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The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus: A history lesson
Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times by Jon Putnam
by Jon Putnam
2012-06-13

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Performance of National Anthem at Wrigley Field. Photo from Ken Puttbach


Toward the end of 1982, Mitch Laks noticed posters on the lamp posts near Broadway and Belmont. Laks was excited to learn that a new gay chorus was being formed.

"I was not yet 'out'," admitted Laks. "I told my best friends and they insisted that I audition. They thought it would be the perfect 'transition' to coming out—and it was."

The first meeting of the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus (CGMC) took place Jan. 9, 1983, at Broadway United Methodist Church in East Lakeview. The emergence of CGMC must have been surprising to some people, since Chicago already had the Windy City Gay Chorus, which had been around since 1979. In fact, Sunday was chosen as CGMC's rehearsal day in order to allow members to sing in both groups.

In an interesting twist, the founders of CGMC were so-called "renegades" who had broken off from Windy City to form their own chorus. The rift involved a nascent organization called the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses—better known as GALA—which was sponsoring the nation's first GLBT choral festival in New York City later that year.

It was big news. "There had been some West Coast choral festivals, but never anything on a national scale," said Randy Franks, a charter member of Windy City. "We told them we were going to go. New York City went and made these huge arrangements—they booked Lincoln Center again."

Windy City initially announced plans to attend the New York festival, called COAST (Come Out and Sing Together), but then the director changed his mind.

One explanation was money: only a year earlier, the chorus had raised funds to send the entire membership to the East Coast for a joint concert with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. "A bunch of us even wanted to pay our own way," said Nick Kelly, one of Windy City's founding members. "But [the director] just refused."

"He told the chorus they had been one of two choruses before, and now they would be just one of many," said Kip Snyder, who at the time was Windy City's vocal technique coach and who ultimately became CGMC's artistic director. "The travel manager did not want to go and the chorus voted 35- 27 not to go. Several cranked about it and got labeled 'the dirty dozen,' 'the terrible twelve,' and eventually the general manager said, 'Why don't you form your own chorus and go?'

"Randy Franks and Nick Kelly called me and said if we formed a new chorus, would I be its interim director?" Snyder continues. "I agreed and 125 letters were sent out to former Windy City singers who had quit." The letter was signed by Snyder, Kelly, Franks and Phil Stewart, who was Windy City's accompanist and would assume that same role for CGMC.

Whereas Windy City was known for its largely classical repertoire and "stand-and-sing" format, CGMC established its own personality right away with its premiere concert, Ha, Ha, Ha! Ho, Ho, Ho! And a Couple of Tra, La, Las, which premiered April 9-10, 1983, at Lincoln Park High School. The program confirmed the light-hearted theatrical tone the title suggested; the event included a medley not only from The Wizard of Oz but also from three Broadway musicals: Company, The Fantasticks and South Pacific.

The latter has particularly poignant associations for Kelly. "When we sang 'Some Enchanted Evening' and I looked out and saw my boyfriend's face, boy, I could hardly sing," he said. "It was really exciting. … I still remember swaying to the music and having tears in my eyes."

Fifty-seven singing members were listed in the program for CGMC's premiere concert. However, not all of the names were real: Being identified as gay at that time carried risks that might be hard to conceive today, and several members used aliases. "A person could still be fired, evicted, etc. for being gay," said Charlie Euston, a member from 1986 to 2008. "No legal protections whatsoever." Mike Dunghe therefore became Mike "Dunne" for the program listing; another member used the name of his high school crush.

Membership jumped to 76 for the group's next show, Here We Go Again, which took place in July (again at Lincoln Park High School). Continuing the Broadway tradition, the program included medleys from A Little Night Music and Oklahoma!, as well as a "Rain Medley" featuring the gay anthem "It's Raining Men. "We all wore raincoats and it was about 97 degrees inside the auditorium," remembered Randy Franks. "It was so hot! People were standing with these slickers on, ready to pass out."

Audience response to the city's new ensemble was enthusiastic. "Chicago has given birth to potentially the finest gay men's chorus in America," raved Gay Chicago's Richard Noland in 1983. "The versatility and spirit of the CGMC outshines that of other gay choruses I have heard."

