Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus


Early History


Director Eduardo Caso (inset) and his famous chorus are at home wherever they sing.

 

Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus
Raymond Carlson, Editor

Tucson’s Famous Singing Ambassadors of Good Will
A Western Ways Feature

(Reproduced from Arizona Highways March 1953 issue)
Vol. XXIX, No. 3

The sun, riding high in the radiant Arizona blue of a noon sky, beams hot on the hilly, unprotected range of the 76 Ranch, near Bonita, in Graham County. Here and there, offering temporary shelter as they go, a few fleecy clouds float lazily by. On the trail thirty young horsemen, hale and hearty, though thirsty, wend their careful way over terrain rough with the multi-colored rocks of mineral country, singing "Tumbling Tumble Weeds." In the purple distance, to the hazy left, the low adobe ranch buildings slowly come into view and with them the fir-covered majesty of the Grahams, as the riders reach the pass that overlooks the wide expanse of Sulphur Spring Valley. Mount Graham, these past many years, has protected the old homestead nestling snug and safe at her feet. And the mountain, acting as a great sounding board, enables the returning boys to hear (even if only faintly) the large ranch bell sending out its impatient summons to "chow." What youngster could resist such a call?

Throwing caution to the winds, the cavalcade breaks into an excusable canter and speeds for "home." There, Eduardo Caso, founder and director of Tucson’s famous Boys Chorus, is seated at the piano in the spacious living room of the rambling ranch house. He is engrossed in musical arrangements and is loath to be distracted as he seeks to match the color of chords with that of the rich western scene. The familiar strains of "Cool Water" herald the approach of his singing boys. The lovely melody rises to its unrestrained climax as they near the corral: "Dan, can you see that great big tree, where the water’s running free and it’s waiting there for me and you?"

These choirboys can ride hard as well as sing beautifully.

What a glorious time they’re having at the 76! Riding, swimming, riflery, field sports. What more could a youngster ask for! This was one of the goals set in the beginning by "dreamer" Caso: a summer camp centered around musical training. And now, thanks to the interest and generosity of Mrs. W.T. Webb, owner of the ranch, the dream has become a reality. For it is here that the young "cowboys" spend part of the summer in the genuine atmosphere of her cattle ranch, where the cry of the coyote and the sounds of cattle are heard in the twilight; where the cacophony of the cicadas and other desert insects is a broken record of confused monotony. What a spot to learn the lore of the Southwest! Small wonder that later when these boys repeat their tale to the many in song they appear to know whereof they sing.

It is difficult to imagine the Arizona lads as members of one of the world’s best boy choirs when in junior rodeo they demonstrate equestrian ability that has won for them the Best Organized Riding Group trophy in Tucson’s yearly Fiesta de los Vaqueros, when they show themselves skillful protagonists in the art of the rope; when the rough and tumble of calf riding bloodies many a nose and belies the usual concept of a choirboy as he bites the dust. But let the inspiring story of these Singing Boys and their leader be told, for it is worthy of the telling.

The boys are just as proud of their riding as their singing.

Eduardo Caso, leader of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus was born at Bromley, Kent, England in 1901, of English and San Domingan (on his mother’s side) parents. Tuneful pipings very early suggested his innate musical aptitude. At the age of eight, the boy started to school five miles away, walking. Getting there wasn’t bad, but the homeward journey, in the dark, alone, made every contour a menace; every bush a bogey’s hiding place; every sound a nerve-tingling shiver. To keep up his courage, he bellowed lustily in Caruso fashion, for already Caso was an ardent admirer of the great singer and was quite determined to follow in his footsteps.

After preparatory school came four years at Westminster, one of England’s oldest and best known places of education, not to be confused with Westminster Abbey Choir School. Every day, struggling with arithmetic, his worst subject, the fluty tones of the famous Abbey choristers came to him from across Dean’s Yard, and the germ of an idea was born. Although dormant for many years, it finally blossomed into one of the finest youth projects of recent time - the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. In the interim the pattern of his life seemed to equip and lead Caso ever onward towards his unusual enterprise.

Practicing with the lariat at summer camp.

Leaving Westminster School, where he distinguished himself at soccer and in the Officers Training Corps, he decided that a business life was not to his liking and flunked (not so disgracefully, for it was on purpose) a bank entrance examination arranged by his father. It was more by accident than design, however, that he drifted into the teaching profession and for a few years taught French, general subjects and athletics in some of the better known schools of the Old Country, including Eton College. It was during this phase of his life that Caso learned to understand and how to handle the species "boy," an essential for the successful launching of any boys’ chorus. Also, teaching had gotten into his blood, another requisite.

There followed a two-year stint in Paris studying music and voice with Gabriel Pauler of the Conservatoire. Progress and his teacher’s advice were such that he decided to take up singing as a profession. The land of myriad opportunities proved a magnet that easily attracted, for Old World conservatism had become anathema to his restless, ambitious nature. Thus an excited young immigrant, thrilled with the drama of the STATUE and its breathtaking backdrop, landed in the United States in 1930 thinking "to set the new world afire."

Fun at summer camp in eastern Arizona.

