The Legacy
of the
Apollo Boys' Choir
(1935 - 1956)

Coleman Cooper, Founder and Director

by
George Bragg

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In 1939 Larston Dawn Farrar wrote an article for THE CHRISTIAN HERALD titled "Boys On The Jericho Road" - the story about a young man in Birmingham, Alabama, and a group new to the city with an enviable and growing reputation. The Author caught the spirit of the moment and left for posterity a record of how an idea became a work of art through enterprise and dedication.

colemancooper-sm.jpg (17529 bytes)"On a winter's night five years ago, a slender young man named Coleman Cooper walked disconsolately into the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Birmingham to hear the songs of a group of boys from far-off Vienna. He was in a downcast mood for several reasons. Soon he would be graduating from College and as yet had mapped out no future work for himself. Also, he was broke financially. Eventhough he had studied music since childhood and psychology since entering college, he could think of no job available to him at which he could work enthusiastically.

"A feeling of envy was in his heart as the small boys, members of the Vienna Boys' Choir marched into the Choir loft, for they were doing the very thing he had longed to do - sing in a Concert Choir. Then, under the direction of Viktor Gomboz, the boys began to sing. They sang in several languages - always with the same sublime tones. As they sang, the college student's spirit soared - the clear, bell-like voices of the pre-adolescent youths ignited his imagination and he sat up in the pew.

"While he listened, Coleman Cooper was finding a purpose in life. The doubts and foreboding of the future cleared away and he realized what he wanted to do. Within him was born a conviction that such a choir as this one should be organized for Birmingham - for Alabama - for America!!

"That experience in the church was like a cleansing bath after a hard day's work. Unlike many instantaneous inspirations, however, it did not die when the young man walked into the brisk wind after the concert, or when friends advised him later to give up the idea. The more he thought of the possibility, the more obsessed he became. He saw singing boys in his books, heard their voices in spite of the raucous speeches in the college chapel. Nothing could make him forget his vision of a group of boys singing - under HIS direction.

"Today - you guessed it - the youthful college student of the Class of '34 can look back on success. As founder and director of the Apollo Boys' Choir, Coleman Cooper in five years has built up his organization to such a degree that it would be a cultural, musical and financial asset in any community. The Choir had outgrown Birmingham and Alabama, as he envisioned it would, and now belongs to the nation."

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With that prophetic statement, Coleman Cooper in the ensuing years and through the members of the Apollo Choir, responded unstintingly to his understanding and ambition, dreaming of new means by which to make apparent the ideal which he carried with him. It has been said that "Man is a hunter" even though the man be an artist and his quarry be a hope, a concept or a dream. A new esthetic experience in America was being born: a world designed for singing boys, dedicated to Excellence. In time, Coleman Cooper would establish for Americans a standard of vocal quality surpassing that for which his European counterparts had become famous.

He began by getting permission to audition 6,000 pre-adolescent boys from the Birmingham Public Schools, ultimately selecting 25 of the most promising and talented who would accept the commitment and dedication as the nucleus of his first boy choir. This was the primary step of a long journey which covered more than two decades and which, in retrospect, stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Boychoir in America.

After his initial year, Coleman Cooper sought the guidance and knowledge of two great purveyors of the art of boychoir: Father William Finn, dynamic conductor of the Paulist Choristers and Dr. Earnest Mitchell of Grace Church, New York City. Mr. Cooper brought back to his Choir two ingredients which influenced his work with the Apollo Boys' Choir throughout his career: the delicate tonal resonance of Fr. Finn and, from Dr. Mitchell, the careful placement of the voice in training the child as a future singer.

Rehearsals had begun in January of 1935 in the Education Building of the First Methodist Church where they continued until May of 1937. Throughout the training period and these early rehearsals, Mr. Cooper was constantly testing technique, listening, evaluating, searching - always for greater understanding whereby to hone more carefully the ears, the minds and the voices of his young charges.

Mr Cooper found yet another renowned practitioner and pedagogist of boys' voices - Dr. T. Tertius Noble at St. Thomas Church Choir School in New York City. He went in search of more knowledge. It was a quest which was unending. Within two years, he was in Vienna as guest of Father Josef Schnitt, the person who singlehandedly saved the Vienna Boys' Choir from extinction and now was Director of that great institution. There Mr. Cooper studied with Hans Urbanek and his staff. He also attended classes and rehearsals with such world-notables as Lotte Lehmann, Elizabeth Schumann and Felix Weingartner of the Vienna State Opera.

Concerts for the Apollo Boys' Choir in 1935 began in a simple and meager way: church services becoming the forums for public appearances. The resulting income was less than encouraging: free-will offerings often producing $10.00 to $15.00 and on rare occasions as much as $25.00 for the group's one hour performance. Fortunately Mr. Cooper and his Mother had small private incomes which enabled them to contribute their time and talent to the Choir without remuneration.

apollo11-sm.jpg (21708 bytes)For a number of years financial matters did not improve. But the musical quality of the Choir constantly improved, as did the devotion of the Choirboys. Along with the developing ethereal floating tone, the reputation of the Choir's artistic merit also grew, and opportunity began to present itself in surprising ways. In November of 1935, the Apollo Boys' Choir sang at The Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. It was an extended moment of magic, for everything which had been said and done during days, weeks and months of rehearsals, suddenly came into focus and found validity and meaning. Nothing was ever quite the same thereafter.

Mr. Cooper had sought the opportunity of singing for President Roosevelt only to be told by his executive staff that it was not possible due to Cabinet Secretaries having arrived that day to discuss national problems with him. Terribly disappointed, Mr. Cooper and his Choir made their way to the local high school auditorium where they were scheduled to sing for the Georgia State Parent Teachers Association and where the delegates were gathered to hear Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt speak.

The seraphic sounds of the Birmingham Choir boys surprised and delighted the First Lady. Immediately after the program she asked if the boys could sing for the President. Mr. Cooper responded with the story of disappointment for everyone earlier in the day. Mrs. Roosevelt replied "Remember I live in that house too, so let me see what I can do".

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Copyright 2001 Larry Ford All rights reserved
This page was last modified on 01 September 2004