The American Boychoir

Early History of the American Boychoir

Part II: A Place on the National Stage

By Lori Chambers

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series of articles about the early history of The American Boychoir. The next installment will feature the Boychoir’s first years at Princeton, its growing national reputation through live and recorded performances, and its increasing collaboration with major players of the stage and symphony, through the end of the Herbert Huffman era.  

At the end of their first organized concert tour in 1946, a triumphant 40-engagement schedule from Massachusetts to Minnesota, the Columbus Boychoir returned home exhausted but satisfied. At every performance, packed auditoriums were charmed by the winsome choristers and music critics were impressed by their technical mastery of “the choral ideal of exquisite beauty and vitality,” as one reviewer phrased it. No sooner had the boys clambered off the busses than they trundled back on again: Music Director Herbert Huffman had received a telegram inviting the choir to appear at the Atlantic City convention of the National Chamber of Commerce.

 

The Columbus Boychoir, on tour, traveling by train.

 

One of the traveling choristers was Don Christianson ’48, who learned a lesson at that engagement that stays with him to this day. “I was a new boy, and thrilled to be there,” he remembers. “I was singing away happily, when I momentarily let my eyes stray from Mr. Huffman – and made a mistake.” Christianson pauses in his story, a telling silence. “Well, let’s just say I never looked away from a conductor again in my entire life.”

Since their debut concert appearance at New York’s Town Hall in 1943, the still-young choir had rapidly established a national presence through radio performances, appearances with noted stage and music stars, and now a lauded Eastern tour culminating in requests for repeat visits and new engagements. Perhaps it is understandable that all the attention would go to a young boy’s head – understandable, but to Huffman, unacceptable. In addition to using music to instill in the boys characteristics like discipline and cooperation, Huffman sought to inspire the nationwide establishment of other community choral groups. The members of the Columbus Boychoir were more than singing boys; they were ambassadors for choral music as an art form and a model of civic involvement.

In black cassocks and white surplices, with their poised presence and musical sophistication, the choristers proved their professionalism. And in knee breeches, ball gowns, and powdered wigs – playing both the boys and the girls in Mozart’s comic opera Bastien and Bastienne – the young performers showcased their charisma. Throughout the tour, audiences were so delighted that there were never fewer than six encores. In fact, Huffman eventually devised a strategy to gracefully extract the boys from the stage. As he explained to a newspaperman: “I announce that the last number will be ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and request no applause. Then in the silence after the song we leave the stage.”

Making the trip on the choir’s “schoolhouse on wheels” were teachers who ensured that education was not neglected; regular lessons were supplemented with written reports on the towns they toured and enlightening visits to museums and historic sites. Road trips offered the boys a wealth of experience – and a raft of stories. Christianson distinctly remembers the old bus with its touch engine and the 4 a.m. breakfasts of glazed doughnuts and grapefruit juice: “That and a bumpy ride for 100 miles – I still don’t like grapefruit juice!”  

 

“The Camp for Musical Boys”

 

 

Josephine Antoine of the Metropolitan Opera visits with the Boychoir at Chautauqua.

Adding considerable shine to the boychoir school’s growing reputation was its success at the Chatauqua Institution in western New York. In a 1945 report prepared as an English assignment, the lads described the music and arts retreat as “a popular educational center on Chatauqua Lake…During the summer, when schools are held, there is a resident population ranging from 8,000 to 10,000. About 40,000 people visit Chatuauqua during July and August…for a public offering of lectures, entertainment, and a most extensive music program.” Since 1874 the Chatauqua Institution had offered an idyllic lakeside resort setting for arts education, with such stllar residents as stars of the nation’s finest symphonies and opera companies.

Huffman had realized that Chautauqua – with its cultural offerings and traditional outdoor recreation – was the perfect summer camp for boys who were both artists and, well, regular boys. He recognized a second advantage as well: the opportunity to share the boychoir experience with talented youngsters from across the country. Invited to the community in 1944 for an introductory visit, the boychoir charmed the musically sophisticated Chautauquans with their exemplary behavior and open-air concerts in the hillside amphitheater. The institution’s directors immediately approved an annual Columbus Boychoir Camp, with one, Ralph McCallister, congratulating Huffman on the boys’ “high standard of musical performance…and self-discipline, courtesy, poise, and personal responsibility.”

 

War canoes on Lake Chautauqua, a favorite pastime.