The initial going was rough. It wasn’t turning out to be so easy. Funds dwindled alarmingly. Thus when a chance to teach at Aiken’s Select Preparatory School for Boys in South Carolina presented itself, it proved irresistible. He again found himself at the old grind. A full teaching schedule, this time plus music and dramatics, proved too strenuous. His health broke and he was obliged to take a year of complete rest in Asheville, North Carolina. The advisability of taking things more easily was now indicated. A return to his short-lived singing career seemed to be the answer. He went to Washington, D.C., became associated with the National Broadcasting Company and was immediately featured in many local and coast-to-coast broadcasts as the San Domingan tenor. One engagement led to another as the programs gained in importance, and Caso was soon being sponsored by the General Electric Company in special concerts shortwaved to Central and South America from Schenectady. The Victor Company became interested and invited the promising young tenor to make test records in Philadelphia. These were never made, once more for reasons of health. The doctors suggested a drier climate and recommended sunny Arizona. Caso needed no urging and entrained for Tucson and its beckoning giant saguaros in the fall of 1937. There he started on a determined road to recovery. Slowly but surely it led to the time two years later when the southwestern city learned of this rather "pretentious" Englishman (since naturalized) and his intention "to form a nonsectarian boys chorus, second to none, typically American, and as unlike its European counterpart as night is to day."

Tucson was frankly skeptical. The general consensus was that it couldn’t be done. For a while the fate of the worthy venture hung in the balance; enrollment was low (six); townsfolk indifferent; Caso discouraged. It was hard to persuade prospective members to try this "sissy" business of singing. "Let the girls warble," they intimated. People started saying, "I told you so." That was all that was necessary to rekindle the dying flame of stubbornness, and Caso persisted. Slowly youthful resistance was broken down as it was lured into the chorus with a tackle football team for bait. At this time, Caso recollects, with tongue in cheek, his boys were better football players than singers. The team, coached by Fred Enke, Jr., then Arizona’s star quarterback and now of the Philadelphia Eagles, defeated all comers. The membership problem was licked. In spite of constant teasing from school companions (maybe they were football champs but they were still sissies), forty youthful pioneers stuck together and the seeds of national fame were sown on somewhat infertile ground. Thus loyalty to the organization was learned right from the inception and has become a tradition. This devotion to the cause, more than any other one contributing factor, has enabled Caso and his lively brood to overcome through the years those obstacles that have seemed well-nigh insurmountable.

Summer camp in eastern Arizona.

It is hard to believe that at one time, owing to lack of rehearsal space, the young aspirants were obliged to meet weekly in four or five different places to get the work done. Now they rehearse in the hall of the Knights of Pythias, another temporary expedient. Most boy choirs recognized in the world today boast their own private schools where the musical training is part of the daily curriculum - the ideal situation. The members of the Tucson Chorus all belong to the public school system and must relegate choir work to that of school, confining rehearsals to spare time. This is a terrific handicap for boys so young - an imposition. But as Helen Johnson so aptly puts it in the September issue of Etude Magazine, "they are happy and proud to sacrifice anything for their beloved chorus." Many difficulties have indeed beset the group as patiently it has always sought elusive recognition.

Will Caso ever forget the incident of the Grand Canyon when, during Governor Howard Pyle’s magnificent Easter Sunrise Service in 1945, the sourest tones that surely have ever been broadcast to a nation emanated from 60 half-frozen, sleepy little throats. True, it was only for a fleeting moment; the other numbers were excellently rendered. But what a moment! The world nearly lost a fine choral conductor then as a horrified Caso, standing a few feet from the rim, glanced down into the depths, shuddered, and ... thought better of it. The N.B.C. was kind, understanding.

The previous Christmas Eve concert of these same lads, heard over N.B.C. networks from Arizona’s beautiful 17th century Mission San Xavier Del Bac, had already left its indelible stamp on official memory. "One of the finest groups in the country," they had said. The following Christmas season confidence was restored all around as another memorable concert was broadcast from San Xavier Del Bac, again over the N.B.C. chain.

On Tour

Yuletide has always meant something extra special to the Tucson Boys Chorus for, besides its eagerly awaited caroling, always a highlight of the season’s music, many an event important to the organization has taken place during this joyful period. The first Tucson offering at the Congregational Church in 1939, with six boys and two girl altos added for good measure, was one of these. Another, the concert given a year later at the Temple of Music and Art to raise money (the growing, ever-gnawing problem) for much needed vestal garments. Only about 250 interested Tucsonans attended. Now, to accommodate all those who wish to hear the talented performers, an autumn appearance at the smaller hall and two February Spring concerts in the vast University Auditorium have been found necessary.