With two successful shows under its belt, CGMC turned its focus to its original inspiration: the fast-approaching COAST festival, scheduled for Labor Day Weekend 1983. Seventy-five singers—virtually the entire membership—made the journey to New York, many on a chartered bus. Chicago was well-represented at the festival, being the only city besides New York to have not only two choruses but also the only all-female ensemble (the Artemis Singers) in attendance. CGMC also had the distinction of being the first group to perform.

Only 11 choruses participated in COAST, but the impact on those present is hard to describe. "I don't have the adequate gift of words to describe the emotional trip," admitted Laks. "Traveling all night long to NYC together in a single bus (18 hours), getting off the bus and going directly to tech rehearsal, going directly from tech rehearsal back to the hotel to change and get ready, and *then* being the opening act of COAST."

CGMC quickly began forming relationships with other choruses across the country, and travel and hosting became an important part of the group's activity. The chorus went on at least one major out-of-town trip each year, including concerts in Detroit, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Portland, Tampa, and the World's Fair in New Orleans. This was in addition to the subsequent GALA festivals, which started out every three years and then every four years. The festival locations have included Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Tampa, San Jose (California), Montreal, and Miami. The Summer 2012 festival, taking place in Denver, will be the first "repeat" city.

Greg Marquis and George Luebking, who have each appeared in nearly 60 shows, joined the chorus at the same time in 1990 and attended their first GALA together in 1992 in Denver. Both are looking forward to returning there this summer. "You get to hear all these choruses and it gives you a universal sense of the gay community beyond Chicago," shares Luebking. "Right now, especially with what's happening with gay marriage, that solidarity is so important."

"They have all been unique and wonderful," Marquis answers when asked about the festivals he's attended, citing "the brotherhood and the enthusiasm and the shared love between performers and audience."

From the beginning, the traditional CGMC season comprised holiday, spring and summer (Pride weekend) concerts. Broadway United Methodist Church, the initial rehearsal space, was destroyed by a fire in February 1983 and CGMC moved to Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church on Fullerton. Other rehearsal venues over the years have included All Saints Episcopal Church in Ravenswood, the Lincoln Park Cultural Center, and the current rehearsal space of Lakeview Presbyterian Church.

After the initial two concerts at Lincoln Park High School, the chorus bounced around to different performance venues such as Francis Parker High School, The Vic, Park West and the Riviera Theater. CGMC found a semi-permanent home in 1987 at Lane Tech High School, where it remained until relocating to The Athenaeum Theater in 1994.

"Programming came from many sources," said Kip Snyder, whose gig as "interim director" wound up lasting 14 years. "A bartender would say, 'Are you going to be here a minute? Pepe wants to play something for you.' If I didn't use it, it might trigger an idea. Watching the Andrews Sisters, a chorus member leaned over to me and said, 'Have you ever considered a USO show?' I told him he just rescued me for the Christmas concert.

"Often, I ended up with a pocket full of notes every night I was out … and I was out about every night!"

Book musicals proved to be tremendously popular—and profitable—for CGMC. The first was The Pirates of Penzance, which was introduced in spring 1989 and proved so wildly popular that it was reprised a year later. This was followed by The Wizard of Oz, another huge hit with audiences and chorus members alike.

Despite these successes, the chorus hit a lean period in the mid-1990s—membership numbers sank to an all-time low, a snowstorm sabotaged the 1994 production of The Mikado—but CGMC bounced back gloriously, and just in time, with the launching of the Side Track series in 1995. Designed to simulate the experience of "Show Tunes Night" at the popular bar, Kip Snyder came up with the idea when he realized that his first choice—a production of My Fair Lady—would cost too much in royalties. Side Track I was such a monster hit that it was extended to an unprecedented third weekend of sold-out performances, and it has spawned four additional installments since 1995.

Although delightful for audiences, shows like Side Track tended to invite unfavorable comparisons to Windy City. "Many of the SMQs (serious music queens) thought that it didn't take much effort to sing show tunes," observes Mitch Laks. "Back then it was quite unusual to have a men's chorus that wasn't singing the classic men's repertoires."

