The San Francisco Chapter of SPEBSQSA is one of the oldest on the West Coast. Chartered in 1945, only the Santa Barbara Chapter is older. Cable Car Chorus is the designation of the singing–and–performing unit composed of almost all members of the chapter. Our Charter was created in 1945, only seven years after the establishment of the international SPEBSQSA (1938). O.C.Cash and Rupert Hall founded SPEBSQSA to preserve our unique and social pastime, one of the many dying arts at the time.
Barbershop was once a style of singing inherited from African Americans of the old South called "curb stone harmony." By the 1920's and 30's, barbershop harmony was established as an art form, but only on an informal basis. With the advent of radio, motion pictures, records, and later, television, the demise of live performances of opera, theater, vaudeville, and burlesque seemed imminent. Federal funding helped save opera and theater productions in many cases.1, 2
Baritone-insurance salesman Cash, who with Hall formed our society, called his sense of humor into play, choosing The Society's name and its eight-initial abbreviation as a parody on the trend of the time to use initials for government agencies (such as TVA, CCC, etc.).
1. Play That Barber Shop Chord. A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony is an article written by Lynn Abbott which appeared in the Fall 1992 edition of the University of Illinois quarterly American Music. It is an extensively researched (183 footnotes), 36-page study "which states the theme that African-American quartets of the 1880-1940 period, rather than white quartets of that time, were the originators of barbershop harmony." [Sparks – see below]
Abbott's thesis was acknowledged by Wilbur Sparks, Society Historian. In his January/February 1994 Harmonizer article, "Play that barbershop chord – who?" Sparks states, "His [Abbott's] sources are entirely credible: interviews with people who knew and heard such singers; newspapers and books of that early day and biographies of well-known musicians."
2. The Station. One of the largest sources of barbershopper information on the web.
Origins Of Barbershop. Was barbershop harmony actually sung in barbershops? Certainly and on street corners (it was sometimes called "curbstone" harmony) and at social functions and in parlors. Its roots are not just the white, Middle-America of Norman Rockwell's famous painting. Rather, barbershop is a "melting pot" product of African-American musical devices, European hymn-singing culture, and an American tradition of recreational music a tradition SPEBSQSA continues today.
Immigrants to the new world brought with them a musical repertoire that included hymns, psalms, and folk songs. These simple songs were often sung in four parts with the melody set in the second-lowest voice. Minstrel shows of the mid-1800s often consisted of white singers in blackface (later black singers themselves) performing songs and sketches based on a romanticized vision of plantation life.
As the minstrel show was supplanted by the equally popular vaudeville, the tradition of close-harmony quartets remained, often as a "four act" combining music with ethnic comedy that would be scandalous by modern standards.
The "barbershop" style of music is first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s, such as The American Four and The Hamtown Students. The African influence is particularly notable in the improvisational nature of the harmonization, and the flexing of melody to produce harmonies in "swipes" and "snakes." Black quartets "cracking a chord" were commonplace at places like Joe Sarpy's Cut Rate Shaving Parlor in St. Louis, or in Jacksonville, Florida, where, black historian James Weldon Johnson writes, "every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet." The first written use of the word "barbershop" when referring to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of the song, "Play That Barbershop Chord" evidence that the term was in common parlance by that time.
A Board of Directors, headed by a president, sets policies and controls the chapter's financial affairs. The chapter sponsors activities such as Harmony foundation (the Society's charity endeavor), community outreach programs, and the Cable Car Chorus. Like other civic choral groups, our choral director and assistant directors are assisted by a music committee in selecting music, and in training and development of the chorus and ensembles (quartets and octets).
Our chapter is one of the more than 70 chapters in the FWD (Far Western District: Hawaii, California, Nevada and Arizona), which is in turn one of 17 districts in The Society. Members receive the bi-monthly Westunes magazine of the district, as well as Harmonizer, a magazine published by The International Society. In addition to the distribution of the magazine, SPEBSQSA, Inc. produces and distributes barbershop arrangements and assigns field representatives to visit and assist chapters in a training capacity for more effective chapter administration, and better singing of the barbershop style.
