Chronology of Music Directors
Bill Koplowitz 2/1950-4/1952
Tony Hass 1952-1954
Bill Koplowitz 9/1954-6/1958
Tony Hass/George Holmes 1958-1961
Wes Oler 1961-1963
Bill Koplowitz 2/1963-8/1967
Peter Randolph 1967-1968
Jack Upper 1968-1970
Rob Northrup 1970-1973
Wat Stewart 1973-1981
John Ziegler 1981-1983
Bill Cline 1983-present
50 YEARS AND GOING STRONG – OUR STORY AT 50
Gordon O. F. Johnson (2000)
George Holmes (Yale, Whiffenpoof) and Bill Koplowitz (Yale, Orpheus and Bacchus), were talking at a cocktail party in the fall of 1949 and discovered they both wanted to start a new singing group. Koppy already had a quartet of sorts, but felt it needed upgrading. George, in turn, was courting a former Smithenpoof, Nancy Trowbridge, who had friends in a Princeton quartet, “The Foreign Conclusion,” made up of Tony Hass, John Kauffmann, Jack Nevius and Bob Schmerz, that was already practicing in Tony Hass’ bachelor “Hayloft” apartment on New Hampshire Avenue NW. History was made when, along with Lou Hood from Amherst, they held their first rehearsal in February, 1950, in George Holmes’ bachelor DC quarters. They added a few more voices – alums from Harvard (Art Nichols), Penn (Bill Culbert) and Yale (Larry Dalley). Gordy Johnson (Stanford/Harvard Business School) joined them in July and George and Nancy’s marriage in September of that year was probably our first performance. Jack Nevius, who had been battling the first tenor part in the Princeton quartet, was delighted to move down to second tenor in favor of four legitimate first tenors among the ten singers.
We talked of different names, such as the Used Cooperage Choir and the Doubled Over Sextet, but none took. As a temporary name, until we could decide on a real one, we called ourselves the Augmented Eight, and never found a better one. Our competition in Georgetown social circles was the Lower Potomac River Ballad Singers, composed of Prescott Bush, Jim Wadsworth, Bob Johnson (Oakley’s father) and Ed Knapp. We were all bachelors but one when we started and that, along with our singing may have accounted for our popularity in Georgetown social circles.
Our early repertoire drew heavily from the Yale Songbook, the Whiffenpoofs’ arrangements and other college singing groups where members had their origins. John Knapp, who joined the group in 1969 was our first resident arranger, followed shortly by Rob Northrup. By the mid-1990s we boasted three prolific resident arrangers: Rob, Bill Cline and John Todd – what luxury! More and more of our repertoire came from Broadway and the current music scene.
Over the years there were many memorable performances. In December we would sing Christmas carols through the streets of Georgetown with friends and a horse-drawn carriage complete with a top-hatted coachman. Pregnant wives got to ride inside. Secretary of State Dean Atchison would come out on the steps of his town house each year and join in. Another special evening was the Washington Yale Club’s presentation of their “Outstanding Statesman” award to Dean Atchison, with former president Harry Truman as the keynote speaker and presenter.
During the 1980 Reagan/Bush inaugural festivities, we adapted “Lulu’s Back in Town” to become “Bush Is Back in Town” and sang it over and over at the Vice President’s reception. (There had been a computer breakdown and issuance of far too many tickets for the capacity of the room, so attendees were herded in and then quickly out again after a brief talk and our song.) Gary Trudeau, who sat through the whole afternoon, was much bemused by the long affair and our song’s lyrics, describing us as “a group of tired ex-Whiffenpoofs” in his newspaper column the next day.
Other highlights included a candle-lit dinner in the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond with Virginia’s first Republican governor since reconstruction, Linwood Holton and his wife Jinx . . . .an afternoon performance at the Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers, when without thinking we launched into “Strolling Out One Evening” with lyrics “Oh, won’t you come along Mandy …there’s a minister handy … here’s a ring for your finger … Come on along and let those wedding chimes ring happy time.” We were never invited back. We also sang for Perle Mesta, Washington’s “Hostess with the Mostes’” whose life inspired Irving Berlin to write “Call Me Madam” that ran on Broadway from 1950-52, starring Ethel Merman.
There were many performances during holiday seasons roving the halls of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum with a few family members planted among the audience to be sure someone clapped for an encore. One of our great traditions, begun in the late fifties, was gathering our families for a weekend together on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah mountains, with baseball games, hiking and “sing-til-u-drop” Saturday nights in Massanutten Cottage, one of the original thatch-roof wood cottages with fireplace built by FDR’s Civilian Construction Corps.
Our first Spring Sing was in 1960 in Andalusia, PA, thanks to a contact between Princeton classmates Wat Stewart of the Plainfield Revelers and John Kauffmann, one of our all-time great basses. Some of us can still remember the empty feelings in the pit of our stomachs knowing that some of those in our audience knew our songs better than we did – we just had to be at our best!
In 1964, we hosted our first Spring Sing at Gadsby’s Tavern, frequented by George Washington in its early days, in Alexandria, VA. We made Spring Sing a Saturday/Sunday tradition with the first Sunday brunch, held at the country home of an advisor to many presidents, Clarke Clifford, in Maryland. We hosted again in 1971 at the Potomac School. In 1980, we hosted the concert in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, followed by dinner under the stars atop the Hotel Washington, overlooking the White House, with the Sunday Reprieve in the Kennedy Center. In 1991, we hosted at the University of Georgetown’s Conference Center with the concert in old Gaston Hall with its wonderful acoustics and our Sunday Reprieve on the roof terrace of the Department of Labor, looking directly across a broad lawn towards the U.S. Capitol. (Mike Wyatt was at the time an Assistant Secretary of Labor under Elizabeth Dole.) Then in 1999 we hosted Spring Sing for the weekend at the 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, MD,
Our annual Sing Out for Shelter “SOS” charity concert with two or three other invited singing groups has benefitted local organizations that serve the more than 12,000 individuals who experience homelessness each year in the Greater Washington DC Region. These concerts have raised over $100,000 in the past thirteen years.
So here we are now, 50 years young, having performed some 400-500 songs over the years under four principal music directors: Bill Koplowitz, Wat Stewart, Rob Northrup and Bill Cline, plus Tony Hass, George Holmes, Wes Oler, Peter Randolph, Jack Upper and John Ziegler who also served at various intervals. We survived because we had a clear simple well-understood mission: Sing well, do good things and have fun together. Also key to our longevity has been the unwritten ground rule that whenever there was a vacancy, (DC has considerable turnover of people,) we always tried to find a replacement who was under thirty. It’s the newcomers, who brought new energy, new songs and new ideas, who have kept us going.