The American Boychoir

Early History of the American Boychoir

Part III: Finding Fame in the Fabulous Fifties

By Lori Chambers

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series of articles about the early history of The American Boychoir.

“Wow! This is a rich place!” marveled ninth-grader Bob Tubbs ’51 as the bus pulled up the circular drive of the Columbus Boychoir’s new home. Albemarle, a sprawling Georgian estate in Princeton, New Jersey. A native of Columbus, Tubbs had entered the boychoir as a fifth-grader and had boarded at its cramped facilities. But by 1950 the school had outgrown its two donated buildings, and the choir, with its burgeoning national reputation, had outshone the cultural opportunities available in Columbus. When founder Herbert Huffman accepted an offer from Westminster Choir College to move the boychoir school to Princeton, Tubbs and many of the Columbus students went along.

“We had had a mansion in Columbus,” says Tubbs, “but it was an old Victorian house close to the downtown on a busy urban street. But Albemarle – Albemarle was a beautiful place. We couldn’t believe it was ours.” The mansion, built by pharmaceuticals magnate Gerard B. Lambert, was a gracious 52-room home with rich oak paneling and luxury appointments. But what really impressed the boys were the grounds – rambling acres of meadows, gardens, and woods with a swimming pool and a small brook and plenty of room for touch football games and other sports. “We were all good, strong American boys, but some people had a different impression of ‘choirboys,’” says Tubbs. That soon changed as the choir school’s softball team went undefeated against “all the hotsy-totsy Princeton academies,” he recalls with pride. “I may be exaggerating, but I believe we had only one run scored off us all season.”

 

Class in the Main Hall of Albemarle

 

Sports was not the only arena in which the boys soon made their mark in the neighborhood. Their association with Westminster Choir College brought them into Princeton’s rich musical and cultural community. Furthering their reputation were cordial relations with their neighbors, among whom were many notable Americans. Their first Christmas in Albemarle, the boys went door to door, treating neighbors to a caroling serenade like none other. One appreciative listener, remembers Tubbs, was Albert Einstein, who “came to the door with his pants held up by a long rope tied in a big bow and one sleeve rolled up to his shoulder and the other cuffed at the wrist.” Einstein and his wife invited the boys in, and, with one at the piano and the other on the violin, joined the singers in a medley of Christmas tunes. “We didn’t even know it was Albert Einstein at the time,” remembers Richard Mincer ’56. “But the things we were able to do and the people we were able to meet – these are opportunities that we would never have had without the boychoir school.”

Indeed, one thing that did not change with the move was the school’s rigorous academics and its mission to use musical education to develop cooperation, self-discipline, and strong moral character. To mark the success of their first year in Princeton, Huffman arranged a Saturday evening concert at McCarter Theater in which all 65 youngsters – not just the 26 touring choristers – would “sing for the town.” Thanking Huffman for the gesture, the local paper, Town Topics, acknowledged the “remarkable educator with overwhelming faith in boys and the power of music,” naming him Princeton’s Man of the Week. The Columbus Boychoir School had found its permanent home.

Performing for the Nation

One of Huffman’s arguments in favor of the move had been the proximity of the musical communities of New York and Philadelphia. The choir’s coast-to-coast tours – it had given concert in more than 300 cities in the United States and Canada – and its nationwide renown – it had appeared on more than 50 radio broadcasts and had been the subject of an RKO motion picture, America’s Singing Boys – had proved the choristers’ artistry and professionalism. In an era known as the golden age of the American symphony orchestra, when radio brought great performances into the nation’s living rooms, Huffman saw opportunity. “In addition, the new medium of television was coming into its own,” explains Mincer. “Huffman saw right away that one appearance on the Paul Whitman show would give us more exposure than an eight-week concert tour.”

 

 

Chet Allen as Amahl.

It did not take long for the strategy to pay off. The first opera ever written expressly for television – Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors – required for the title role a young boy with an exceptional voice and professional polish, but the composer’s search had been fruitless. Told about the Columbus Boychoir, Menotti visited the School and auditioned several boys, including Mincer and Chet Allen ’53. “I was a first soprano, and Chet was a second soprano/first alto,” remembers Mincer. “After the audition, Menotti turned to Huffman and said, ‘I have been searching for one Amahl, and here I have found two.”

