Alumni Choir by
100
(207 Stories)

Prompted By Traditions

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Gary Holt, Christie Hefner, Mel Larimer, Betsy Pfau, Steve Pieters

My own family has no traditions to speak of, but when I arrived at the National Music Camp in 1964 (now the Interlochen Arts Camp), it was full of traditions. Some I would add.

Camp had been around since 1928 and became an integral part of my life for decades. Now I just send a yearly check, but I attended the camp for six summers during the ’60s; my brother was also a camper for five summers and on staff one summer. I also was on the National Alumni Board for six years in the ’90s, but with a close friend, we visited for many, many years, establishing rituals of our own.

Camp was a well-oiled wheel by the time I arrived. We wore uniforms; the girls wore navy corduroy knickers (fashionable in the ’20s when camp was founded), colored knee socks to denote our divisions, light blue button-down shirts every day except Sundays. On Sundays we wore white. Boys wore long corduroy pants and the same colored button-down shirts. We wore camp-issued name badges, pinned to the right side of our pants. These allowed entry into the cafeteria and any concert venue.

The camp was a huge place with well over 1,200 campers hailing from 48 states and 12 foreign countries in the mid-sixties, truly a remarkable mingling of different people who shared similar interests. It ran for 8 weeks. This did not include “All State”, which was a two-week at a time group (one session would be just choir, then band, then orchestra), all coming exclusively from Michigan. At various times there was even a University Division, formed in conjunction with the University of Michigan. I heard Jessye Norman perform when she was a University camper in 1968.

The first night of camp we always gathered in Kresge, the largest covered concert space. The roof had been added the previous year. All the divisions sat in their own groups. This was called “Dr. Maddy’s Geography Lesson” when I first arrived, since the founder of the camp, Joe Maddy, was still alive. After his death, it became the geography lesson of whomever was the president at the time. We were all welcomed for the season. Dr. Maddy would call out each state and we got up and cheered for our home. One year, a friend from Virginia raised an umbrella with a Dixie Cup on the end and hollered, “Save your Dixie Cups, for the South will rise again!” He was a Theater Major. Each division sang its own “fight” song, hastily learned that day. I remember as an Intermediate, we sang…”We’d like to say hello, hello to NMC. We are the Intermediates, red-socks to the knees. Yes we can dance and sing, do almost anything.  We are the Intermediates. RED SOCKS TO THE KNEES!” And we all waved a red sock in the air. It was team building fun. Then Joe asked  how many people have been here one summer? Everyone stood up. And how many have been here two? Some would sit down, some remained standing…this would go on through the number of years; faculty and staff members who had been there for years and years would be the last standing. My dear friend Clarence “Dude” Stephenson, director of the Operetta, worked there over 50 years. The place brought out uncommon loyalty. We also learned/sang the camp song – “Sound the call to dear old Interlochen, land of the stately pines/Where stalwart hands and loyal ever great you, faithful to Auld Lang Syne.”

We arose to Reveille and bedded to Taps. Each concert ended with the camp “Theme”, either played or hummed (there were no words); a few measures from Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony. No one clapped after. For those unwitting concert-goers who did not know that tradition they were loudly shushed.

The last performance of the season included massed orchestras of High School and Intermediates, High School Choir sang the last few bars on “aw” (again – no words) and the top dancers came in front in a paegent-like performance to Liszt’s Les Preludes. We sopranos had a high C in there. Our conductor referred to it as “murder on the high ‘C'”. but it didn’t matter because we were all crying our eyes out by then. We were told this piece was performed because it wasn’t seen as an end, but a beginning of life back home. Crying became Pavlovian. I heard the piece on the radio once, driving home from the airport after a long day on the road with client meetings. I was sitting in traffic at the entrance to the tunnel under the Atlantic ocean here in Boston. I sang along, tears streaming down my cheeks. Anyone looking in my car window would have thought I was out of my mind. Fond memories, good traditions.

I remain very friendly with many people who populated those long-ago summers. I went to Brandeis with one and she wound up living in Boston after we graduated. Neither of us were making much money. In 1975 we were casting around for an inexpensive vacation. My husband was in graduate school full time and working part time, so didn’t have the luxury of vacation time. Christie and I decided to visit Interlochen. She went home to Chicago, I went home to Huntington Woods, MI to visit family. She then joined me for a few days with my parents, we rented a Budget rental car (when it really was inexpensive to do so) and drove the five hours up to Interlochen. One of her aunts had a cabin, so we had free lodging.

We arrived in late afternoon on the night of the first Operetta performance. We went over to Grunow (the old theater, still in use at the time). The person in the box office was a peer, who confirmed that all our old teachers were still around. We hadn’t visited in five years, but everything seemed unchanged. We found some dinner and came back, sat on the dock behind Kresge, waiting for Dude. We knew he had been through a hard divorce, but not much more. We saw the familiar crepe-soled shoes come around the corner. A flash of recognition and we flew into a group hug. A few tears were shed. He brought us in to be introduced to his cast and we spent much of the next five days with him. Christie and I vowed to turn our visit into an annual event, always to come and see the Operetta.

