83 Years of Chorale History

Many past and present members remember the years in which the Garden State Chorale played to standing room only crowds at theaters holding over 1000 patrons. The membership ran from 80 to 120 members and even the Philadelphia arts community took notice. But, this wasn’t how things always were. After much research and reading the following history was compiled.

Pre-History

In 1924, Mrs. F. Marie Wesbroom Dager organized “The Haddonfield Ladies’ Chorus”. Sometime during the 1930s the Laurel Springs Men’s Chorus is organized

The Early Years

In 1932, the Laurel Springs Men’s Chorus merges with the Haddonfield Women’s Chorus to form the Haddonfield Choral Society. Rehearsals are held at the Lutheran Church in Haddonfield. The first Director of the newly formed group is Frederick Homer who had been the director of the men’s organization. Mrs. Dager becomes the accompanist for the new organization. The Pianist is Vadin Hrenoff also from the men’s organization. Performances are held at the Haddonfield Memorial High School. The fist performances are Sping Concerts in 1932 and 1933.

The group annually performs a Christmas concert in December and a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta in the spring. The first operetta performance on February 10, 1934 is the “Mikado” at the Haddonfield Memorial High School.

By 1939 pianist Vadin Hrenoff has left the group. In 1943, the group moves rehearsals to the AAA room of RCA, 5th and Cooper Streets, Camden, NJ. This is the beginning of the “War Years” and money is tight. RCA is centrally located for the membership and public transportation is available.

Spring of 1944 is a turbulent time for the young group. Frederick Homer can no longer participate as the group’s director and resigns. For a while Chorale activities are suspended due to gas rationing but the executive board continues to hold meetings. Val P. Wilkerson steps in as temporary director. Later that spring Jessie Lovejoy MacGregor takes over directing duties. A Spring Concert is performed instead of a spring Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. The Christmas concert is performed at the Haddonfield Fort Nightly this year instead of Haddonfield Memorial High School.

On April 28, 1945, the Chorale Society performs “Iolanthe” at the Haddonfield Memorial High School. There is a new face on stage, Lt. Lewis A. Shearer, Signal Corps, AUS based at Ft. Monmouth, plays “Lord Chancellor”. Dorothy Underwood plays opposite him as the lead, Iolanthe. Again in 1945 the Christmas Concert is held at the Haddonfield Fort Nightly.

The Shearer Years

In 1946, the group moves rehearsals to Centenary Tabernacle United Methodist Church, Camden, NJ. At this time Director Jessie Lovejoy MacGregor resigns in due to ill health. It is January 1946 and Elsie Shearer is now singing with the Haddonfield Chorale Society and is assistant accompanist. Capt. Lewis Shearer is appointed Director.

The group is in debt $36 and down to 22 members. Lewis Shearer goes to NY in his uniform to meet with a man who had the contract rights for the “Chocolate Soldier”. The man assumes Capt. Shearer wants the music for an army production and gives Capt. Shearer the music, orchestration and everything else for $40. The group performs on May 25, 1946 at Haddonfield Memorial High School. The accompanist is Mrs. F. Marie Wesbroom Dager. The group makes about $400 on the show.

To encourage audience interest, Mr. Shearer adds a new talent to the 1946 Christmas Concert, violinist, Jesse K. Tryon.

Under Mr. Shearer’s direction the group begins to perform at functions throughout the New Jersey and Philadelphia area in May 1947, the Haddonfield Choral Society performs at the NJ Federation of Music Clubs in Atlantic City.

The May 1947 show, The Merry Widow” is held on Tuesday and Wednesday night at the Haddonfield Memorial High School. 700 tickets are purchased and resold by the Lions Club to benefit “Our Lady of Lourdes” hospital. Girls from the High School usher for the two performances. 

On July 4, 1947, the Haddonfield Choral Society beings singing summer concerts at Ocean City, NJ. The group will continue this relationship throughout Mr. Shearer’s tenure as director.

