Still holding the note Musician: Blanche Bowlsbey continues to command the respect of her former students -- after 50 years.

October 26, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

More than 50 years away from the classroom, 91-year-old Blanche Bowlsbey still commands respect from her students.

"I would almost be willing to bet that it's the most unique situation anywhere for people our ages to be under the direction of their high school music teacher," says Ben Hubbard, 73. "She maintains discipline. We wouldn't dare get out of line back then or now."

Hubbard, a Towson resident, is a former member of the Alamedian Light Opera Company. Bowlsbey organized the group in 1946 with Baltimore City College drama coach Clarence DeHaven and her former music students at Baltimore City College, where she taught music for nearly 25 years.

Today, about 40 former Alamedians will present their 11th anniversary show at Westminster High School. The repertoire includes selections from "Oklahoma," "Porgy and Bess" and an Alamedian standard, "The Student Prince."

At a rehearsal Thursday night, Bowlsbey concentrates on the singers. Eyes half-lidded, at one moment she's the picture of tranquillity, her hands flowing in time with the music. Then suddenly she's reprimanding the piano player for mistaking a key.

When the spirit moves her, Bowlsbey emerges from her chair, makes her way past her walker and leans against the stage, directing the performers.

"She has a very strong character and personality," says former Alamedian Mary Jane Hardin. "We all have that awe of her still."

The Alamedian Light Opera Company was formed in 1946, when City College graduates were returning from military service. Women from Eastern High School, which was across the street from City College, also became involved in the Alamedian productions.

"In 1946, when the boys got home from service, they wanted to do a show for old time's sake," says Bowlsbey, who lives in Carroll County. The first show was "The Vagabond King" by Rudolf Friml.

The Alamedians put on two productions a year of operettas including "My Maryland," "Naughty Marietta" and "The Merry Widow." While the company thrived, couples formed, friendships were cemented and careers began.

Bowlsbey's involvement with the Alamedians ceased in 1960. The group disbanded a few years later. Some members became engineers, priests and government agency representatives. Others continued in music.

Former student Spiro Malas is an international opera star who has recorded with Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland and who has appeared regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Albert Hall, a tenor, has performed all over New York, and Hubbard performed at Baltimore Civic Opera before he fell victim to polio.

In 1983, former students and Alamedians organized a reunion in the form of a surprise party for Bowlsbey. About 70 of the singers attended. "They sang with each other till midnight all the songs from all the shows," Bowlsbey says. "And they were so pleased with themselves that they decided to put on a concert."

The reunion concerts begin in 1987. Bowlsbey puts together the program for the show. The lineup reprises standards from old shows and includes material the Alamedians never tackled before.

Bowlsbey added that things generally run smoothly. However, this year was an exception.

The show was originally scheduled to be performed in June, but the stage manager got pneumonia, many of the singers got viruses and Bowlsbey broke her knee. She calls this reunion "star-crossed," and notes the difference from the days when she directed shows at Baltimore City College and for the Alamedians.

"I had shows when maybe one person was hurt or something like that, but nothing like this," she says. "But I've never worked with people this old before."

In fact, when she was at Elkton High School, Bowlsbey never even thought she'd become a music teacher. During her second year of high school, Maryland's state music director conducted a sing-along at Elkton, in which Bowlsbey was drafted to play the piano. The director was so impressed by her ability to pick up standards such as "Old Folks at Home" in any key that he asked her what she planned to do with her career.

"I said, 'I'm going to be secretary,' and he said, 'Over my dead body. You have too much natural musical ability.' " He then made a deal with Bowlsbey. Upon graduation from Elkton, he promised her a scholarship at Towson Normal School, where she could earn an elementary teaching degree.

But she ended up getting her own senatorial scholarship to Western Maryland College, where she was trained as a high-school music teacher. Although she was proficient in both piano and organ, she never considered becoming a professional musician.

"I was not a competitive spirit," she says. "I wanted to be in music and not fight for it."

In 1935, Bowlsbey became the first female instructor at the all-male Baltimore City College.

Students were initially reluctant to accept a female teacher, but Bowlsbey eventually became a campus treasure. She was impressed by her students' talent back then, but feels age has added even more richness to their voices.

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