But with all their trials, no men in College have a better time than
the members of the Glee Club, and as the tuneful ones of ’87 bid farewell
to these pleasant associations they cannot but sing to those left behind,
“On, gallant company !” and as the walls of “Old Penn” grow dim in
the distance, there will float back the answering refrain—
“Ben Franklin was his name,
And not unknown to fame;
The founder first was he
Of the U-ni-ver-si-tee.”
It’s impossible to sum up the Penn Glee Club with a single adjective, or even several. But here, according to Nordgren, is what they’re not: They’re not stuffy or boring. They’re not a bunch of Ivy-League dweebs who turn up their noses at the thought of singing pop music. And, as much as it’s helped their image in the last few years, they’re not the toothpaste-commercial teens from the FOX TV show Glee, either. “I guess I’d say we’re a hybrid of the two stereotypes,” Nordgren adds. “We’re much more fun than the ‘boring’ stereotype, but not quite as Hollywood as the TV show.”
The Glee Club is the oldest performing-arts group at Penn and one of the oldest glee clubs in the country. While the emphasis clearly rests on vocals, they do other stuff, too: dancing, acting, writing skits. They sing songs from Broadway and Michael Jackson, along with serious classical pieces and spiritual works. They’re graduate students and engineers-in-training. Finance majors and budding biologists. Computer scientists and future lawyers. They grew up as far away as South Korea and Singapore and as close by as Philadelphia and New Jersey. They have girlfriends and they have boyfriends. Some listen to Bach, others to Lady Gaga.
“The diversity of the organization is what’s so lovely about it,” notes Eduardo Placer C’99, a Glee Club alumnus who now directs the group’s annual spring show. “What we share is a love of music and the ability to sing and harmonize with each other. It’s amazing how that just transcends anything else—academics, race, sexuality.”
Over the last 150 years, the club has performed with Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and Today, and sung and danced in multiple Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. They’ve given concerts alongside famous opera stars and in front of foreign dignitaries, and they’ve jetted off on performance tours around the United States and to more than 40 other countries.
The names and faces change from year to year, but even over so many decades, the group hasn’t strayed far from the combination of musicality and brotherhood that led eight undergraduates to found it in 1862. As the Civil War raged and a smallpox epidemic hit California, the Penn Glee Club prepared for its first performance. In a chapel at Ninth and Chestnut streets, the newly minted club sang in late 1862 for “an audience that was unusually select and large, the Hall filled to its utmost capacity.” Each singer wore red and blue ribbons in his buttonhole, making the group the first at Penn to wear those colors as part of its uniform.
By the end of 1865, the Glee Club had 20 members—more than any of the campus fraternities. (Remember that in those days, each class had only about 25 students.) It had also added a full board, including a business manager, and received top billing in the yearbook’s “University Record” of campus happenings. There, the group is described as having “already won for itself honourable laurels” and praised for earning more than $200 in a single concert.
Things hit a bit of a slump soon after that. In its yearbook, the class of 1872 credits itself with “reviving” the floundering Glee Club. That year, nearly every man in the senior class got together weekly to “pour forth the beautiful strains of Gaudeamus, Litoria, etc.” As a result, they write, “The Glee Club has brought us together, we have learned to know and love each other as we never could while merely meeting in the recitation room.”
The same 1872 yearbook lists separate Glee Clubs for the junior and sophomore classes, and the graduating seniors note that “we only hope that they will keep up the singing interest, (we are glad to know that their glee clubs are at least organized,) and if they arrive at a higher point of musical excellence than ourselves, we will not begrudge them the honor, since it will all redound to the glory of our well-beloved Alma Mater.”
By the turn of the century, a University-wide Glee Club had taken shape, replacing the class-specific ones. In those early days, the Glee Club offered one of the only outlets for musically inclined Penn students. A banjo group and mandolin club also existed, but the singers were consistently heaped with the greatest “honourable laurels,” as it were. They performed joint concerts with nearby colleges and traveled through the state on multi-city performance tours. They also sang at the Academy of Music and, by 1930, boasted a membership of more than 150 singers.
In the decade that followed, membership retreated to about 50 singers—much closer to the range it now hovers in; this year there are 41 singers—but the club’s performance schedule remained busy: local colleges, Philadelphia Orchestra collaborations, tours through the southern states.
“In the late 1940s, people didn’t travel as much as they do now,” says John Reardon W’51 WG’56. “When you grow up in a small rowhouse in Germantown, only going into Philadelphia a few times a year, Atlantic City seems like a pretty exotic place. The Glee Club took us out of our small bubbles and showed us the big world out there.”
Jan|Feb 2012 Contents
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