Singers Seek to Dissolve Life's Dissonances in Harmony

Larson is a Valencia free-lance writer.

Larry Callagher flinched when a visitor referred to his singing as a hobby.

"I'm one of those people for whom it is an obsession, " he said, with a quick laugh. "I'd go crazy without it."

Callagher, a 43-year-old bank vice president from Canoga Park, has been singing for 24 years. At the end of the month he will take his family on a two-week vacation in the East while he sings in the international competition of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.

Callagher belongs to the Valleyaires Chorus, the 100-member San Fernando Valley Society chapter, which is the organization's 1986-87 Far Western District Champion.

According to chorus director Stan Sharpe, 56, their entry marks the first time a Los Angeles chorus has made it to the international championship, beating about 21 choruses from California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii in district competitions to qualify in October, 1986.

The objective of barbershop singing is to blend voices so all of those in one category resonate like a single voice.

"What you're doing is creating a situation where the chorus, regardless of size, will sound like a big quartet," Sharpe said. "It's tough to do because you're dealing with people from all walks of life. We have people in our organization from construction workers to corporate presidents, from salesmen to scriptwriters and directors, but what they have in common is they like to sing."

According to Ray Rosenbaum, of Van Nuys, most of the group's 70 to 80 active members live in the Valley and are in their 50s, but there also are college students, retirees in their late 60s and one 92-year-old.

Even busy professionals such as NBC Vice President of Advertising and Promotion John Miller still make time to attend many Wednesday night rehearsals at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, he said.

International Contest Winner

Miller, 36, of Woodland Hills devotes most of his barbershop singing time to his quartet, New Tradition, which won the 1985 International Quartet Contest at the Society's annual convention for its Marx Brothers routines. A barbershopper since 1968, he started singing with a Chicago chorus.

"Barbershopping provides a terrific release from the activities I'm doing on a day-to-day basis," said Miller, who is gearing up for the fall TV season campaign.

Internal Revenue Service tax attorney Steve Diamond, 45, likes barbershop singing for what he views as its health aspects.

"Barbershop harmony promotes health and oneness and a feeling of well-being," he said. "The chords generate a tremendous amount of energy. Studies have shown that consonant sounds energize, while dissonant sounds fatigue.

"We experience throughout the evening together the consonant sound of harmonies. Physically, singing does a tremendous amount for health. You utilize diaphragmatic breathing and stand up very straight."

Barbershop singing, a cappella four-part harmony comprised of lead, tenor, baritone and bass voices, began in the mid 1800s. The form became more mainstream around the turn of the century, popularized by traveling minstrel acts as well as neighborhood barbershops.

It hit its heyday during the late 1920s and early '30s, coasting on the coattails of vaudeville shows that featured barbershop quartets and performers like Al Jolson.

Television director Bob Lally, 53, of Studio City calls singing bass with the Valleyaires "a performance outlet."

"I guess a lot of directors are frustrated performers," said Lally, now directing the fall series "Busting Loose," starring Jimmie Walker. "I find it a tremendous release when you're uptight with what's going on in the world and with your job.

"I never cease to be amazed by people who are willing to give up a lot of things to be able do this," Lally said.

Retired electronic cable manufacturer Al Theobald, 62, of Granada Hills, a former member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church choir, said that while rehearsing in the choir he often considered singing in a barbershop group. One day about five years ago, he heard the Valleyaires rehearsing.

"I opened the door and I heard this barbershop music and I thought, where is that coming from? I had been trying to find out where I could get with a group," he recalled.

For Theobald, who sings bass, the main appeal is fellowship. But, he added, "You sort of wash away whatever happened during the day and come here and completely relax. It's the most relaxing, stimulating situation, if you can imagine the two together. And, your lungs feel better, and your breathing is clearer."

Theobald's son, Dave, 35, of Reseda also is a member. A plumber, he joined the chorus last year. "I've been singing since I was 8 years old in the church choir and in high school and after high school in a group," said the baritone. He joined after attending many of the Valleyaires' annual shows and seeing how much fun his father was having.

"There are few things in my life that I've started and gone whole hog, and this is one of them," he said.

The Barbershop Image

Another baritone, one who projects an 1890s look with his dark, full mustache and expressive face, is cabinet maker David Totheroh, 40, of Topanga. Even he jokes that part of his image is cultivated and part is a carry-over from his college days in the '60s.

"There is something about when a group of people can get together and make something happen," he said. "Singing is probably more immediate than most activities." For Totheroh, practicing doesn't end with rehearsals. He usually pops in a tape when driving and sings along, often doing vocal exercises.

Forty-seven-year-old insurance sales manager Mitch Guzik, Valleyaires president, who sang in a rock 'n' roll band in the 1950s, characterized half of the chorus as "people who are natural hams," the other half those for whom "it gives a chance to entertain without being exposed out there by themselves."

At the Hartford Convention Center, 80 of the members will don World War I uniforms and sing a wartime medley. They also will do a few numbers in tuxedos.

"Many choruses dress up looking like Joe Barbershopper, with a red-and-white striped shirt and white pants, and garter and straw cane," while others are more formal, Sharpe said. They are judged on whether costuming fits the theme of the musical package.

The Valleyaires will compete against 15 other choruses, including a few from Canada and Great Britain. Songs performed in the international competition may not be religious, patriotic or modern, and must be sung in barbershop style.

"You can be disqualified if a song has lots of modern chords in it," said Sharpe.

Judging in 4 Categories

At the international level, he explained, judging is in four categories: music (whether it conforms to barbershop style with a flowing melody line); interpretation (emotional projection, facial expression, volume levels); sound (whether melody line and words are clearly heard), and stage presence (costuming, makeup, choreographed gestures).

Asked how well they expected to do at the international, most Valleyaires expressed hope they would make it to the top five, but no one was so optimistic as to predict a win against tough competitors like the Big Apple Chorus from New York City and the Lombard, Ill., West Towns Chorus, which historically finish well.

Locally, the Valleyaires put on an annual spring show at John Burroughs High School in Burbank and occasionally sing at fairs, hospitals and rest homes.

They recently performed at Perkin's Palace in Pasadena to raise funds for the Hartford trip, which will cost $90,000. They shared the stage with the Verdugo Hills chapter of Sweet Adelines, themselves regional champions who will sing in their international contest in October.

At a recent rehearsal, Valleyaires T-shirts, jackets, bumper stickers and flags abounded at the gymnasium of St. Mark's Episcopal Day School. Sharpe led a group of 75 men seated on metal folding chairs through "The Alone Medley," which they will perform in Hartford.

He lightly flickered his fingers while gradually lifting his hands to indicate he wanted a stronger crescendo.

Eyebrows raised, his tenor voice rang out, "When I get you a--lone to--night..."

In another passage, he contentedly punched the air with his fist for emphasis.

Finally, he said, "Sounds like an organ. Congratulate yourselves." He patted himself on the back to illustrate.

"Now, the other hand!" he directed.

Left and right hands switched in unison.

Sharpe smiled. They were ready for Hartford.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World