50 Years of of the San Francisco Chapter of the SPEBSQSA (1945 -1995)
Note: You can find this 19 page booklet at the San Francisco Main Library, Hyde and Grove Streets in San Francisco.
It must have been exciting - even more so than usual - to be a San Franciscan in the early summer of 1945. The war in Europe had ended in May, the pacific war was closer to victory than anyone dared guess, and the City was host to almost 300 officials from 50 nations, sent here to draft the charter of the new United Nations. The April 23, 1995, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle aptly describes the atmosphere: "...there was magic in the San Francisco air, an optimistic, heady attitude. It seems that everyone in San Francisco was caught up in the thrill of being part of history."
On Monday, June 25, the day, before the charter was signed, a half-million people lined the streets to greet Harry Truman, the nation's new President. Totally in the shadow of such historical events, on Wednesday night, the day after the U.N. Charter became official, about 20 local men met at the El Jardin Restaurant, at the foot of California Street. They gathered to discuss chartering a chapter in the seven-year-old Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, SPEBSQSA.
This is not to suggest that these men were consciously inspired by the momentous signing the day before to seek their own charter. But, the "optimistic, heady attitude," spoken of by the Chronicle writer, may have contributed to a spirit of revival in these lovers of close-harmony singing. For a fact the organizing of a San Francisco barbershop harmony chapter was an act of revival. In 1941 some of these same men had been members of a chapter that never was awarded a charter from the Society. The singing organization was disbanded in 1942, probably because of the nation's entering the war.
Veteran San Francisco Chapter member and former Far Western District historian, Bob Bisio, has done extensive research on the subject of the "almost" chapter, which included digging into musty files at Harmony Hall in Kenosha. Eleven men who paid 50 cents each for membership and $3 for a charter founded the group on February 24, 1941. The group met at the old Dawn Club (currently known as Annie's Seafood Bar and Grill) in a building on Annie St. on the West side of the Sheraton Palace Hotel. At the time the Dawn Club was the home of Lu Waters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band, of which Turk Murphy was a member. To make a very long - and very convoluted - story short, the question of the would-be chapter's having paid for a charter is immersed in ambiguity. Apparently by 1942 the members were too scattered and preoccupied to pursue the matter.
The San Francisco Chapter's charter, dated July 16, 1945, was presented by Charles M. Merrill on Friday night, July 27, 1945, at a gathering, again, at the El Jardin Restaurant. Charles Merrill was representing the Reno, Nevada, Chapter, San Francisco's sponsor. Merrill became International president of the Society in 1947 (the youngest one at the time). Merrill would later be appointed Chief Justice of the Nevada State Supreme Court, and later retired as a Federal judge. He was also an accomplished barbershop harmony arranger.
Eighteen men were present at that chartering ceremony. Pat Halloran, who apparently wasn't present, was later added to the roster of charter members, and remained a faithful chapter member until his death in 1983 at age 93.
The new San Francisco barbershoppers decided to meet every other Wednesday - a meeting beginning with dinner at the El Jardin. The next scheduled meeting after the presentation of the charter on July 27 was to be Wednesday, August 15, but a distraction - a delightful one - occurred. The day before, on August 14, Japan surrendered. It would be at least a week before the San Francisco Bay area regained its sanity, so the meeting was postponed to August 22.
Two paragraphs from the chapter's first activities report to Society headquarters provide an insight into this fledgling organization: "Inasmuch as we are still crawling around on our hands and knees in our swaddling clothes, we don't have a great deal to report as to our Chapter's activities for our first quarter. However, I do believe we can report that we are a very healthy infant. At our first meeting we had an attendance of 18, at our second meeting 27, and last meeting 38. Our next meeting is October 17, and we are expecting quite a few additions.
"We have confined our invitations to membership entirely to our friends. A number of our members are members of the internationally known Bohemian Club of San Francisco. Also we have among our group several of the famous 'Brick' Morse University of California Glee Club of former years. This outfit made a trip to the Orient and to Europe. Among our group are a number of well-known doctors, financial and insurance men, army officers and enlisted men, engineers, etc."