Mr. Shearer becomes know for featuring local children and young adult talent in the Christmas concerts. In December 1948, Betty H. Kray of Pennsauken a senior at Moorestown High School is a featured soloist. Other local children will sing and dance at concerts are Broadway shows for many years to come. In 1948 the audience carol sing begins and becomes an annual event with music sheets provided by the Courier Post. At the 1948 concert Lewis Shearer’s arrangement of “O Babe Divine” premiers as a song in the concert program.

Throughout the years the Choral Society performs many sacred and secular concerts for various Masonic Lodges, Churches, American Legion Posts, service and social organizations in the area.

1949:  Red Mill - Rich Hammond and Bob Reim

1949:  The Red Mill - Rich Hammond and Bob Reim

In 1949, the Choral Society offers its first scholarship. Two area students who are graduating seniors of the high schools represented by active and associate members are presented with $100. The scholarships are for the furtherance of vocal training. The students are required to perform a live audition for the scholarship committee since recording devices are not readily available to the masses.

In the summer of 1949 Lewis Shearer takes the group to the Ocean Grove Auditorium to perform at the Ocean Grove Music Conference’s Climactic Concert. The Choral Society would perform at this concert for many years to come.

On Christmas Eve in 1949 the Haddonfield Chorale Society becomes part of local history when they perform at the Candle Light service in the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Pa. The group also participates in Lenten service concerts at Wanamaker’s over the next several years.

The Dec 16, 1950, Christmas Concert is marked with a special guest, accordion player, Daniel Desiderio. Today Daniel conducts the “Accordion Pops Orchestra”. The only professional accordion orchestra of its kind on the East Coast, the Pops Orchestra’s entire instrumentation is that of accordions, with the exception of percussion instruments. 

In 1950 the Choral Society performs for the first time for WFIL AM560. At that time the radio station is a local station that broadcast live performances to its Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey area audience.

In 1952 at the time of the Haddonfield Chorale Society’s 20th anniversary dinner, tickets to a concert or show performance are $1.20. The spring show is held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. WFIL had just begun having Dick Clark play records over the radio. The speaker for the groups anniversary dinner is Sigmund Spaeth who is know as the “Tune Detective” for his ability to point out similarities between musical compositions.

In 1954 the Society travels to Atlantic City and Ocean City to participate in the celebration of various anniversaries, Atlantic City’s 100th and Ocean City’s 75th. At this time Lewis Shearer is awarded “Sand in Your Shoes” membership on behalf of the Choral Society by Atlantic City, NJ.

In 1955 the spring musical is “My Maryland”. This is the first year the spring musical is performed on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday instead of midweek. The organization is still performing both Christmas and spring shows at the Haddonfield Memorial High School.

In 1957 a very special guest joins the Society for the Christmas Concert, Larry Ferrari. Larry is already a beloved performer on WFIL-TV, Channel 6 in Philadelphia. His performance with the Chorale leads to sold out performances that Christmas.

1961:  Song of Norway - Lilian Seybold Andrews

1961:  Song of Norway
Lilian Seybold Andrews

The 1963 Christmas Concert is enlivened by the music of the Haddonfield Brass ensemble. In 1964 Yoshiko Niiya performs at the Christmas concert. As a brilliant child prodigy on the piano, Yoshiko (Yo) is at that time in great demand as a chamber musician. She had performed all over the world and elevated the level of the Haddonfield Choral Society’s visibility in music circles. The Society is now 80 women and 33 men in size. Members must attend 75% of rehearsals to stay in the group. The group has now appeared for 16 years at Ocean City’s music pier during the summer months.

In May 1966 the group performs “Oklahoma” for the first time. At this time the organization also modifies the scholarship to be awarded to a graduating high school senior going on for a degree in musical arts.

On December 9, 1967 a very special piece of music is premiered at the Haddonfield Choral Society’s Christmas concert. It is “The Christmas Polka” by the organizations own members Robert Andrews and Lilian Seybold. After this concert Elsie Shearer becomes the group’s full-time accompanist.

On March 26, 1970, Lewis Shearer is interviewed for WCAM radio. He has been with the group now for 25 years. In the interview it is noted that the annual scholarship is now $500.