Caso’s desire to form a typically American singing group has been fulfilled. His chorus is indeed just that, with an informality about its performances that captivates those in attendance. Germanic operettas made famous the world over by leading boy choirs have been discarded for a group of western numbers especially arranged by him, complete with calf bawls and coyote howls. Nor was this the only break with tradition, for the somewhat hooty tone of the Old School (hardly suitable for the effective singing of these westerns) has been replaced by a more vibrant quality - the result a warmth and beauty hitherto not associated with the boy’s voice. Each youngster is thus taught to sing with vibrato at the first opportunity. As a consequence, a far greater latitude in interpretation is apparent, enabling all kinds of music to be tackled with equal success. A few hometown dilettanti were scandalized when comedy numbers were introduced into the program. "Vulgar! Horrible!" was the anguished reaction. But Caso turned a deaf ear as audiences proved they liked it by yearly flocking to the concerts in ever greater numbers to enjoy the music and the horseplay.

People marvel at the versatility which handles a great classic such as Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus" with as much ease and understanding as the favorite little Mexican ditty "Alla en el Rancho Grande," with all the monkey business that goes with it. They marvel too at the fact that these boys are ordinary Tucson youngsters whose only required qualification when they first join the organization’s second or "feeder" group is the ability to carry a tune and the desire to sing. Ofttimes it has been asked, "How does Caso do it?" "A little wheedling here and a good walloping there is the secret" might be the facetious reply, for being a strict disciplinarian he is not averse to using a stout oak paddle when occasion demands. "Of course I only use it in self-defense," he will say with a twinkle in his eye. The recipients, who chose this form of punishment themselves, believe it or not, are on excellent terms with their boss and look upon him more as a friend and companion than the hard taskmaster that he undoubtedly is. But Caso knows boys about as well as anyone can. Even if he is a perfectionist, a driver, his sense of humor (now proverbial) will turn the most arduous practice session into a period of fun. His enthusiasm is so infectious that during rehearsal his young charges have been known to break spontaneously into wild applause after singing a number somewhat better than usual - in their own opinion. On these occasions, nonplused, he will say in his clipped English accent, now choked with happiness, "Egads and tiny fishes" or perhaps "Thunder and lightning," both pet expressions, "so you think you’re good. Well, it’s not bad but not good enough. It never can be. Sing it again." "Oh, sir!" is the vociferous response, but loving it all they plunge in head first, trying to outdo their previous effort.

The Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus on parade.

Caso demands obedience, courtesy and good behavior at all times, always stressing the character building part of the program. Thus his boys learn to become better citizens through cooperation and personal responsibility, using music as the means, the incentive rather than the goal. "You don’t have to be a sissy to be a gentleman," Caso never ceases to propound. Excellent deportment when on tour has gained for the organization a reputation of which the "mother" city can well be proud. What more fitting appellation for these clean-cut American troubadours than "Arizona’s youngest ambassadors of good will" as they travel the length and breadth of the land selling their wares in glorious manner.

It was at Chicago’s Fair on Arizona Day when the unaffected desert lads so admirably represented their State, that a "Windy City" newspaperman was prompted to call them "the greatest walking advertisement a city and state ever had." Tucson took notice. In the early summer of 1951 local Rotarians, their eyes opened, presented the musical showpiece at their International Convention in Atlantic City where, competing with the finest in headlined entertainment, it was voted one of the highlights of the notable occasion. Tucson Kiwanians, not to be outdone, followed suit a year later by sending the young travelers to their own international gathering that was being held in Seattle - the outcome a standing ovation. Glowing reports still filtering in from all parts of the country and from abroad would indicate that these two memorable appearances were as much a milestone in the steady climb to prominence as was that all-important offering at New York’s mecca of the aspiring concert artist, Town Hall.

"It was do or die," reported Time Magazine and then went on to tell the nation, "Director Caso has polished the Arizona Boys Chorus well - they were as well-disciplined as paratroopers and their voices like their faces were shining and pure." The welcome contract from the Columbia Artists Management ensuring a two-months nation-wide tour in 1953 was a direct result of the New York concert, made possible by the Rotarian-sponsored trip. However, the ever-growing prestige of the Tucson boys in radio and southwestern concert circles was no doubt also a factor taken into consideration, for it proved a perseverance that was not to be denied and that assured the continuance of musical achievement far above the average. Caso and his boys were ready to accept the challenge. To this end they had labored, confident, never-wavering; spurred on by the unselfish help of many organizations and private individuals. One-time sponsors, Radio Station KVOA, the Optimist Club and the Elks Lodge of Tucson all played an invaluable part in the evolution and maturing of the group. Mr. Robert Morrow, farseeing educator and superintendent of the city’s public schools, gave wholehearted cooperation, without which advancement would have been impossible. Now the future is in the hands of certain distinguished Tucsonans who willingly make up the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization dedicated to the further advancement and perpetuation of their "pet" project, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus.

Doing things and ...

... meeting people.

Every fall at the beginning of a new season the inevitable graduation day comes along, for boy trebles live but a moment. On this occasion an "alumni" banquet is held in one of the Old Pueblo’s leading hotels for these rather special transients. Here Director Caso, a little sad, presents each one a silver belt buckle with the saguaro emblem hand tooled upon it - a parting token of appreciation for a job well done. After the ceremony, whilst mulling things over with his past alumni, he learns of their better than average success in their fields of endeavor. It is then that his eyes, sparkling the more for unshed tears, reflect the thought "maybe it’s worth all the headaches after all."

Material for this page was furnished by Douglas Neslund.

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