The revival of barbershop harmony, begun by Owen C. Cash in 1938, evidently had an appeal to an eclectic group of men - almost every adult age, position, and economic status. By June 1946 the chapter had grown to 53 members, and had changed its meeting place to the St. Francis Hotel. For at least 15 years the San Francisco Chapter would remain a "downtown" organization.
The chapter membership realized early on that to keep a viable organization the singing couldn't be restricted to quartets performing one at a time for the assembled group, or letting the meeting deteriorate into the cacophony of 10 or 12 foursomes singing simultaneously in the same room. A certain amount of group singing had to be offered. Dr. Val Hicks noted in his 50th-year history of the Society, Heritage of Harmony: "While many chapters of the 1940s engaged only in quartet singing, interest in Barbershop choruses at the chapter level grew steadily during that decade."
To ensure a quality of harmony that went beyond simply gang singing, the chapter made a wise move and enlisted Bill Gavin as music director. Gavin, about 37 years old at the time, was already a prominent radio musical personality in the city, and had the musical knowledge and the charisma to develop within the membership a strong dedication to choral singing.
The "preservation and encouragement" of quartet singing, however, weren't stinted. Early quartets were the "Golden Statesmen," whose beaver top hats and frock coats still would be the envy of most quartets; the "Claim Jumpers," in which Bill Gavin sang a part; and the "Leasebreakers." Those early groups weren't bashful about displaying their chauvinism for California.
Bill Gavin took what was described as an "extended vacation" in 1948 and trained under Fred Waring during his sabbatical. Before he resigned as director of the chorus, apparently sometime in 1949, he bestowed a gift to the chapter and, as it turned out, to the entire Society, the value of which he couldn't have imagined at the time. He persuaded a young man who had just arrived in town, intent on making his name in radio music, to attend a chapter meeting. Not particularly impressed with what he had heard, Dave Stevens, just out of Northwestern University with a master's degree in music after his discharge from WWII service, agreed to return and give the group another look. Somehow, at some time, Dave Stevens became hooked on barbershop harmony and what it could offer. Bill Thatcher replaced Gavin as director for a few months between 1949 and 1950; then in the summer of 1950 Stevens became chorus director, a position he would hold for 12 years. Every veteran barbershopper knows the contributions Dave Stevens later made to the Society and the art as a staff member in Kenosha.
Bill Gavin later became nationally known in the radio and record industry as founder and head of the Gavin Report, the country's first radio-airplay information sheet, established by Gavin in 1958.
1948 was a busy and successful year for the San Francisco Chapter: On March 19, 1948, the chapter, along with the San Francisco News (now defunct), sponsored a free barbershop quartet "parade" (a barbershop-show format popular in the '40s and'50s) at the Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Memorial Auditorium). It featured 16 quartets and was attended by 8,000 harmony lovers, Dean Snyder, International Historian Emeritus, wrote in the July- August 1985 Harmonizer that it was the second "longest parade of quartets" ever put on by a chapter. (The Detroit Chapter held a parade in 1944 featuring 19 quartets!) Less than two months later, on May I, the chapter sponsored the second annual Regional Preliminary contest at the Opera House; 3,000 people attended.
Also in 1948 the chapter added further justification for earning the name. "Mother Chapter of Northern California," by sponsoring the Peninsula Chapter. The San Francisco group had sponsored the Sacramento Chapter two years earlier, and by March 31, 1947, had started new chapters in Santa Rosa, Berkeley (now Oakland East Bay), Orinda (now defunct), and Bakersfield.
The Dave Stevens Years
By the time Dave Stevens became the music director the chapter had again moved its meeting place-from the St. Francis Hotel to the Marines Memorial in 1948. The chapter moved again in 1951, this time to the Press and Union Club where the chapter meetings would remain for the rest of the decade. (There is evidence that for a while in 1958 the meetings were held at the Beach Chalet at the western end of Golden Gate Park, overlooking the Pacific).
