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The Bellflower Civic Chorus is threw a big party on July 18, 2015 at the Eagles’ Lodge in Bellflower, CA.
“We’re fifty years old and we celebrated big time, ” said Alice Brindle, an alto and chorus president who’s been a member since its founding in Downey in 1965.
Celebrating was chorus members and friends, supporters, and Bellflower civic officials. Bill Jones, the chorus’ long time music director until his retirement this year, was honored. And of course, the chorus showed itself off with a few numbers.
“I’ll miss conducting, but I owe it to my people to keep singing and help out the tenor section,” said Jones, who’s also been with the chorus from the start.
Numbering about forty, the chorus is made up of people who like to sing and hope their audiences enjoy what they hear. There are three performances a year at the William and Jane Bristol Civic Auditorium at Bellflower City Hall.
Admission is $5 – it hasn’t been raised since 1990 –and in addition to music, audiences get complimentary refreshments at intermission served by spouses of the singers.
The group also does what are called “sing outs” for churches, fraternal and veterans groups and civic organizations.
Over the years, the chorus has performed music of Broadway, the Roaring Twenties, the 30s and 40s country, vaudeville, big band, 50s, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael and classical. There’s always a Christmas show of sacred and popular favorites in December. “Our audiences like themed shows,” said Brindle.
Last year, the chorus did a survey asking audiences what shows they would like to see again. As a result, the chorus presented “I’ll Be Seeing You”, songs of World War II, in May and will do “Country Cookin’ ” on September 18 – 20, 2015.
The chorus was born in Downey when a group of people joined together for the pure joy of singing as the Voices of Phelan, named for the founding director, Marge Phelan. The name was later changed to Downey Civic Chorus and it was among the thousand voices singing at Dodger Stadium during the 1984 Olympics Festival. Chorus member Ray Brady, who is 88, also sang at the Olympics opening show at the Coliseum.
The chorus was conducted in one concert by Roger Wagner, founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. It performed in Guadalajara, singing in Spanish, as guests of that Mexican city during a Downey Sister City event.
The chorus moved to Bellflower in 1989, where it’s sponsored by the city. It also depends on revenue from program advertisements and private donations.
Music for each concert is chosen by Brindle, working with Jackie Beery, who became music director this year. “I think about what would be nice to sing, what we’ve done in the past, what people would appreciate, what we’ve done too much of,” Brindle said. Something already on tap for next year is a Disney Spectacular.
Beery, who studied voice and chorus music at Cal State University Long Beach and conducts church choirs in Lakewood, has sung with the chorus and sometimes substituted for Jones in the past. Now, she’s in charge. “My style is to have fun and entertain, Beery said, adding that she wants the singers to expand their talents and knowledge of music and enjoy doing it. As for audiences, she said “We’re there to entertain and make audiences feel good, exhilarated, energized and get a song in their heads.”
Beery hopes some audience members may be inspired to join the chorus as singers or sponsors. Rehearsals are held Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 at Simms Park. The chorus is always looking for new members. “All are welcome,” said Brindle.
Chorus members are decidedly in the seniors camp. Brindle, at 90, is the oldest. The youngest is Andrew Soto, a tenor who likes to say he’s “24 and a half.”
The oldest ever singer was Harry Andreson, who sang his last show at 101 in 2003. He wore a World War I army uniform and sang “I’ll Be Seeing You”.
John M. Bandsma, a baritone, called the chorus a “friendly bunch” and enjoys learning to sing better with every show. He especially likes the Christmas concerts because his whole family attends.
Richard Balling, a tenor and principal soloist with the chorus, said he’s sung all his life –sacred music and popular songs with church choirs and other singing groups. He joined the Bellflower chorus 20 years ago after his sister saw a newspaper ad looking for singers.
“I focus on the audience,” Balling said. “One positive comment on a song keeps me going.” His favorites are love songs and ballads.
An important part of every show are the narratives provided by Gregg Nighswonger, who, wearing his swallowtail coat, has emceed the concerts for 20 years.
Every song gets an introduction — when it was written, which artists have sung it and where it fits in American culture. “These shows spark memories and put people in a whole new world,” he said.
With a background in broadcasting, theater and business, Nighswonger has amassed a library of information over the years. His family had show business connections so he learned about music going back to the 1920s. Jazz and big bands came along when he ran a radio station. Two older sisters turned him on to popular music.
“I have a mind like a sponge for trivia,” Nighswonger said. “I was born on January 4, which is National Trivia Day.
One of the newest chorus members is Willie Solomon, who said she saw a flyer for the group at a restaurant. She’s been a school and church singer. “I love classical, jazz and blues, but I’m a soprano and soprano’s don’t sing jazz.” So she joined the chorus because “she wants to sing some.”
Another newcomer is Ioana Gocan, who knows chorus members at church who suggested she “come along and have a good time. So she did.
Pamyla Jagger, a voice teacher and coach who’s been with the chorus since 1998, is partial to country music and songs from movie musicals. “I feel like I can use my training and experience in music to make other people happy and use my talents for as long as I can,” she said.
A non-singing member but one who’s vital to the chorus is Hani Yang, who plays the piano at every concert and all rehearsals and seems to be master of everything she plays. The chorus accompanist for three years, Yang’s experience is in classical and liturgical music and she’s a church organist in Lakewood.
She said music the chorus sings was new to her when she started but she’s come to like it. “I sight read and I know some of the music. It’s easy to adapt,” she said. Yang gets high marks from some singers for her ability to quickly pick up on rhythms and styles of the songs in rehearsal.
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