The world premier was broadcast live as an NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame special on Christmas Eve of 1951, with young Allen playing the shepherd boy Amahl, and Mincer, as Allen’s understudy, singing in the production’s chorus. So popular was the performance that it was repeated at Easter, and the handsome, dark-haired Allen gained instant attention, signing a three-movie contract. Mincer stepped into the role of Amahl for the remainder of the season, in performances with the Chautauqua Opera Company and the New York City Center Opera Company. “Arturo Toscanini had been Menotti’s original choice to conduct the score, and he sat in on many of our rehearsals,” says Mincer. “He gave Chet and me autographed photographs and invited us to a farewell party in his honor. Being exposed to Menotti and Toscanini, two men of genius, was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

For more than a decade, Amahl and the Night Visitors was televised live each Christmas, with several boychoir members singing the title role. One was nine-year-old Bill McIver ’56, who won the audition over eight older boys “even though Huffman had brought me along just so I could get some experience.” McIver was whisked into a round of publicity appearances and photo shoots, then flew alone to St. Joseph, Missouri, to join the rest of the touring choir on a lengthy concert engagement. In November, he was back in New York for the intensive daily rehearsals of Amahl. “What a wonderful, exciting time,” says McIver. “Menotti was a fabulous stage director, and the cast became like a family.” McIver played Amahl on NBC for four seasons, before the role was taken over by Kirk Johnson. Amahl became the boychoir signature, with countless members creating the title role in professional and community theater. Today, it remains one of America’s most popular operas, with productions staged each holiday season.

 

Albemarle in the Fifties. Not much has changed,
other than the black shutters ... and the car!

 

As pointed out by Donald T. Bryant, who, at the time, was the associate musical director under Huffman, part of the choir’s professional appeal was its versatility. “In these days,” he says, “the choir’s repertoire included a wide spectrum of music, from show tunes and popular songs to marvelous double choruses, Renaissance pieces, and one-act operas.” Indeed, the boys appeared on stages from Carnegie Hall to Radio City Music Hall, and made recordings as disparate as an album of Christmas songs with Bing Crosby and a live performance of Bioto’s Mephistofele Prologue conducted by Toscanini in his last complete appearance, among many others.

Television proved the perfect medium to endear the Columbus Boychoir to the American public. Appearances ranged from the three-act Griffelkin by Lucas Foss, which premiered in 1955 as a colorcast on NBC with Oliver Andes ’56 in an important role, to holiday specials and musical variety shows like those hosted by Paul Whiteman, Dan Seymour, and Don Ameche and Frances Langford, in which the full choir would perform. Several boys, including Allen, recalls Mincer, were cast in dramas and situation comedies. Meanwhile, twice a year, the choir was on the road in the schoolhous-on-wheels, entertaining from coast to coast on nine- to 12-week concert tours. Having established a national reputation as seasoned professionals capable of collaboration with the leading musicians and entertainers of the day, the Boychoir singers were in such demand, remembers McIver, “that we’d be sitting in class and the next thing we knew, we’d be swept into a car and driven off to an audition.”

The End of an Era

By 1956, as the Columbus Boychoir neared the 20th anniversary of its founding, Herbert Huffman could look back with pride at his accomplishments. He had turned a group of after-school choristers into one of the top boychoirs in the world, established a boarding school know for its academic and moral rigor, and introduced an appreciation for the boychoir tradition into the American cultural landscape. It was time, Huffman decided, to pass the baton to Don Bryant and move on to other pursuits.

Huffman, his wife, Mary, and their three children returned to Columbus, reports family friend David Timmons, where Huffman continued to display his talent for creating new enterprises by launching three McDonald’s restaurants in the Columbus area. “The fast food business was a new concept at the time,” he explains, “and Mr. Huffman was one of the first people to open a McDonald’s chain.” Whenever the boychoir came through Columbus, says Timmons, the boys would be treated to the sandwiches that they called “Mr. Huffman hamburgers.”

 

 

The Columbus Boychoir, getting ready to go out on tour. (All dorm rooms are now in the Cottage or Ettl Dorm, which was constructed in 1993. What were once bedrooms in Albemarle, now serve as offices.)

Mary Huffman, who had trained at Westminster Choir College, was the organist at Covenant Presbyterian Church for several years and played well into her 90s, but as far as Timmons remembers, Huffman laid down his baton for good when he returned to Columbus. “Herbert Huffman was a wonderfully gifted man who had a strong vision that he followed to completion,” says McIver, whose parents had also been friends of the Huffmans. “He instilled a standard of excellence that stays with each of us to this day.”

Mincer, who learned his way around a television set as a member of the Boychoir, credits his long Emmy-award-winning career as a talk show director and producer to the opportunities provided by the Columbus Boychoir School. “My father was a firefighter, and we were a blue-collar family from Columbus,” says Mincer. “Without my scholarship to the Columbus Boychoir School, I would never have had the chance to see and do the things I saw and did as a young boy. My career, in no small measure, is due to the school that Herbert Huffman created.”

All photos courtesy of The American Boychoir archives.

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

Copyright 2001 The American Boychoir School

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