An early photo of the Down Town Glee Club, an all-male singing group that began 87 years ago, shows its members onstage at Carnegie Hall. It is Christmas, 1950, and one can only imagine what a formidable sound those hundreds of men produced. Today, the club's members voices can still pack a punch. What strength they have lost is in their numbers. Some 18 to 20 men now belong to the club, which rehearses Tuesday nights at St. Margaret’s House on Fulton Street. They are one of only five men’s choruses left in the city; there were once scores.
“Everyone, it seemed, was in a glee club,” said Jerry Osterberg, who joined the group in 1980. JP Morgan, where Osterberg worked for 37 years, had its own all-men's glee club, and three of the company's executives also sang with the Down Town Glee Club and served as presidents.
Elmer Joerg, another longtime member, recalled that when he joined in 1970, several dozen of its members, many of whom worked on Wall Street, would retire to a nearby eatery after rehearsals to eat, drink and continue singing. “Often, we would close the restaurant,” Joerg recalled. But even by then, glee club memberships were declining. Fewer people came to concerts and the number of invitations to perform publicly had also dwindled.
But the Down Town Glee Club has held on, due, in part, to the persistent efforts by Osterberg and others to recruit new members. “It took me ten years to get one guy to come down,” Osterberg recalled. “I kept writing and calling.”
Joerg has his own tactic. ”I had five medical procedures in the last few years,” he noted, “and everyone I met, every doctor, every technician, I would ask, ‘Hey, you sing?’”
Their most recent recruits include a visiting music student from China, a piano player who does R&B gigs as well as sings in the Oratorio Society of New York and his church choir, and a retiree from the Coast Guard. What they have in common is their love of singing.
"I have gone to a rehearsal in a bad mood," Osterberg said, "and I'll leave on Cloud Nine."
Their repertoire, heavy on early 20th century standards, also includes more recent Broadway show tunes. Songs in their upcoming holiday concert uptown at Saint Peter;s Church will range from “Me and My Gal” to “Feed the Birds” (Mary Poppins) to Christmas classics.
The club's new conductor, Joseph Martin, 24, a recent graduate of Manhattan School of Music, is part accompanist, part conductor and part cheerleader. He encourages the men with fist pumps, and shouts of “Nice!” “I'll take it!” “Yes!” “Fantastic!” Although Martin likes the club’s repertoire—indeed, with his hair parted slightly off center, dapper tie, snapping fingers, he has a slightly Swing Era air— he said he hopes to beef up the group’s ranks and audience by adding songs from later eras or holding public sings where passersby can join in. He has already coralled the men into doing back-up for his rap piece to be performed next month on the Lower East Side.
At the end of a recent rehearsal, after Martin had worked on separate vocal parts for “Me and My Gal,” it was time to put it all together. Suddenly, as if without effort, their voices merged, rising and falling in perfect unison and delightful harmony. The piece over, Martin relaxed, sat back on the piano bench and smiled. “I'll take it,” he said.
For more about the Down Town Glee Club, visit www.downtowngleeclub.org.
Editor's note: This article first appeared on the site of the Tribeca Trib on October 2, 2014. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher.
April Koral is a founder and publisher of The Tribeca Trib.