The next day we made the rounds of classes. I had known Mel Larimer since 1965. He directed Intermediate Choir and music for Intermediate Operetta. When I moved up to High School division, he took over High School Choir, though Ken Jewell remained as the music director of HS Operetta for a few more years. Ken was a legend in choral music circles in Michigan. He had his own professional chorale, we were lucky to sing under such a talented conductor. Mel was also excellent. I learned much from him and always admired his conducting. He demanded a lot from his singers, even the young ones. I have always felt music deeply, regardless of my religious beliefs (much of the serious choral repertoire is liturgical music, I first sang in Latin at the age of 12…just something one does as a singer, even a Jewish singer) and Mel encouraged that in me. So it was a pleasure to sit in on his rehearsals again. He welcomed us with open arms. My brother had been his music librarian in 1966. Now, in 1975, he asked his current librarian to provide a folder of music for Christie and me. Having sung this sort of repertoire for so many years, we easily and happily sang along.

At the time, the kids from HS Choir were expected to sing for Sunday morning services, a “non-denominational” service, though the Lord’s Prayer was recited. The younger kids were required to attend, but this was the only morning the older kids could sleep in, unless you were part of the service. Grumbling ensued. Mel invited us to join the Choir on Sunday. We didn’t have a uniform to wear. White shirts and black pants would do. I don’t think we even had those that first summer, but knew to bring the attire along in subsequent years. And thus, Alumni Choir was born. Slowly but surely, that weekend turned into Alumni Weekend. The high school kids got to sleep in, the High School, Intermediate, and eventually retired conductors who we knew and loved, held one practice of some piece of music that we also probably had all sung at some point in our lives. And we, the alumni in attendance that weekend, performed during Sunday services.

A few years later, Christie and I were doing pretty well professionally. Christie had now moved home to Chicago and gone to work for her father at Playboy Enterprises. I had taken a risk and found that I was good at tech sales. That summer, Dude asked if the Playboy Foundation could fund a scholarship for Operetta. He reasoned that it would be so helpful if he could guarantee that he would have some critical role filled before the start of the season by offering a scholarship to someone worthy from the previous season. Christie had to gently explain that the Playboy Foundation usually funds First Amendment issues, not summer camp scholarships. But we went back to our cabin, talked about it, thought we knew enough friends who would be willing to chip in some money, and the “Pine Tree Wonder Scholarship” was born. We couldn’t endow it, it took a lot of work, and eventually the participants dwindled and just the two of us remained, supporting it until the end. In 2004, Interlochen ceased to be an 8 week program and Dude stopped staging a full-length Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Christie and I stopped giving the scholarship, since there was no more Operetta class.

My last visit to camp came in 2002. I hadn’t been in a long time. Christie had other commitments, I had young children and a summer house on an island. Life had become more complicated, so our visits had ceased a while ago. I had been on the Alumni Board for many years and returned three times a year, getting to know many others, finding a whole new group of friends. That was an interesting and different way to connect to the Interlochen experience. But this summer brought me back to my roots. Again, I sang with Alumni Choir. We practiced the Sanctus from the Faure Requiem, a work I truly love. A large group of us were together in the Shell, an uncomfortable venue. Mel was retired, but lived in the area. He was sick with cancer, but still remarkably good-looking. We read through the work, all of us had sung it many times, I’m sure, so there wasn’t much need to practice. Lots of rehearsal time left. Mel asked if we wanted to read through the entire requiem. I, of course, was seated in the front row, right in front of him. I am always in the front row. We ALL wanted to read through the entire piece, so we began. I can sing you the Libera me right now…it is rooted in my heart. As we sang, I had the premonition that we were singing HIS requiem and I started to sniffle. This passed to those sitting next to me, and behind me, and even to Mel. As soon as he put down his baton, I raced up to the podium and just held him tightly, as did everyone. We performed beautifully the next day. It was the last time I saw him. He valiantly fought the cancer for several more years, but lost his battle. I don’t know if Alumni Choir continues; Christie and I started it under Mel Larimer’s baton in 1975.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: Interlochen, National Music Camp, Christie Hefner, Dude Stephenson, Mel Larimer
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy. Brought back lots of memories of NMC for me. I do not remember Division fight songs, however, so I wonder if that was a new thing. I certainly never sang “red socks to the knees,” I’m sure I wouldn’t forget that!

    Can you identify who the men are in your picture?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Perhaps the “fight” song was just done occasionally by the younger campers. That one instance is my only memory. The people in the photo (from L-R), Gary Holt, a few years younger than Christie and me, we got to see him as a rising star of Operetta. He is a lawyer in San Diego/Palm Springs, Christie, Mel Larimer, me, Steve Pieters, our age and in our classes with us; lives in LA, one of, if the not THE longest survivor of AIDS, very interesting life, now follows me on this site. I wish he’d write too, but is working on his own memoir. The photo is from 1992.

  2. John Zussman says:

    As an NMC alum, I can appreciate the many traditions you’ve described, and even know some of the faculty you mentioned. I’m sorry to learn about Mel’s death. What a privilege it must have been to sing that beautiful Requiem for him. We truly inherited a history of music that accompanies us through our lives.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      As you know, I posted this story to Facebook and tagged many MNC alumni, so they would see the post. One of Mel’s daughters (we were the same age and in classes together) then shared it with two of her sisters and others I’m not in touch with. I’ve gotten so many nice comments. Several said the story moved them to tears. Those were special moments we shared.

Leave a Reply