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Harmony With a Dash of Camaraderie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The coach is delivering his pep talk: “Perfection is not optional--nor is it accidental.” Sure it’s late, and practice started hours ago. But he’s unbending: “Champions don’t quit.” As one, 100 women take a deep breath and hit the notes harder.

“Jingle Bell Rock,” barbershop-style, bounces off the walls of the Masonic Lodge in La Crescenta. The Verdugo Hills Showtime Chorus of Sweet Adelines is in sync.

This isn’t the usual Wednesday night rehearsal. Tonight, the chorus is welcoming the class of ’95, about 20 potential Adelines who have come for a look-see and a free group vocal lesson.

Now, the neophytes have joined the chorus on the risers, conspicuous in this sea of blue, green and purple costumes. On cue from director Carolyn Butler, the chorus welcomes each visitor with a resounding clap, much as cheerleaders bring out the starting lineup.

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As the Sweet Adelines shake out their breath, they sound like a convention of crickets. But the voices are strong and sweet as they burst into song. ". . . We hope you’ll come back soon. We’ll teach you a happy tune. . . .”

Sweet Adelines is four parts harmony and one part camaraderie. Yes, you must be able to carry a tune, but, says Showtime Chorus President Pat Kahmann, “If I can sing in this chorus, anybody can sing in this chorus.”

For the class of ’95, the evening had begun with voice testing--are the hopeful Adelines leads, or, in female barbershop parlance, tenors? Baritones? Basses? Then Butler, a petite redhead with seemingly boundless energy, took over.

“The first thing I’m going to tell you is that singers drink a lot of water,” said Butler, taking a swig. It’s to protect your voice, which is “more valuable than a Stradivarius violin. There’s only one voice like yours and there never will be another one like yours.”

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Butler moved on to posture and breathing. The women pulled their heads up from the tops of their bodies. Left hands on their tummies, one finger of their right hands in front of their faces, they made like they were blowing out a candle. They rolled their stomachs up “like a window shade.”

At Butler’s urging, they did their best to give their voices “the freedom to sing like a bird,” to let the notes “fly on the air, just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

Butler, who’s directed this chorus for five years (husband Bill is its coach), knows that most of the over-35 set haven’t sung a lot since school and “sometimes the voices are dusty.” And she knows a dusty voice when she hears one: She travels the globe as a Sweet Adelines judge.

Sweet Adelines, 50 years old this year, has grown from one chorus that started in Tulsa, Okla., in 1945 to an organization with 32,000 members in 700 choruses in the 50 states and 11 countries, all singing in English. They like to say that men invented barbershop, but women perfected it.

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The Verdugo Hills Showtime Chorus, about 130 strong, is one of 25 choruses in Region 11, which extends inland roughly from Bakersfield to Las Vegas. They are the 1994 regional champs and placed fifth in international competition in 1992.

Homemakers and career women of all ages, they just love to sing. By day, a Sweet Adeline may be a schoolteacher, but put her in a sequined red dress before a crowd and she’s Ethel Merman.

It may be blues, big band, ballads. Butler tries to think of a song that wouldn’t cut it barbershop style and says, “ ‘Alfie’ comes to mind.”

Tonight, the Showtime Chorus is “on,” showing its stuff for the newcomers, who seem to be wowed. “That spark, that magic!” says prospective Sweet Adeline Pattie Bratcher, 29, a customer service rep from Walnut. She’ll be back.

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After five free lessons, aspiring Adelines will audition in a quartet, “to see if they can carry their own part against the other parts,” explains Kahmann, the Showtime Chorus president. They get two chances, but since she joined in 1981 she can remember only two who flunked the first time.

Visitors Yosuk Murakami, a retired teacher from Simi Valley, and her daughter Nancy, a research biologist at USC, will be back. “I love it,” Yosuk says.

Pauline Lopez, a nurse from Monterey Park, says, “I’m going to try it for a few weeks and see how my endurance is.” She’s a Sunday singer: “Someone asked me once why I went to church and I said because I have a song to sing. We all have a song to sing.”

“I came 24 years ago to drive someone who wasn’t able to drive,” says chorus member Maureen O’Brien Carnes. “She never came back and I stayed 24 years.

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“It’s my sanity. You can’t be unhappy or sad when you’re singing.”

America the Beautiful,

Witold Rybczynski has just read from his new book, “City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World,” and was fielding questions: “How long have you been in L.A. and what do you think of it?”

Not skipping a beat, Rybczynski deadpans, “Beverly Hills seems like a nice place to live.”

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He then predicts, “Los Angeles will become the premier [U.S.] city sometime in the next 50 years.” Just as private wealth endowed great Manhattan institutions at the turn of the century, he says, big bucks will translate to big-time philanthropy benefiting Los Angeles.

Another plus: location. Rybczynski, an architect and professor of urbanism at University of Pennsylvania, points out that many major Eastern cities are a continent away from the Asian market, and the European market that enriched them is now their competitor.

The program, sponsored by the L.A. Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and the Society of Architectural Historians, takes place on the patio of an architectural icon, the Schindler House in West Hollywood.

Rybczynski’s book is a history of American city life and, he acknowledges, that U.S. history is so short, globally speaking, that one might ask, “Why bother?” For two reasons, he argues: Concerns about urban decay and the “extremely volatile” nature of these cities. “It’s not a story of villages growing into towns growing into cities,” but of big, quick population shifts.

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In his book, he laments that, while America is the only nation that’s had a President who was a celebrated architect--Thomas Jefferson--recent Presidents have shown no interest in cities beautiful.

“The President’s wife may attend to the arts. . . . The President himself must be seen to be interested in touch football, cutting brush, speedboating or jogging, but not in culture, lest he be accused of elitism.”

Inevitably, people ask Rybczynski--who lives in Chestnut Hill, Pa.--where he’d live given a choice. Among places that intrigue him are Venice ( the Venice) and Key West, Fla., but, he writes, “I don’t believe in dream houses, still less in dream places, and I really can’t imagine picking a place to live in the way that you might pick a dish from a restaurant menu.”

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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