 

At Chatauqua, reported the 1945 campers, “our life centered around two buildings, the Barracks and the Rehearsal Hall.” In the Barracks, a large U-shaped building around a court that served as a boxing ring, the boys slept in bunk beds and were woken each morning by camp director William Rolfe, who would “blow a whistle and come through yelling, ‘Hubba! Hubba! Come on, get up, get out of bed!’” according to Dick Goetz ’48. Morning lessons at Rehearsal Hall, a converted gymnasium, included voice training, choral technique, and rehearsal. The afternoons were spent in an endless stream of activities – boating, hiking, bowling, swimming, shop, and sports – that kept the campers occupied until the evening’s musical programming.

The resort was a popular destination for wealthy families; among them in 1945 was the Heinz family of condiment fame. Bill Saltz ’44 recalls that “their daughter Peggy was about our age, and she was a little in love with all of us.” He remembers that the family invited the choir to take a ride on their pleasure boat from Chautauqua to Bemis Point; since there were 75 boys, it took three trips. Other notable personages were of musical fame: the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was directed by Franco Autori, and the Chautauqua Opera Company featured artists like Josephine Antoine and Donald Dame of the Metropolitan Opera.

Each evening brought a symphony, play, concert, or opera, and the boys might be members of the audience or the troupe. The boychoir gave recitals of its own, in combination with a girls’ choir, and as part of the Chautauqua Choir. The boys’ love the opera HMS Pinafore so impressed the director that he invited the young aficionados to attend all the dress rehearsals – the first children ever permitted to do so. Among the operas that first season were The Bat, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Carmen. In the latter opera, remembers Christianson, “we performed alongside stars of the Met as boy soldiers, all dressed up in paper hats and wooden swords.”  

From Columbus to Princeton

A steady stream of requests from parents outside central Ohio who were eager to enroll their sons in the school at Columbus continued to pour in. Meanwhile, the day school was beginning to outgrow its facilities at the La High House. At a 1945 luncheon for 250 friends of the Columbus Boychoir – including the mayor of Columbus and the governor of Ohio – the Board of Trustees announced a $150,000 fundraising campaign to construct a new three-story school building. Support from the public was necessary, they warned, to prevent the Columbus Boychoir from having to move elsewhere to fulfill its goals.

 

 

The Boychoir's "schoolhouse on wheels." Note the padded piano in the back of the bus where Mr. Huffman rehearsed the choristers.

Meanwhile, the Broad Street Presbyterian Church made a second building, at 812 East Broad Street, available to the school, and here in September 1947 a boarding department for out-of-state pupils was established. The first boy to board at the school was David Ward ’49, who had stayed with the family of Eddie Stahl ’49 prior to boarding in the old parish building next to the church. Ward, a talented youngster from Holiday’s Cove, West Virginia, who had sung with Cab Calloway, was sponsored by Chautauquan Suzanne Van Fleck. “There were six or eight of us to a room with double-bunk beds,” he remembers. Among the other boarders that first year were John Wilson ’50, George “Buddy” Poisal ’49, and Carson Parks ’48, he recalls, and “we played around, being boys, but Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe were in charge and they kept us in study hall and made sure we did our homework.” There were ball fields and games for recreation, and a big dining room where, he says, “we had a lovely cook who made wonderful meals and taught me how to make a great toasted cheese sandwich.”

By 1950, however, the demands for placement in the boarding school had already outstripped the building’s accommodations, and less than $100,000 of the $150,000 necessary to construct an adequate school had been raised. As Huffman reported to a local newspaper, 80 percent of the school’s operating expenses were raised by the boys themselves through concerts and recordings, and these demands “detracted dangerously from the boys’ academic school work.” Despite the praise of civic and community leaders, who pointed out the national distinction conferred on the city by the school’s presence, the financial support necessary to run a tuition-free school did not seem to be available in Columbus. As Bob Tubbs ’51 recalls, “One day the boys were called together, and it was just announced. The school was moving to Princeton.”

The move may have been a surprise to the students, but its necessity had been clear to the school’s directors for some time. When, in 1950, John Finley Williamson, founder and president of the Westminster Choir College invited the Columbus Boychoir to join it in Princeton, New Jersey, the advantages of a relocation were immediately clear. Princeton was a community that enthusiastically sponsored the arts and was close to the nation’s musical center, New York. The mutual benefits of a relationship between a choir college and a choir school were many. The choir school’s students would provide a training group for the choir college’s students, and the choir college would provide advanced musical opportunities in voice, instruments, and performance for the choir school.

In May 1950, after “a heated two-hour discussion,” reported The Columbus Dispatch, the trustees split 6 to 5 for the move, with Huffman casting the deciding vote. Wrote one Columbus columnist: “This excellent school will be better off in Princeton. That is, for us, the bitter truth.”

All photos courtesy of The American Boychoir archives.

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

Copyright 2001 The American Boychoir School

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