San Francisco hosted the International Mid-Winter meeting in January 1951. Jack Hare, who had served as general chairman of the event and was probably the chapter's strongest leader from its beginning, died unexpectedly from a heart attack in February. Frank Walsh, historian for the chapter during the '50s wrote that his death "was a terrible blow to the chapter, the district, and the Society. He was truly 'Mr. Barbershopper,' and his influence on the growth and spirit of the San Francisco and Berkeley chapters will never be forgotten."
The nation's all-time favorite and most famous barbershop quartet, "The Buffalo Bills," in 1952 came through San Francisco on the way to Korea to entertain the nation's troops fighting in that far-off land. About 300 Bay Area barbershoppers, wives, and others welcomed the quartet at a Press Club gathering to wish each "Bill" bon voyage and be entertained by the popular quartet.
Stevens, in September 1952, entered his chorus in the first chorus contest held in Northern California, where the group placed fourth behind Eden, Berkeley, and Peninsula choruses. The next wear the chorus did much better, but not as much better as first thought. This was the saga of the "Fearless Fog-Bound Fifteen" competing in October 1953 in the Northern Area Chorus Contest in San Jose. For all the details of the hilarious, but sort of sad, story, see Bob Bisio's "Before The Color Fades" in the July 1984 Westunes. The Fearless Fog-Bound Fifteen consisted of Director Stevens, four tenors (four tenors!), three leads (sounds familiar to today's Cable Car members), four baritones, and three basses. The songs were "Where the Southern Roses Grow" and "I Want a Girl." The San Francisco chorus was declared the winner! Eden placed second and Peninsula third. A check of the scores the next day revealed an error in addition and Eden-Hayward was the actual winner. Bob reported that the San Francisco singers were "pleased and relieved." They were relieved because they hadn't expected to come anywhere near winning and weren't prepared to go to Pasadena for the Far Western District competition.
San Francisco, as Northern California's "Mother of Barbershopping," gave birth to another important addition to the barbershopping family in 1954. On May 15 of that year Marin Chapter was awarded its charter by the San Francisco Chapter, at Marin's first parade of quartets. Does anyone remember that the Marin chorus was first called the "Saltairs?"
Bob Bisio's column in the January and April 1985 editions of Westunes is recommended reading for an amusing story about the chorus's appearance in the Civic Auditorium for an "I Like Ike" rally during the 1956 Republican National Convention held in San Francisco. The chorus was asked to perform under the direction of Fred Waring, along with a boys choir, singing Waring's soon-to-be-forgotten song, "Ike, Mr. President!" The chorus members took this on without the help of Dave Stevens, who wasn't available and without any rehearsal with Fred Waring. Fortunately, according to Bob, the boys knew the music and screened the men singers who never took their noses out of the sheet music. Bob still has a copy of the music, autographed by Fred Waring. It's worth looking over, if for no other reason than noting the "hallelujah" refrain (no kidding!).
The day after the Wednesday night musical misadventure the Republican Convention officially opened. Dave Stevens was available that night and led about 75 Bay Area barbershoppers who gathered in Union Square to serenade in the lobbies of the Mark Hopkins, Fairmont, Palace, St. Francis, and Sir Francis Drake hotels.
Earlier in 1956 the chapter participated in another exciting event, one for which they obviously were better prepared than for the Eisenhower gala. During the city's commemoration in April of the 50th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake the chorus took part in a Press Club show on April 18. The next Sunday the chapter entered a float in a mammoth civic parade in honor of the earthquake and fire.
The chapter finally christened the chorus with a name in 1956. The year before, at the November 26 show, the chorus was billed as the "San Francisco Close-Harmony Chorus." At the December 8, 1956, show the name had grown to the "San Francisco Close-Harmony Cable Car Chorus." After that the name was simply Cable Car Chorus, as it has remained. The first evidence of a uniform that attempted to suggest the new name is found in the year 1957 when striped vests and billed caps appear in photographs. Since the photos aren't in color the stripes appear to be black and white, and today seems to suggest something from Alcatraz Island rather than anything ever worn by cable car operators.