CGMC's response would probably best be summed up by its unofficial motto, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!", an old Bette Midler line that Kip Snyder borrowed. Even though reviewers consistently highlighted the group's musicality ("Behind the chorus's 'fun' image and pop-music orientation lies an enviable amount of musical skill," GayLife noted in 1985. "A delightful combination of musical quality and shtick," remarked Nightlines, five years later), CGMC was most famous for its irreverence.

"It's not that we didn't take ourselves seriously as performers," said Jerry Glover, whose 25-year tenure with the chorus began in 1984. "But the subject matter was quite different from Windy City's. … Shows like The Mikado or Pirates, which would normally be performed with both men and women, were for the most part all men now. And it's not just a matter of some [being] in drag. It's being true to whatever the story may be, but doing it with a gay sensibility."

Part of the CGMC adventure is the variety of shows that are offered, ranging from stand-and-sing to revues to book musicals. Some of the most popular productions have seemingly emerged from thin air, as was the case with True Pride, which was hastily put together in 1998 when the rights for that year's Pride show failed to materialize at the last minute. Patrick Sinozich—who succeeded Snyder as artistic director—and guest writer Greg Waters surveyed members of the chorus about their lives and experiences, and fashioned those stories into a portrait of the face of CGMC. Many who appeared in True Pride cite it as an all-time favorite.

"I think it's the show that has impacted me most," said Peter Hillsman, a veteran of more than 40 shows. "It was about the chorus, it was about being gay, it was good stories and bad—the positive and the negative—with some beautiful music interwoven. I wished we could do it again and again."

Browsing through CGMC's old programs would probably evoke sadness when one notices how the "In Memoriam" page began as just a few names and gradually expanded to an entire page.

The specter of death was particularly strong in the 1980s and early 1980s, as AIDS decimated gay communities across the country. In the early days of CGMC, the disease was still a terrifying mystery. "Nobody understood it," said Glover. "At the time, it was almost like you accepted it, because you certainly couldn't do anything about it, and so you just had to keep going."

As chorus members watched their friends and fellow singers die, memorial services and fundraisers became part of the group's everyday existence. Ironically, the tragic toll of AIDS afforded the chorus access to a much wider and more mainstream audience than had ever been possible before: An early example was "A Show of Concern: The Heart of America Responds," a fundraiser held at the Chicago Theater in 1987 and hosted by celebrities such as Angela Lansbury and Oprah Winfrey. CGMC shared the stage with Windy City Gay Chorus at this and at other equally prestigious events, designed to raise awareness and money to battle AIDS during the most desperate of times.

The impact of AIDS had an inevitable effect on CGMC's music and performances, and sometimes resulted in radical re-interpretations of songs. "Things as frivolous as Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin', which is a fun song, became very militant," recalled Jim Birren, who joined the chorus in 1988. "There was a lot of anger in some of the songs, they were in-your-face confrontational, and it all stemmed from the fact that we were angry and hurting because our friends and fellow members were dying."

Nowhere was the devastating impact of AIDS expressed more cogently than at the Seattle GALA in 1989, when CGMC concluded its performance with the execution scene from the French opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. "Through the course of the song, the chorus gets smaller as they are led, one by one, to the guillotine until a lone voice remains to sing the final note," said Charlie Euston. "We recorded a paper cutter and ran it through our synthesizer for the guillotine noise. To this day I occasionally talk to someone who saw us and remembers how powerful an image it was, symbolizing the relentless losses the choruses were experiencing from the AIDS crisis."

CGMC's outreach has extended beyond the gay community. Kathy Osterman was a North Side alderman when a friend contacted Kip Snyder about arranging a special birthday serenade. "She had undergone some serious surgery and was suffering a pretty severe depression during her recovery," Euston said. "Kip put together a little volunteer ad hoc group. We carpooled up to Edgewater and stood outside in the snow singing. … She came down in her robe and actually broke into tears when we sang 'Danny Boy' in four-part harmony." Before her death of cancer in 1992, Osterman became head of the mayor's office of special events. "She remembered us and started booking us for all of these events, including one of the mayor's inaugurals."

The relationship with Osterman opened important doors in the city and led both directly and indirectly to many milestones for the chorus, including singing the national anthem at Wrigley Field; performing at the opening of the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier; appearing at Milennium Park; and singing at the State Capitol in Springfield.

