Disharmony : Director's Firing, Defection of Members Spawn New Children's Choir

Times Staff Writer

Two choirs held rehearsals simultaneously this week.

At Burcham Elementary School, the International Children's Choir had an emotional hug-filled meeting reminiscent of a camp reunion. Nearby at Emerson Elementary School, the International Peace Choir held a polished dress rehearsal for an upcoming musical tour of several states.

Until recently the two choirs had been one.

But two weeks ago, on the eve of the national tour, Ann Livingston--president of the International Children's Choir, which is known nationally and has been a local fixture for 30 years--fired Irene Bayless, director of the choir since 1982. And in a move that surprised both women, 57 of the choir's 61 members quit to form a new choir under Bayless' direction.

So the tour will go on as planned featuring the newly constituted International Peace Choir under Bayless. And relying on new recruits and former choir members who have returned to help out, Livingston is in the process of reorganizing and revitalizing her original International Children's Choir.

Promises Comeback

"We're going to come back stronger than ever," Livingston said in a recent telephone interview from the furniture store she manages in Hawthorne.

Said Bayless, who works as a secretary for a talent booking agency in Long Beach: "We're just going to make it the best it ever could be."

At the heart of the split, however, is a major difference on how to guide a children's choir and, indeed, what it means to be "good." While Bayless favors a high profile with lots of media exposure, Livingston believes that stardom has been overemphasized to the detriment of the choir's original intent.

That purpose was first articulated by Livingston's mother, Easter Beekly, who founded the nonprofit International Children's Choir in 1957 to promote peace and international harmony through the combined voices of children. To do that, the choir has traditionally consisted of children, ages 5 to 17, each representing a different country. During numerous appearances--which, over the years, have ranged from television specials to concerts at local senior citizens' centers--the children dress in colorful national costumes, perform international dances and sing songs in several languages ranging from "We are the World," to their anthem, "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

Choir Doubles in Size

Beekly died in 1981, leaving responsibility for the choir to Livingston, who appointed Bayless director the next year.

After taking over, the new director made some changes. In five years, she nearly doubled the size of the choir--from about 35 to more than 60. She hired the choir's first booking agent 1 1/2

years ago. And though the choir always did a certain amount of traveling and media work, Bayless by most accounts increased the group's national visibility and generally moved toward more polished performances.

"If you're going to spread peace," she says, "you can't just do it in your own backyard. You can't just sing in Long Beach--I've worked hard to get the word out to the community, the nation, and the world that these beautiful children are (here)."

In recent years, the choir has recorded an album with Johnny Mathis, performed concerts with Bob Hope, Andy Williams and Jerry Lewis and appeared on a television special with President Reagan and Frank Sinatra. In addition, the children sang at the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics, appeared in numerous Rose Parades and did a singing tour of Israel.

But, Livingston believes, all that was accomplished at a cost. While she does not oppose spreading the group's message beyond the boundaries of its hometown, she says she feels that stardom has been overemphasized to the point where it has conveyed an undesirable message to the children: that being on television is more important than working for peace. And because of its numerous outside appearances, she said, the choir has been less available to sing for the needy people of Long Beach to whom she believes it owes allegiance.

"The direction my mother wanted to go in was to do a certain amount of prestige things, but to keep in mind the old people and the handicapped," she said. "Promoting peace is the foremost thing, not the fact that we're on television performing with some big movie star."

Bayless says the glamour has not hurt the children and that their minds are still on peace. And she says the choir still does benefits for charities, and performs for local senior citizens and the handicapped.

Contrast in Styles

But it was her differences with Livingston that culminated in her firing. And the events that have occurred since then were evident in the contrasting gatherings held Monday night by the now separate choirs.

At Emerson, where Bayless' International Peace Choir held its last full-dress rehearsal before embarking this Friday on a two-week musical tour of Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New York and Indiana, the atmosphere was all spit and polish. Exotic in their colorful international costumes, the youngsters ran through their repertoire with nary a flaw, while proud parents videotaped the performance or listened in rapt silence.

"Irene has incredible rapport with the children," said Joan Davidson, who has had three children in the choir at various times since 1965. Her oldest daughter, now 25, she said, eventually went to work as an assistant to a talent agent largely due to her experiences in the choir. "The choir got her started," Davidson said. "Singing for peace meant an awful lot to her."

At the other rehearsal, meanwhile, where directors were taking the first roll call of a largely new choir, the performance was far less polished and much more emotional. Dressed in their street clothes, many of the youngsters were former choir members who had dropped out for various reasons, in some cases because their parents shared Livingston's criticisms. With its new members, the International Children's Choir now has 39 voices, Livingston said.

"It's like a family reunion," said Terry Messersmith, 14, who dropped out three years ago after six years in the choir. "I just came back to see everybody."

Families Link Arms

The emotional peak of both gatherings was a ritual that had become something of a tradition at meetings of the original choir over the years. Linking arms around the room, the children and their parents joined in stirring renditions of "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

At Emerson, where Bayless' old choir with the new name sang, the voices were strong and harmonious, seasoned by many years of working together.

At Burcham they were far less certain. Here Livingston's International Children's Choir--in essence a new choir with an old name--consisted of children who hadn't sung together in years. But the spirit was there.

And as the song ended, someone let out an exclamation that drew emotional amens from more than a few present.

"We still got it," the voice said.

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