It seems strange now that it took 11 years for the chapter to give its chorus a nickname. At one of the first meetings in 1945 the founders discussed changing the name of the chapter to "something descriptive of the West or Bay Area, rather than the name 'San Francisco."' Instead, in 1956, the chapter went the direction that became standard in the Society, giving a nickname to the chorus and keeping the chapter's name geographic. When the chorus was made a namesake of San Francisco's popular and mobile icon, it's unlikely that the membership considered any symbolism in the name. But for the ensuing years the Cable Car Chorus would be as tenacious a survivor as the "little cars that climb halfway to the stars," and follow a path resembling the peaks and troughs of the antique cars.
That same year -1957 - the chapter bulletin, The Foghorn, reappeared, after a gap of several years since it first appeared in 1952. Bob Bisio, the first editor, says he "borrowed" the name from the University of San Francisco and Letterman Army Hospital at the Presidio, which both had publications with that name. Titles can't be copyrighted; therefore, Bob was in the clear. Since its revival in 1957 The Foghorn has continued to be published, off and on, at varying frequency, and in various formats to the present. The archives, however, reveal one bulletin dated June 1959 with the name, The Corbie. In that issue the writer was bemoaning the fact that the chapter only, had 35 members. Although that number of members these days has become just about standard for the chapter, it was a big comedown from the early days of 1947 when the chapter reported 57 "active" members, possibly the highest number ever attained.
The chapter's 1957 annual show appears to have been a scripted one, a trend in barbershop harmony shows that was taking hold. The barbershop parade of quartets was marching off to oblivion.
By 1961 the chapter's board members evidently liked the name Cable Car Chorus so much that they petitioned International Headquarters to change the chapter's name to "The Cable Car Chapter." The petition noted that the Far Western District's board had approved the change. The Society replied asking for documentation of FWD's approval. The record reveals no further correspondence. Apparently the idea was either dropped by the chapter or disapproved by the Society.
In 1962, Dave Stevens' last full year as chorus director, he also served as president. In October of that year the chapter was the host to the Far Western District Fall Convention. The next year, Stevens resigned as chorus director and with his resignation began another period in the chapter's history.
The Remainder of The 1960s
After searching for a new director from late 1963 through early 1964, the chapter selected Ned Hardin, who would direct the chorus for almost four years. Hardin, an experienced barbershopper, also was a trained musician and a chorus director at Balboa High School. In 1964 the chapter also gave up its "downtown" orientation and began meeting at Lowell High School in the southwestern section of the city.
The chorus had discarded the convict stripes early in the '60s and by 1964 was wearing assorted vests and straw hats - the uniform that was worn at the chapter's March 1964 show at the Veterans Auditorium (now Herbst Theater). The show was co-sponsored by a local American Legion chapter. Also during that year San Francisco was the host to the Northern California Division (before this part of California divided into NorCal West and East) Barbershop Chorus Contest.
During the 1960s a significant number of new barbershoppers were recruited who are still active in either the San Francisco Chapter or other area groups. Many of these men have continued as strong leaders in Bay Area barbershopping.
Director Hardin resigned in June 1968 and the chorus was again without a director. Walter ("Buck") Williams took over in late 1968 and continued leading the chorus through February 1970 when he too resigned.
Despite all the turmoil in the latter part of the 1960-decade, San Francisco did manage to play host to the Far Western District Fall Convention in October 1969.
The decade of the '60s had been a challenging one for the chapter, and the 1970s would prove to be its equal. The up-and-down path of the Cable Car Chorus would continue. There was resurgence, however, of barbershop harmony activity in the Bay Area, most of which was centered in San Francisco.