In December of 1970 the group begins a transition. They leave Haddonfield Memorial High School for the 1,200-seat auditorium at Cherry Hill East. The group continues to return to Haddonfield for the spring musical until 1972 when both the Christmas and spring shows are performed at Cherry Hill East. At this time the rehearsal location is moved to the First United Methodist Church of Moorestown, NJ.

In 1972 the organization also decides a name change is in order. The name Haddonfield Choral Society no longer reflects the make up of the group, which includes people from Toms River to Philadelphia and from Burlington to Gloucester counties. In honor of Lewis Shearer’s many years of service the group is renamed The Lewis Shearer Chorale.

By 1975 Tickets are $3 for a Thursday night performance and $3.50 for a Friday or Saturday night performance. The scholarship has also undergone an increase to $1,000.

During 1976 the Cherry Hill East auditorium under goes renovation. The spring musical, “The Vagabond King” is held at the Scottish Rite Temple, West Collingswood, NJ. The Christmas Concert is moved to Cherry Hill West High School. The West High School auditorium only holds 500 patrons and therefore a second performance of the Christmas concert is added to the schedule. George Van Os is the substitute accompanist as Elsie Shearer has recently had surgery.

In 1977 the group finds a permanent performance home at Pennsauken Senior High School in Pennsauken, NJ. The group performs “The Merry Widow” and Elsie Shearer returns as the accompanist.

In May 1980 the Chorale performs “Naughty Marietta. Tickets prices have increased to $4 on Thursday and $4.50 on Friday & Saturday nights. That fall the group records a Christmas album as a fundraiser. The album sells for $5. In May of 1982 the Lewis Shearer Chorale reaches another milestone. The group is now 50 years old. “Rosalinda” (Die Fledermaus) is chosen as the 50th Anniversary Production. The scholarship winner this year is Ted Gurch of Turnersville, NJ. The tickets for the Christmas Concert held Dec 11 and 12 are $4.00.

1982:  Lewis & Elsie Shearer

1982:  Lewis & Elsie Shearer

As inflation continues to hit the nation through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s the groups ticket prices continue to rise. By 1984 the tickets for the spring musical, “Guys and Dolls” are $5 for Thursday night, $6 for Friday and Saturday night. By 1987, tickets for the Christmas Concert are $5 and the spring musical, “Brigadoon” are $7. The scholarship has also increased to $1,500.

1990:  Andy Williams Christmas Concert

1990:  Andy Williams Christmas Concert

As the group enters the 1990 spring musical tickets have risen to $8 but the group is also about to embark on a very special event. In 1990 the group travels to Atlantic City in both June and December to provide backup vocals for Andy Williams at the Trump Plaza Casino. 

1991 brings a year of great sadness to the group, Lewis Shearer becomes to ill to direct and Robert Frederick is asked to step in and direct a spring Concert, “An Evening of Tops Pops Music” in May of 1991.

The Chorale Today

With Lewis Shearer unable to direct the spring musicals, guest artistic director Dorothy Bird is hired by the organization to direct “South Pacific”. By this time Robert Frederick has become the permanent music director. Various individuals fill the role of accompanist as Elsie Shearer retires from the group. For the December 1992 Christmas Concert the Chorale changes its name to the Garden State Chorale Society at the request of Elsie Shearer. This name will eventually evolve into today’s present name “Garden State Chorale, Inc.” In the spring of 1992 James Morgan was awarded the group’s annual scholarship. In December 1992, the Chorale premiered Mr. Morgan’s piece “Fantasia Isabella."

In 1993 the Chorale begins to experiment with wireless body microphones for the spring musical. For “Mame” in 1993, Camille Brill in the title role uses a body microphone. In 1994 for “Oklahoma” all leads are equipped with body microphones.

In 1993, Gary Ruff joins the group as the accompanist. Gary’s first production with the group is “Oklahoma”. 1997 marks another change for the group; Music Man is Dorothy’s last show with the group due to ill health. Due to an increasing workload Gary Ruff also begins a several year leave from the position of accompanist. In 1995 the Chorale adds a third annual concert to the season to help raise much needed funds. It is a March Pops concert. Initially the concerts are held at Palmyra Moravian Church but then moves to Grace Episcopal Church in Merchantville in 1997 for parking and facility reasons.

