Women sing praises of Sweet Adelines

October 15, 1992|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

You'll hear no sour words from the Sweet Adelines. These women love barbershop-style singing so much they're in perfect harmony when singing its praises.

"My golly, Sweet Adelines is neat. It's showier music than church singing. And once you hear that sound, boy, it gets in your blood," gushes Judy Vandever, a member of the Elkridge Chorus, a local chapter of the Sweet Adelines.

"The majority of us are sing-in-the-shower people, but we can carry a tune," enthuses one of her chorus mates, Elaine Wilreker, of the amateur spirit pervading the group.

These two women and 8,000 others are raising the roof of the Baltimore Arena as the 46th annual Sweet Adelines International convention and competition meets there through Saturday. Locally, the Elkridge, Dundalk and Towson Valley chapters, together with other Maryland and Washington choruses, are expected to account for at least 1,000 of the conventioneers.

"We call the Baltimore-Washington area a hotbed of barbershop singing for both men and women," says Anita Larsen, spokeswoman for the Tulsa, Okla.-based Sweet Adelines International, which, since its modest origins in 1945, has grown to its current membership of 29,000 women.

"A lot of our singers have no outlet for their desire to sing other than church or community choirs, so Sweet Adelines is a wholesome outlet that lets them perform and compete," Ms. Larsen adds. "These ladies are competitors, and they all think that with a break they could be Barbra Streisand."

You can judge for yourself at a number of events open to the public this week. Tickets for convention activities may be purchased at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel. Not everything comes at a price, however. Lunchtime listeners can also take advantage of a free, mass sing-along at the Harborplace Amphitheater today at 11:30 a.m.

Among the sweetly determined competitors this week is the 112-voice Elkridge Chorus. Founded in 1969, it originally rehearsed in a church hall in that Howard County town, but rising membership meant the risers on which the women stood were rising perilously close to the ceiling. So the Elkridge Chorus retained its name but moved its weekly rehearsals to the Hilltop School in Ferndale in Anne Arundel County. Its members come from all around the Beltway and even across the Bay Bridge. Collectively, they have spread cheer in nursing homes and done the National Anthem before Baltimore Orioles games.

Supervising the four-part harmony is Elkridge Chorus director Jackie Grant, who says, "Discipline is the most important thing. When you get that many women together and everybody has a little side comment to her neighbor, it gets chaotic."

Ms. Grant, 54, of Otterbein, who is manager of Shepherds of Australia at Harborplace when she isn't keeping time, notes that in recent years her chorus has been supplementing its traditional show tunes with more diverse music ranging from `The Joint Is Jumpin"-type jazz to sing-alongable tunes by the Beatles. For a chorus whose median age is somewhere in the mid-40s, it's partly an attempt to woo younger members.

Elkridge charter member Cathy Johnson, a "39-plus" Catonsville resident who teaches at Mount Hebron Nursery School, is among the Sweet Adelines who visit area schools to spread the word to young women who often have never even heard of George Gershwin.

She adds that when she first joined the Sweet Adelines, "it was mostly housewives who were not working outside the home. It was something different than bowling or cards." But now, most members are working women who have this a cappella singing as a hobby to fit into busy schedules.

Cathy Johnson and other devoted members say the Elkridge Chorushas been like a family for them, not to mention the actual sisters, mothers and daughters, and even a mother and daughter-in-law who belong.

"It really has been an extended family for us," attests Mrs. Vandever, 52, of Pasadena, who is a secretary at the Gibson Island Country School. When her "career Army family" was new to Maryland, "I felt a bit at loose ends until I joined the Sweet Adelines."

Besides the friendships, Mrs. Vandever says, "Quite honestly, it's the showiness of it that I like. We don't sing with [sheet] music in front of us. We have to 'sell' the songs with choreography, costumes and our faces. A lot of people right now are trying to lose that extra 10 pounds" so they'll fit into an emerald green, waltz-length satin gown boasting a ruffled sleeve she compares to a "lettuce leaf."

"Sweet Adelines began in the center of the country and was a more countrified, gingham-dress thing then, but now it's all glitz and sequins," observes Elaine Wilreker, 48, a Severna Park homemaker. In fact, she first joined the Adelines in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where her mother was a member.

Though she can't see those sequins, Mary Grace Lodico shares in the sparkle of the Elkridge Chorus.

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