Priest and Chorus Gird for Soviet Gig

Times Staff Writer

'I see motivation as I have never seen it anywhere else. They do this with a will.'

Father Richard Coughlin

The gray-haired, beetle-browed man dressed in black stepped to the center of the room and peered through rimless glasses at the 25 boys standing on risers in front of him.

Speaking in a Boston accent not quite as thick as clam chowder, Father Richard Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, said: "OK, ready? You're up!"

With that, the All-American Boys Chorus started a rousing rendition of "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," their crystal-sharp voices echoing off the rafters in the cavernous Little Theater building at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

The boys kept their eyes riveted on their energetic, 63-year-old director, who alternately pumped his right arm to the beat and clapped as he mouthed the words to the song.

Since Coughlin formed the All-American Boys Chorus in 1970, his boys--there have been more than 400 of them--have performed at Caesars Palace and the Grand and the Flamingo hotels in Las Vegas. They have toured Europe twice and Canada 11 times. They have sung concerts in 13 states and appeared on stage with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Della Reese, Melissa Manchester and Bob Hope. They have also sung on a national TV special with Henry Winkler and performed for the chief justice of the United States. They even sang for Pope Paul VI in Vatican City.

In recent weeks Coughlin has been rehearsing the boys for what promises to be their most ambitious concert tour yet: A three-week tour of Austria, Romania and three republics of the Soviet Union. They are to leave Los Angeles for Bucharest on March 19.

"I can't see how it couldn't help but be the top experience we've had," Coughlin said. "We are going behind the Iron Curtain. We've got an opportunity to introduce people to American music and American youth, so it's got to be the highlight of our existence."

There is no question the tour will be the highlight of their young lives for the 25 members of the 62-voice chorus who will make the trip.

"I'm looking forward to it very much," said David Rodecker, 14, a student at St. Bonaventure Elementary School in Huntington Beach. "They showed slides to us in our history class, and we have pen pals in Russia. I'm looking forward to meeting my pen pal there. I'm going to go right by where he lives."

"It's going to be fun," said Dan Jensen, 14, a freshman at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. "I don't think anything like us has been over there because we're different than other boys choruses. The Vienna Boys Choir sings more religious songs and waltzes. We sing Dixieland and ragtime."

Indeed, the people of Vienna; Bucharest; Iasi, Sibiel and Sinaia in Romania; and of Kishinev, Kiev, Leningrad and Moscow in the Soviet Union will also get a chance to hear swing music, Broadway show tunes, college fight songs and the marches of John Philip Sousa.

The tour is being sponsored by the Educational Foundation of America.

A member of the foundation's board of directors called Coughlin in November and asked him, "If the foundation is willing to fund the tour, would the chorus go?"

"I considered that an enormous compliment," Coughlin said. "I asked him a question in return: How could we refuse?"

Coughlin, who teaches at St. Michael's Prep School, a small Catholic boarding school for boys in El Toro, had no idea where it would lead when he started the boys chorus while he was an assistant at St. Anthony Claret parish in Anaheim.

From the start, the All-American Boys Chorus has supported itself, with no outside money. "I told the boys we have to become entertainers, to sing for our supper," Coughlin said. "So we sing entertaining pieces people are willing to pay a fee (to hear)."

He "very pointedly" called the group the All-American Boys Chorus because "I want them to represent America and represent that masculine ideal of what an All-American is--that level of competence and level of excellence that an All-American should have."

When Coughlin was transferred to St. John the Baptist parish in Costa Mesa in 1972, he said, the "whole concept was threatened" because the 10 chorus members lived in Anaheim. But the boys' parents drove them to Costa Mesa twice a week for rehearsals. Coughlin, meanwhile, recruited 26 more boys from Costa Mesa schools.

In 1974, the year the chorus became a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, Coughlin bought a Greyhound bus for touring, leased the Little Theater at the fairgrounds as headquarters and opened the chorus to boys of all faiths and backgrounds. Following the advice of a theatrical agent, he also hired a voice coach, a choral writer and an orchestrator. Two years later, former chorus member Tony Manrique, who had earned a master's degree in business, came aboard as business manager and associate director.

"In 1986 we actually spent $400,000 on the program, which we earned or raised ourselves," Coughlin said. "Without the Christmas season, as is true with the department stores, we wouldn't be here."

The only requisite for joining the chorus is a musical ear. Coughlin said he recruits boys, usually from the fourth and fifth grades, from "any school that will let me." He tests a boy's basic musical talent by blowing notes on a pitch pipe and asking him to echo what he hears.

"That's all a boy needs to do," he said.

Those who pass the test spend three months in the audition group, when they are literally taught how to sing. At the end of the audition period, they must pass another test. "The crucial point in the test is singing by themselves against harmony: He sings his part, and another boy sings another part, and he can't drift into the other part," Coughlin said, "This is a horrible, traumatic test. This is where we lose 95% of the boys."

A boy who passes muster then becomes part of the training group. During the next three or four months he learns about 20 of the chorus's 80-song repertoire, enough to sing with the concert chorus.

"I honestly think that within the priesthood I have found my vocation," Coughlin said. "To me this is very serious business. It demands concentration and a lengthy attention span on the part of a boy. He develops the ability of intense concentration. He must sing a song syllable by syllable and understand placement and interpretation over a full rehearsal.

"And then on top of that, can you imagine doing that in front of 10,000 people? And bring them to their feet! Poise is what it's all about. And the incredible thing is, a boy puts it together with the realization that he is able to succeed.

"My primary work with the chorus is as a teacher, and what I teach is concentration and poise. That's why I have no doubt I'm doing the right thing. This is not showboating, it's developing a real motivation with a group of youngsters. I see motivation as I have never seen it anywhere else. They do this with a will."

It all comes to an end, alas, when a boy's voice changes. That's usually from age 13 to 15 although, Coughlin noted, "We had one poor boy whose voice changed when he was 11."

That's a fact of life the boys prefer not to dwell on.

"I don't want my voice to change, but it hasn't yet, so that's good," said Dan Jensen, who has been in the chorus for five years.

"I'm going to be very sad when I have to get out of the chorus," David Rodecker said.

Like the other boys in the group, Jensen and Rodecker praise their mentor. "He's always there for us," Rodecker said. "We love him and he loves us."

"He really loves the chorus, and he always wants us to do our best," Jensen said. "During the concerts he jumps around and he's excited, and he adds a lot to our confidence."

To help ensure the All-American Boys Chorus continues after he is gone, Coughlin has established an endowment fund with $80,000 in it. His goal is to have it grow to $4 million or $5 million. He would like Orange County's All-American Boys Chorus to be around in 500 years; the Vienna Boys Choir is that old.

The current crop of boys was rehearsing for the Soviet tour. Standing in front of the boys, Coughlin instructed associate director Manrique to "put a march on."

Manrique slipped in an orchestral tape and the boys, dressed in red polo shirts and navy-blue pants, energetically launched into a Sousa medley, as their director hopped enthusiastically up and down, marched back and forth and pumped his right arm in time with the music.

The medley concluded with "Stars and Stripes Forever."

"Hooray for the red, white and blue . . . "

They'll kill 'em in Moscow.

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