1998 marks a new beginning. Chorale member Jason Fletcher assumes the role of Assistant Director for the spring musical, “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying”. New accompanist, Mary Anne Polk O’Meara premieres at the December 1997, Christmas concert, and alto member, Sandy Taylor becomes the group’s resident choreographer.

As the turn of the century approaches the Chorale begins to take part in county level events. On Sept 19, 1998 the Chorale performs at the Arts Festival Smithville Mansion, Easthampton, in Burlington County. Later on Oct 17, 1998, the Chorale performs at the Hopkins House in Haddon Township, Camden County. Tickets are $10. Director Robert Frederick invites a Brass Quartet and Bell Choir to join the Chorale for the annual Christmas Concert.

In 1999 for the May show, “Girl Crazy”, John Dinsmore takes a turn at the artistic director role. Tickets for the production are $12.

From 1999 into the new centaury the Chorale continues to add new community performances:

In 2001 the group is given a special honor. The Garden State Chorale is selected as the official Choir for the USS NJ. To honor both the ship and the veterans who served on her the Chorale performs at the following events:

Nov 11, 2001 - Concert on the USS NJ

Nov 11, 2001:  Concert on the USS NJ

In keeping with this patriotic musical theme the Chorale also performs at the following community events:

2001 marks another change for the group. Raymond Perry assumes the role of artistic director with the show “The Boys From Syracuse”. The annual Christmas program is moved to Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Haddonfield, NJ due to the rising costs at the Pennsauken High School. The spring musical, “George M!” in May 2002 remains at the Pennsauken Senior High School.

In fall of 2002 accompanist Gary Ruff returns to the group. The annual Christmas program is once again held at the Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Haddonfield, NJ, but parking is becoming an issue. The March concert, “What’s in a Name?” is held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on King’s Highway in Cherry Hill. Parking in greatly improved.

Due to costs and a turnover in the School Board at Pennsauken Senior High School the spring musical in 2003 is moved to Haddon Heights High School. The show selected is “The Melody Lingers On – The Songs of Irving Berlin” Raymond Perry continues as the artistic director, accompanist Mary Anne Polk O’Meara returns and Sandy Taylor continues choreographer.

On September 11, 2003 the Chorale begins performing with the Haddonfield Symphony Orchestra and the Pennsauken Alliance for the Performing Arts (PAPA) at an annual tribute to those lost on 9/11 and in celebration of American Patriotism. In Dec 2003 accompanist Gary Ruff returns permanently to the group and both the Christmas and March concerts for this season and the next 2003-2004 & 2004-2005) are held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on King’s Highway in Cherry Hill.

The spring 2004 musical, “Rodgers and Hart – A Celebration” is held again at Haddon Heights High School. Unfortunately due to parking and difficulties with the school it is the last performance at the High School and the Chorale is once again looking for a permanent location and home.

The spring musical for 2005 is a change of pace for the group. A new show GSC Music Hall Review, a selection of music from the turn of the last centaury and a melodrama are performed. The performance is held at the Collingswood Baptist Church in Collingswood, NJ.

The December 2005 Christmas Concert is the last concert held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on King’s Highway in Cherry Hill. In place of the March concert subscription ticket holders are provided with tickets to the October 2005 concert with the Haddonfield Symphony Orchestra and the PAPA show “Proud to be an American”. Difficulties with the Unitarian Universalist Church and the need for a consistent performance venue led to this single year performance schedule.

In May 2006 the Chorale returns to Haddonfield Memorial High School for its spring musical, “Showtune”. Artistic Director Frank Cosky joins music director Robert Frederick. The three piece combo led by accompanist Gary Ruff become part of the show as they join the Chorale on stage instead of playing from the pit.

The 2006-2007 75th Anniversary Season finds a home for all 3 productions at the Haddonfield Memorial High School. The season is kicked-off with a performance on August 10, 2006 at Cooper River Park where Camden County Freeholder Jeffery Nash presents the Chorale with a proclamation celebrating 75 years of music making in Camden County.

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