Sinozich first became involved with CGMC as accompanist for the holiday 1988 concert and director of the chorus' small ensemble, Encore. In 1992, he left CGMC to assume accompanist duties (and to serve as interim director for one season) for Windy City. However, he returned to CGMC at the beginning of 1997 to replace Snyder as artistic director.

"I didn't have any sort of plan for the chorus, other than to maintain the spirit and the repertoire, and to revive some of the enthusiasm that was lost when Kip resigned," said Sinozich. "Within a year the chorus doubled in size from 65 to 125."

An enormous personal triumph for Sinozich occurred in 2006 when CGMC gave the premiere performance of The Ten Commandments—an original musical that Sinozich wrote along with chorus member Bill Larkin. The show was a smashing success with audiences and chorus members alike, and members have since expressed interest in reviving that and other beloved shows. "Even though there is some enthusiasm around remounting certain shows from the past, at this time I'm more interested in finding new things to do," Sinozich said.

CGMC further distinguished itself from other male choruses when it welcomed its first female member in 1997. Anne Santiago was a regular at Side Track's "Show Tunes Night" when she saw and loved Side Track III, and upon inquiring about how she could get involved with the chorus, she was surprised to learn that CGMC accepted female members. The group's official policy had long stated that the chorus was open to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, but Anne was the first woman who had ever shown an interest in joining.

"The board had a discussion when Anne approached us about joining," Sinozich said, "and there was unanimity (from the board) in welcoming her since the chorus's mission statement says 'CGMC is open to all.' However, there were a few members who didn't like it, and one resigned over allowing a woman into the group."

"Some guys wondered if I was a lesbian, a pre-op, a post-op, confused … I heard it all!" Santiago laughed. "I always loved being the only woman among a bunch of guys."

Although Santiago has since relocated to Los Angeles, other women have followed her lead and as of this writing, CGMC boasts three female members. Santiago's memories of the chorus are very fond: "CGMC will forever remain in my heart as one of the best experiences of my life."

What lies ahead for the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus? Ironically, membership numbers remain as robust as ever—130 people sang in the spring concert in May—but whereas the group used to sell out the 2,000-seat Lane Tech High School auditorium, the chorus today struggles to attract audiences.

Some people have accused Sinozich of moving away from CGMC's image as the "fun" chorus by increasing the focus on musical excellence. "It's discouraging when the chorus sings something very beautifully, and then members of the chorus or of the audience complain because there wasn't enough dancing or drag," Sinozich admitted. "It is extremely difficult to juggle member engagement, audience satisfaction and my own musical goals. I think I'm getting better at it, but it's still tough."

"People are very show-focused," said Michael Roman, a singing member since 1997 and also a board member. "I subscribe every year to Goodman, to Steppenwolf. … I don't even look at what's in their season. I know that they have a good product. When it comes to CGMC, very few people say 'I am a customer of CGMC.' Everything is on a 'per show' basis."

This outlook applies to audiences and chorus members alike. The CGMC leadership continues to struggle with the concept of "buy-in," or member commitment to the chorus; as part of this initiative, the board recently implemented a full-year dues policy instead of allowing members to pay show by show. "There are still members who come to a couple of rehearsals and say, 'Well, I don't know if I want to do this show,'" observes Arnie Cuarenta, CGMC's former general manager. "You'd think there would be that blind faith, especially from people who have been with the chorus for a long time."

Maybe it's as simple as the novelty of gay choruses having worn off. "Gay choruses were new and exciting in the 80s and early 90s, and not a lot of places had them," observes Mike Dunghe, who sang in over fifty shows during a 25-year career with CGMC. And as Jim Birren adds, "Back then we had a really strong gay following, because there wasn't a whole lot of gay stuff to do."

Randy Franks offers a more optimistic view. "It's going to be a happy and a sad day whenever the gay's men chorus is no longer needed—a sad day in that it will no longer be there, but it will be a happy day because we don't have to do that any more. We'll be integrated into society as equals … hopefully I will see that day. I think it's coming soon."

[Editor's note: The author of this piece is a member of the chorus.]

The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, the Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria will share the stage in "The Sound of Fabulous!" on Saturday, June 16, at Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave. Performances are at 5 and 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the door, or online at www.windycitysings.org or www.cgmc.org .


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