sing any song I wanted and run through a scale, while his wife, Mary, played the piano,” remembers Speaks. When Hank was done, Mr. Huffman seemed very impressed and asked the aspiring chorister whether he had had professional training. “That made me feel so proud,” says Speaks, “although I realize now that he probably said that to all the boys!”

Such encouragement was typical of the founder of the Columbus Boychoir, a man Speaks calls “wonderful, sincere, talented, a second father to me.” A young man at the time, 32 years old, Herbert Huffman was an Ohio native and a recent graduate of Westminster Choir College. As a student in 1929, he had toured Europe’s great musical centers and first conceived the dream of founding a boychoir. As a member of the Kiwanis Club of Columbus, he received that opportunity when James Ralph Riley, director of the club’s Boys and Girls Committee, enthusiastically supported Kiwanis’ sponsorship of a choir for disadvantaged boys.

 

For a change, the Columbus Boychoir was entertained - by the Golden Slipper Square Dance Club at a luncheon in Tendler's Restaurant in Philadelphia in 1946. Herbert Huffman is second from the left.

 

For several months, the new choir practiced each Wednesday after school and each Saturday morning, with Huffman laboring to fashion a highly trained professional boychoir from a leisure-time singing group. The boys came from different schools in different neighborhoods, and walked or rode the bus to rehearsals. Speaks remembers hiking 14 blocks each way, a trek he didn’t mind because “I got to sing good music.” The choir sang several times at church services before making their public debut at Veterans Memorial Hall on Broad Street. Once a month, the boys sang at the Kiwanis meeting hall and were rewarded with a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

For city-bred boys whose families were struggling through the Depression, the choir was more than a chance to sing: it was a revelation that “there were other things in life than drudgery and hard work,” says Speaks, whose father supported eight children on $25 a week. A turkey dinner – when it wasn’t Easter or Christmas! – was a sign to these boys that there was a better life to be had. The choristers put hearts and souls into their music, and soon Huffman’s choir was invited to appear in Marion, Dayton, and Cincinnati. “Mr. Huffman told us that one day we would travel all over the world,” says Speaks, who, at 73, still sings in choirs. “We didn’t believe him – but all his dreams came true.”

 

Launch of the Boychoir School

 

 

Formerly the Bertram Jones Funeral Home, this building was converted into the Columbus Boychoir's first permanent home.

Within two short years, Huffman knew that the choir’s full potential could only be realized through a cohesive regimen of daily musical and academic education: a school for musical boys. In 1939, Huffman managed to scrape together $6,000 to begin on a modest scale in a church-owned building at 788 East Broad. The next year, Harry C. Marshall, a recently retired high school principal, signed on as headmaster. A man with “snowy hair and twinkling eyes,” according to one contemporary newspaper, Marshall was nonetheless and old-style disciplinarian who taught the boys to march in military formation. “Harry Marshall instilled the characteristic quality of the school – the desire for excellence,” declares Don Christianson, ABS ’48.

 

 

 

Harry C. Marshall, the Columbus Boychoir's first headmaster, teaches a class in General Language.

Marshall developed a curriculum, recruited teachers, and received formal approval for the school from the Columbus Board of Education. Boys attended the 5th through 8th grades before going on to the public high school in their own neighborhood. Music was taught once in the morning and once in the afternoon, remembers Bill Saltz, ABS ’44, who says that all the teachers “were super. Each class had only 10 boys, so we got a lot of individual attention. Let me tell you, high school was a breeze after the education I’d had.”

For Saltz, the school “was the best of both worlds.” The streetcar took him from home to school, “where there was a nice mix of boys from all over the city. We were all great friends and played baseball on the diamond and games in the gym at the church. And, after school, we went home and still had our old friends in the neighborhood.” The school remained true to the choir’s founding ideals, charging no tuition and accepting any qualified boy regardless of financial need, social background, or religious belief.

 

 

The Columbus Boychoir, conducted by Herbert Huffman, performs a Sunday evening concert for the Mutual Broadcasting System.

And the boys sang, much to the delight of Columbus audiences. Walking from school to performances at hotels, museums, and meeting halls in their choir robes and flowing ascots, “we got quite a reception!” says Saltz. The choir received further exposure by making frequent appearances on local radio stations; soon, these broadcasts were picked up for national audiences by CBS. The choir’s popularity was due in part to its eclectic repertoire. “Herb Huffman taught them a wide spectrum,” says Don Bryant, who would join the boychoir in 1948 as associate musical director. “They did marvelous double choruses, show tunes, pieces from the Renaissance, one-act operas. There was nothing like it in America.”

 

Introduction to the Nation

Siegfried Hearst, a representative of the National Concerts and Artists Corporation, attended a choir rehearsal in 1943 and immediately realized he’d found a national treasure. World War II was raging: America was fighting for home, hearth, and democracy – ideals embodied by these fresh-faced, angel-voiced youngsters. As the February 1, 1943, Dayton Herald put it: “How remarkable that the choir school…, a school supported by donated funds, should be functioning during this war. The very fact points to America’s idealism.” Hearst insisted that the choir must make an immediate appearance in New York.

 

The Boychoir sings at the 1944 Republican National Convention.

 

Huffman, too, recognized the opportunity afforded by the tenor of the times. Because of the war, the Vienna Choir Boys could not travel; by this time, the Columbus Boychoir had the polish and professionalism to step into the breach. Banishing worries about how the trip would be paid for, Huffman loaded his 46 choristers onto a train for their May 24, 1943, concert debut at New York’s Town Hall. Headmaster Marshall also accompanied the group, commenting to a New York newspaper that the boys “have behaved beautifully, [although] most have never been away from Columbus before.” The boys were “properly impressed by the tall buildings and imposing skyline,” the paper reported, and all agreed that “New York’s some different from Columbus.”

New Yorkers were just as enthusiastic about the “wide-eyed Buckeyes.” Their Town Hall performance received warm praise from a New York Times critic who called it “a rare feast,” noting that “better part singing, finer dynamic shadings, clearer phrasing, or nicer feeling will seldom be found anywhere.” While in New York, the choir also appeared on the CBS network radio program “Hobby Lobby,” hosted by Dave Elman. In addition, at the request of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, the choir recorded a set of transcriptions to be broadcast in Latin America as a demonstration of the educational opportunities available to young Americans.

 

Members of the Columbus Boychoir relax prior to a concert.

 

Their success in Manhattan opened the national stage to the Columbus boys. The CBS national radio network featured the choir more than a dozen times, including a yuletide concert in which they sang “a new favorite, Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas,’” reported The Columbus Citizen. Accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra, the boys performed a series of Sunday evening broadcasts on the Mutual network. The choir appeared with noted radio and stage artists, including the Philadelphia Opera Association at the Civic Music Series in Dayton. They were invited to the Republican National Convention in Chicago to perform a song that a teacher had written for vice presidential candidate John Bricker. Remembers Saltz: “Now that was wild!”

As “their fame spread with their voices over the air,” in the words of early historian Stephen I. Munger, Americans opened more than their hearts to the choir. Contributions to support the school’s work came in from across the country, and by 1946 Huffman was able to pay two-thirds of his teachers’ back wages and draw his own salary. With the financial strains of the charity school eased, the musical visionary set his sights on the next phase of the dream: to establish his choir as a cultural institution, musical ambassadors who would represent the nation and become celebrated as “America’s Singing Boys.”

All photos courtesy of The American Boychoir archives.  

(Reprinted from the Spring 2001 issue of "Notes...")

Copyright 2001 The American Boychoir School

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