Glee Club works to keep tradition ‘On the Banks’
There once was a time when there were no songs about Rutgers.
In the late 19th century, the then-Rutgers College only had a handful of “glees” — popular drinking songs — that students would sing. When colleges across the nation began institutionalizing their respective glees into formal all-male glee clubs, or choral groups, Rutgers College soon followed suit, said Daniel Comito, a Class of 2011 alumnus who wrote his senior thesis on the University’s alma mater.
About 140 years later, the University’s Glee Club has withstood the changing of directors, spikes and lulls in membership and an evolving repertoire to stand today as one of the oldest student organizations on the banks of the Old Raritan.
On the Banks
Rutgers College alumnus Edwin E. Colburn founded the club officially in 1872, when it was known as the “Glee Club of ‘76,” as most of its members graduated that year, said Comito, a former Glee Club member and officer.
On the day of their first spring concert about a year later, Colburn realized that the group had no song specifically dedicated to Rutgers College.
He summoned poet Howard Fuller to write a song by the end of the day for the group to sing during the show. Fuller wrote the words to what is now the alma mater to the music of a Scottish drinking song, “On the Banks of the Sweet Dundee.”
“The song became so popular after the first performance that … the college took it up,” Comito said.
Soon, every student at the college knew the song, and it became tradition to sing at football games.
Then, in the early 1900s, Howard McKinney became the first music professor at Rutgers College. He took control of the Glee Club, and the group became a more professional organization, Comito said.
One of his students in 1932 joined McKinney at the helm, eventually taking over after him full-time in 1946. The student, F. Austin “Soup” Walter, then went to hold the longest-running directorship so far in Glee Club history.
The Legacy of “Soup”
Walter, who also was a beloved professor, was the director in the mid-20th century and is credited by many for transforming the group. Walter, who also served as the conductor of the marching band and other choral organizations during that time, died in 2000.
“He turned the Glee Club into one of the premiere choral organizations in the country,” Comito said.
Richard Shindell, who graduated from Rutgers College in 1957, was a member of the club under Walter.
“He was a spectacular leader and an inspiration to all of us,” he said.
Shindell said though he did not study music, being in the club influenced him after his time on the Banks. After spending time in the Navy, he worked at Chase Manhattan Bank and then moved to Baltimore for the same line of work. That is when he auditioned for and joined the Baltimore Chorus.
“I was doing what I wanted to do as a vocation, and I was also doing what my heart wanted me to do, and that part came from Rutgers,” said Shindell, who now resides in Bucks County, Pa.
Bob Mortensen, a Class of 1963 Rutgers College graduate, was also a member of the club when Walter was director.
He said it was an exciting group to be a part of due to its social and musical opportunities. During his years there, the club toured the west coast and Northern Europe.
“Soup Walter was a very charismatic gentleman and just really brought great energy to choral singing,” Mortensen said.
A New Era
But when Walter retired in the 1983, the group began to lose its strength. Mortensen said the combination of Walter’s retirement, remnants of the Vietnam War and the trend away from male choral singing changed the group.
After Walter’s retirement, the group had a different director every two to three years.
Then in 1993, the club’s present director, Patrick Gardner, took the reigns.
“Pat has maintained or surpassed the extraordinarily strong history and what has been laid down by Soup Walter and some before him,” Shindell said.
Gardner, who teaches in the Mason Gross School of the Arts’ graduate program in choral directing, moved to New York after teaching at the University of Michigan and leading that school’s glee club.
“[Gardner] is undoubtedly from a technical standpoint … the best choral director the Glee Club has ever had,” Mortensen said.
Gardner said though the group has maintained many traditions over the years, he has aimed during his tenure to increase the difficulty of their repertoire.
During Gardner’s tenure, they have had three Pulitzer-prize winning composers create a piece just for the club. This year, they will perform a piece from prize-winner M. Lewis Spratlan, Jr.
“It’s just a matter of continuing to grow and letting people know what we have,” he said.
The group today
Most members are non-music majors, and those who are not receive one credit toward graduation for their work: twice-a-week practices in McKinney Hall on the College Avenue campus, concerts, gigs and weekend rehearsals.
“Everyone in the Glee Club is there not as a requirement but as an extracurricular activity,” Gardner said of the now about 80-member group.
Gardner said an important aspect of the club is not its musical benefits, but rather the friendship it fosters.
Since the club is completely student-run, the members and officers in particular mature through managing the group and budget, which is around $60,000 in a non-touring year and $300,000 in a touring year, Gardner said.
The group also has many traditions — from the annual “Soup Bowl” football game against the Marching Scarlet Knights band to the seniors ringing Col. Henry Rutgers’ bell in Old Queens after their Christmas show to their mentoring program — that enforces bonding between members.
“Most of my guys in the Glee Club would tell you 20 years after that their lifetime friends and their closest associates are from the Glee Club,” Gardner said.
This is evinced by the strong alumni interaction they have — the club has active alumni going back 50 years, he said.
“There was a level of consistency throughout [the Walter] years. Soup Walter really created something that has been a lasting legacy,” he said.
Both Shindell and Mortensen are some of these active alumni, who also serve on the club’s advisory board. The board provides advice and helps to underwrite travel costs, especially for the club’s international tours, which happen every four years.
The club went to Italy over this past summer and sang in the Vatican in Rome and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, said Jonathan Ramteke, club PR manager.
The group also tours around the country. Every year they hold an exchange concert with Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. This spring, the group plans to travel to all-women’s school to perform with the choir, said Christopher Pasi, Glee Club president.
“It’s going to be a really cool concert, and we’re looking forward to performing there,” said Pasi, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
Ramteke, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said many people do not realize that the club performs at many other events aside from their popular football appearances, where the members don their signature gray jackets and red-and-black striped ties.
The group will hold their fall concert in Kirkpatrick Chapel this Friday, their Christmas concert of Dec. 11 also in the chapel, and their 140th spring concert will be held this upcoming April 21 in the Nicholas Music Center on Douglass campus, Ramteke said.
Pasi hopes as president, he can spread Glee Club’s prominence and bring more people to their concerts.
“People know of us, but they don’t really understand what [Glee Club] is,” Ramteke said.
Gardner said outside of the University gigs, other choral groups view the Glee Club as one of the best male choral groups in the country.
But as for performing during those games, it’s something all the members love to do.
“I think it’s surreal to perform at the games,” Ramteke said. “You’re the reason people are excited.”
Pasi said singing the alma mater is something he never tires of.
“For me, it’s a sense of pride to think the Glee Club originally wrote it,” Pasi said. “It’s something that transcends time all together. I think the history thing really hits home.”
Though the group has evolved over the years, Gardner believes the group’s motto — “Ever changing yet eternally the same” — still holds true today.
“Though the Glee Club has this very long and strong history,” he said. “We keep doing new things.”