The revolving door of chorus directors was one of the chapter's greatest challenges. After Williams resigned Wayne Mansfield, who was the 1970 chapter president, agreed to direct the chorus, at least temporarily. Mansfield resigned from both positions in May and Don Redlingshafer, who had joined the chapter in the mid-1950s, directed the chorus from June through the chapter's annual show in November. Byron ("By") Mellberg took over director duties in 1971 but by 1972 was gone. Bill ("Duke") Andrus was appointed director in June 1972 and stayed on until early 1975. He was followed after a brief period by Kelly Rand, who served as director through 1976 and apparently departed sometime in early 1977. Jack Wilson then took over and stayed until his daytime employer transferred him to San Diego in March 1978.
During all this turmoil the chapter's meeting site had moved from Lowell High School to Temple United Methodist Church, even farther south in San Francisco, then back to Lowell, back to Temple, and finally back to Lowell for the rest of the decade. Also, at some time after the '40s and '50s, when the chapter met every other Wednesday night, the schedule had gone to every week and had varied from Monday nights to Tuesday nights. In late 1970 the meeting night was moved back to Wednesday evenings, the current meeting night.
Amazingly, none of this turbulence inhibited the chapter from putting on annual shows. Some were successful; a few, such as a big show put on in 1972 at the Nourse Auditorium on Hayes and Franklin streets, were financial failures. During this time the chapter developed a cabaret style show format they billed as "An Afterglow Without A Show." These shows seem to have maintained the treasury and the members' morale during these difficult times.
Along with other Bay Area barbershop chapters, the San Franciscans became a part of the Association of Bay Area Barbershop Harmony Chapters. This organization came up with the idea of the Logopedics Spectacular, a show with a massed chorus of 500 to 600 singers from Northern California chapters and featuring several top national quartets. The first Spectacular was held in 1971 at the Civic Auditorium and became a regular event scheduled every two or three years until the late 1980s.
Probably with the help and encouragement of the Association, San Francisco decided to submit a bid for an International Convention in 1972 or'73. Usually it takes one or more unsuccessful bids for a city to be selected for the International; San Francisco ultimately was selected for the 1976 International. It was at the time and for some years afterward the Society’s best-attended convention.
Sometime in 1978, two or three months after Jack Wilson departed as director, the chapter hired Alfred ("Sam") Gonzalez as its chorus director. With Sam's arrival came another era in the chapter's history.
But before we enter that period, it should be noted that the chorus, in addition to the annual shows, the Spectaculars, and the International Convention, made appearances at the San Francisco Symphony's Summer Pops series. The first one was in 1974 when the group performed under the baton of Arthur Fiedler, both in Oakland's Paramount Theater and San Francisco's Civic Auditorium. Then in 1979 the chorus, with Sam Gonzalez as director, and assisted by members of the Oakland East Bay chorus, again performed at the Civic Auditorium under the baton of Eric Kunstler.
During all the turmoil of the 1970s the Cable Car Chorus still managed to successfully climb some steep hills.
With the arrival of the ubiquitous and dynamic Sam Gonzalez, the Cable Car Chorus began steadily ascending to the high ground, a path it would maintain through most of the decade. Early 1980 the chapter's meeting place was moved to Christ Church Lutheran, where it has remained.
Several successful guest nights in 1979 and '80 had brought a number of strong members, many of whom are still active. Among the new members was Tom Shipp, who had been an active barbershopper in Southern California, but had been inactive for a few years. Tom immediately fired up his creative energy, and with his combined barbershopping and little-theater experience, began a series of elaborate, scripted barbershop harmony shows. The first, "Songs of the Cities," was held in early November 1980 at Herbst Theater. Herbst also was the site of the second show, "Now Playing," held in November 1981. The annual productions moved to Mercy High School Auditorium, across from Stonestown, in 1982. The first year's production was "Goliath Pictures Presents." That highly successful show, was followed by "The Best of Times" in 1983, and "Voices" in 1984.
The chapter had one of its biggest ever bursts of energy in 1981 when the 11th annual (and last) "Afterglow Show" was held in May; the now traditional "Barbershop Harmony on the Bay Cruise" was initiated in August; and the Herbst Theater show was presented in November.
