When Gerald Alred is asked about the success he’s had in his academic career, he’s quick to credit an important influence from his childhood: the Inland Children’s Chorus.
A professor emeritus of English and professional writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alred says he’s one of thousands who were was greatly impacted by participation in the only corporation-sponsored children’s choir in the United States in its day. The brainstorm of Wallace Whitacre, founding general manager of the Inland Manufacturing Division of General Motors Corporation, the 100-member chorus thrived in Dayton from 1936 to 1970. In addition to the senior chorus, hundreds of other youngsters participated as members of the “concert, understudy and junior chorus groups.”
“It was in the heart of the Depression and he wanted to do something for the children,” Alred explained. “It was lavishly funded — they brought in two-time Tony-award winning nominee and long-time Broadway technical and costume designer Raymond Sovettoto to stage the chorus, and Deems Taylor — the broadcast voice of the New York Philharmonic — to narrate and arrange a number of the Chorus recordings.”
The Chorus — with girls dressed in long blue dresses and boys in jackets and crisp white shirts — was featured in national radio and television performances, made recordings and performed with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Alred says Milton J. Cross, known as “the voice of the Metropolitan Opera,” called it “one of the most unique and inspiring programs of its kind in the country.”
The stated goal was “to give 8- to 16-year-old children of employees a musical education and training which they might otherwise not be able to obtain, and to make a contribution to the cultural life of Inland employees and the community.”
Alred says it accomplished all that and much more. He says the beloved chorus was a celebration of education through the power of music and performance and that he and the others learned lessons that have sustained them throughout their lives.
“We learned self-discipline, preparation, excellence and collaboration as we prepared and performed great music from classical to popular,” he said. “In short, we all learned what it means to be professional.”
Joyce Albrecht, the American lyric coloratura soprano known as Joy Clemens when she sang at the Metropolitan and New York City Operas, was a member of the group. So was Stephen Roddy, who now directs the Houston Children’s Chorus which has performed for presidents, at Carnegie Hall and worldwide. Roddy has written that the Inland Children’s Chorus “was an incredible influence on my life and career.”
The Inland Project Takes Shape
In recent years, the chorus has become more than a memory for Alred and others, thanks to the Inland Chorus Preservation Project and Wright State University Libraries.
The project got its start when Alred, a Chorus member from 1951 to 1959, began digitizing the Chorus records from his family’s collection for himself and his cousin. In 2009, he got together with some other former Chorus members for lunch and they talked about how to preserve the music and history that had so greatly influenced their lives.
The result is a web site (http://inlandchorus.com/) and a permanent and safe home for Chorus memorabilia in Special Collections and Archieves at Wright State’s library. The materials, available to the public, range from feature articles and concert reviews to playable music files from live concerts and studio recordings. There are concert programs, professional chorus photos, reminiscences from former members.
Another dream was to reunite those who once bonded through song. Three annual lunchtime reunions have taken place at the MCL Cafeteria in Kettering with another planned for April 26, 2014.
More than 60 attended the last gathering in April 2013, including two of the original Chorus members — Mike Connair who flew in from Delaware and Phyllis Denlinger Phillips, who is from Dayton. Wright State’s archivist Toni Vandenbos was the featured speaker.
Vanderbos says it was “phenomenal” to observe the members as they came together.
“It was obvious that being part of the chorus had a major impact on the lives of those who came,” she said. “They’ve saved their memorabilia all these years — the photos, the recordings, the programs, the scrapbooks. Now all of those things are coming together for our collection.”
She says many spoke of work ethic that has served them well throughout their lives.
“I heard stories about how they precisely timed the opening of the black binders held in performance, and yet every note of music was memorized.”
Vanderbos has also received calls from community members who were not in the Chorus as children, but who remember going to the concerts and being in awe.
“There are many lessons to be learned today from the history of Inland Children’s Chorus,” she said.
If you were a member of the Inland Children’s Chorus and would like to be included in future reunions, e-mail Gerald Alred at firstname.lastname@example.org or (262) 512-3639. Anyone is welcome to visit the Wright State archives and view the collections. See www.libraries.wright.edu/special/
Your memories of the Inland Children’s Chorus
“I was 13 when Mother took me to audition for the Chorus. I was scared, but Mr. Westbrock was wonderful and I was accepted. I loved being a member. The girls that sat in the last row with me were all nice.”
— Shirley Whiting, Clayton
“The chorus experience brought a whole world of music to my life. I have been a singer ever since!”
— Bob Ivory, Cincinnati
“It as a very special gift that the Inland Mfg. Div and General Motors gave to many children. I still appreciate the friends I made belonging to the Chorus, and I still sing in my church choir.”
— Phyllis Denlinger Phillips, a member of the original choir in 1936, Dayton
“I have wonderful memories of the Inland Chorus. I appeared with the Chorus on the Steve Allen Show in 1952 at Memorial Hall.”
— Ron Filburn, Maimi Twp.
“We came downtown to all the practices taking the city buses. We practiced at the Loretto. I remember the first time I had an audition. I sang ‘The First Noel.’ Years later, I met my husband and he told me he had “cut a record.” It turned out it was for the Inland Children’s Chorus. He was one of two young boys who sang ‘Oh Come Little Children.’
— Dolores Kulhanek Rehling, Englewood