Between late 1982 and early 1983 the chapter's roster listed 50 members, the largest number since 1947, and a number that hasn't been equaled since. In the spring of 1982 the Cable Car Chorus put 30 singers on stage at the NorCal West competitions and qualified to compete at the FWD Convention in Pasadena in the fall of '83. The chapter members elected to take the invitation and 33 Cable Car singers competed at Pasadena in October, placing 18th out of 20 choruses competing.
Another busy year was 1984 when the San Francisco singers were selected as the mike testers for the FWD Spring Convention held in San Jose. The chapter members, at San Jose's suggestion, also conducted a Sunday morning pancake breakfast for the attending barbershoppers. Although the chapter didn't lose money, the profits turned out to be as flat as the pancakes.
The month before, February 15 specifically, the chapter celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special program planned by Bob Bisio. That the celebration was a year-and-a-half premature didn't curtail the festivities one whit. At that Wednesday night special gathering the members had the privilege of meeting three men who had played significant roles in the founding of the chapter - Bill Gavin, Judge Charles Merrill, and Warren Hanna, another distinguished veteran barbershopper who had been one of the chapter's early movers and shakers. Was it fate that caused Bisio to plan the celebration a year early? Had it been held the next, or "correct" year, Bill Gavin would not have been present - he died early in 1985 at age 77.
In October 1984 Bob Bisio was honored at the district's fall convention in Bakersfield with the FWD President's Award in recognition of his more-than-30 years of dedicated work in advancing the barbershopping art, his work as FWD historian, and his "Before the Color Fades" articles in Westunes.
The chapter officers in early 1980 had decided to bid for the 1984 Far Western Division Convention. That bid failed but the chapter reapplied and was awarded the convention for 1985, to be held at the Civic Auditorium in October. Under the leadership of the indefatigable Alex Aikman all details were in place, when suddenly, without warning, the City bureaucracy raised the previously agreed upon rental fee by almost, seven fold from $2,000 to $13,500! The San Jose Chapter came to the rescue of San Francisco and the FWD by stepping in at the zero hour and hosting the convention with help from San Francisco's membership.
Also in the early '80s the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau suggested that the chapter again bid for a Society International Convention. By 1984, after determining that neighboring chapters would help in planning and running an annual convention, the plans for seeking the convention in 1989 were up and running. Just as in the '70s, San Francisco missed on the'89 bid but was selected by the Society to host the 1990 International.
Before 1990 rolled around, however, some troubling things were happening within the chapter. Starting somewhere in the late '80s the Cable Car Chorus began another descent. Even though in May 1987 the chorus had qualified for the FWD Convention at Reno in October, by August the board, the members, and the director had reached their "summer of discontent." This unfortunate situation resulted in Director Gonzalez resigning, three active members walking out, and the chorus suddenly finding itself without a director or any prospects for one. But once again the stubborn tenacity that has characterized the chapter for 50 years came to the fore and the membership elected to make the trip to Reno, regardless of the unsettled situation. Rich Postal agreed to fill in as acting director; and although the chorus brought home no trophy, it was a stimulating trip for the membership and helped remove the bitter taste of the recent past events.
Things brightened up early in 1988. With Al Zemsky, a member of the chapter at the time, as acting director, the chorus made an appearance in January on KQED Radio's live program, "West Coast Weekend." That same month at the 1988 Logopedics Spectacular (the last one held to date) at Davies Symphony Hall, 12 Cable Car Chorus members stepped forward from out of the massed Chorus of the Golden Gate and sang the verse to "God Bless America."
In July 1988 the chapter hired William ("Bill") Ganz as its new director. Ganz had recently completed his master's degree in choral conducting at San Francisco State, but had been a professional choral director for a number of years prior to pursuing his advanced degree. Ganz came to the Cable Car Chorus as a stranger to barbershop harmony singing, but as a master of good vocal production and in teaching a group the art of "making music," as he likes to say. It soon proved to be a fortunate union for both parties.
A small but energized Cable Car Chorus competed twice in the spring of 1989; the Small Chorus Contest at the FWD Spring Convention at San Jose in March, with 22 singers, and at the NorCal West contest at Burlingame in April, with 20 on the risers.
Another one of those San Francisco valleys was hit in the fall of 1989, however. Membership had dropped from 39 in June to 32 in October, and the chapter's finances were none too healthy either. But 1990 was coming, there was an International to run, and deep valleys were nothing new nor were they any reason to quit moving forward.
It's such recent history that few have to be reminded what a success the 1990 International Convention was - as successful as San Francisco's first International, according to those who were there in 1976. Convention Chairman Alex Aikman and his committee had put in two hard years of work and it paid off handsomely. Several chapter membership vice presidents believed, with a good degree of logic, that all the public's exposure to barbershop harmony in San Francisco during the first week in July would provide a major opportunity for Bay Area chapters to recruit new members. Despite good news-media coverage, and special flyers being distributed during downtown performances of choruses and quartets, there was no resulting rush of new members. In fact, San Francisco Chapter's membership dropped from 37 in July to 33 in December. A similar drop had occurred after the 1976 convention. The cause remains a mystery.
Paid performances at conventions and public venues, rather than an annual show became the chapter’s main thrust in the late 1980s and has prevailed in the '90s. As a small chorus with several members who are either retired, self employed, or work in downtown San Francisco, the Cable Car Chorus is able to perform as an early morning wake-up act for national conventions at the city’s major hotels.
A unique opportunity to perform for a virtual international audience occurred early this decade. The San Francisco International Airport in December 1990 hired the chorus to sing in the terminal lobbies. That has become a regular performance for the chorus, which the members hope, will continue.
The chapter's annual Bay Cruise was dropped after 1986 because of a large increase in the ferry rental. By switching companies and moving the day of the cruise from Saturday to Sunday the venture was renewed in 1991 and has become a regular fall event. The first annual "revived" cruise provided the passengers with an unplanned and unfortunate sideshow: the date was October 20, the Sunday of the Oakland Hills firestorm, a sight few who were on board are likely ever to forget.
The chorus's beloved former director, Dave Stevens, died in May 1991 in Hawaii, where he had settled after retiring as music specialist with the Society in the mid-1980s. Bob Bisio put together another of his very special meeting nights on August 14, 1991, as a memorial to Dave. It was a Iove-fest that was reported in loving detail by Ralph Bryant in the October 1991 edition of Westunes. Twice in the 1980s the chapter had welcomed Dave when he made visits to California for the Society. On his field visits he performed as a sort of "circuit preacher," delivering his famous "Keep it Barbershop" sermons to the edification and entertainment of his audiences. His two visits to San Francisco on June 24, 1981, and August 29, 1984, are still fondly remembered by those who were fortunate enough to have attended. The Dave Stevens Night in 1991 was an appropriate tribute to a man who meant so much to the development of the San Francisco Chapter, as well as barbershopping in the Bay Area and later throughout the entire Society.
Another depression - not just a metaphorical one - hit the chapter in mid-1992. What caused the membership and the chapter officers to be depressed isn't entirely clear, now. A general meeting, however, where problems and solutions were frankly discussed lifted spirits and reinforced the members' determination to keep moving. After several months of struggle, the chorus was back on track, winning the Plateau 3 trophy and the "Most Improved Chorus" award at the NorCal West Convention in 1994, and repeating as Plateau 3 winners at this year's NorCal West contest. Bob Bisio dubbed the chorus as "The Fearless Fog-Bound Fifteen II," in memory of those 1953 stalwarts led by Dave Stevens. There were differences; the '95 edition consisted of two tenors, three leads, three baritones, six basses, and, of course, one director. Also, this group came home with an undisputed trophy.
As we look back on the San Francisco Chapter's past 50 years, it seems, at times, amazing that a barbershop organization has managed to survive for half a century in San Francisco. But year after year the low points on the Cable Car Chorus's route have been quickly forgotten when once more the peaks are gained. From the beginning the membership has shown a tenacious determination to keep barbershop harmony alive in this fantastic but fickle city. It is reasonable to believe this will be the case for many years to come.