Along with the opening of another academic year and a much-anticipated abatement in the summer’s blaze, September will bring a brand-new season of the popular show Glee. Whether you are an avid viewer or, like me, make an earnest effort to avoid all things Gleeful, you cannot deny that Glee has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Following the musical misadventures of a rag-tag group of high school Glee-clubbers, the show boasts an aggressively enthusiastic fan-base that seems to grow larger by the day. As a Boston College student you come to learn that planning something on the night a new episode airs is sure to incur the wrath of a faithful fan or two. It is far better to indulge those who take their television with an extra teaspoon of sugary caricature and reschedule; the Glee fad is here and it is flourishing. Yet, as few may be aware, this particular sensation is nothing new on the Boston College campus.
A few weeks ago, while working in the John. J. Burns Library’s Conservation Lab on an issue in the recently acquired 1927 run of The Heights, I came across an unusual article. Printed on the aging newspaper in bold-face jet, the headline read, “80 MEMBERS WILL MEET FOR FIRST GLEE REHEARSAL.” Considering student enrollment in 1927 did not exceed several hundred, this figure seemed incredibly high. Compelled to investigate further, I read on. The article described the formation of a new college Glee Club—a replacement for the previous all-male ensemble that had enjoyed little student interest and less competitive success. The club was the brain-child of Professor James. A. Ecker, the newly appointed director of Boston College’s music department. Ecker was something of an icon in the Boston music community, renowned for his work with prestigious church choirs and local schools. He came to BC following a stint as the conductor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Jesuit parish adjoining the college’s original building on Harrison Avenue. Upon his arrival, he set out to reorganize the entire music program and form an orchestra, a new band, and a top-notch Glee Club. Fr. Douglass, a Jesuit and fellow professor, offered to serve as the club’s moderator. Together, he and Ecker held the first round of auditions in early September; no one was prepared for the turn-out they would receive. Although the article is mum as to the exact amount of applicants, it asserts that their number was “quite overwhelming”—unprecedented in the college’s history. After much deliberation and more than a few broken hearts, a preliminary group of 80 members was chosen and the first rehearsal was scheduled for the following week. The Heights column concluded with a campus-wide call for tenors and the promise of another article in the next edition. Happily, with the entire run of The Heights within my reach, I did not have to wait to read more.
As I continued to work through The Heights, carefully checking for any dog-ears, creases, or tears, I made sure to take note of the Glee Club’s progress. My work was part of the first stage of newspaper’s digitization—helping to screen for any text obstructions and areas in need of repair. Poring through pages and pages of the publications yellowing paper, I found the club mentioned frequently—more than once on the front page. I began to follow the group’s weekly updates like a serial. A week after the first rehearsal, the call for tenors had gone unanswered and Professor Ecker was faced with a difficult decision: whether or not to further reduce the group’s membership in order to restore harmonic balance. He wanted the ensemble to be as large as possible but his primary goal was superior sound. At the urging of Fr. Douglass, a massive cut was made. The club was halved from 80 members to 40—leaving only the best voices and most talented performers. In this, its latest incarnation, the ensemble was dubbed “The Maroon and Gold Glee Club.” The elite group made its first appearance at the annual Holy Cross Pre-Game “Smoker” and performed at a reception for college president Fr. Dolan a few days later. Both engagements were a tremendous success and the club was soon “eagerly sought after by societies in all parts of the city and surrounding towns.” Confident in the group’s ability and potential, Ecker and Douglass quickly began to arrange the most ambitious concert schedule the music program had ever seen. Over the course of the next few months, the Glee Club performed at over 20 different venues—singing for everyone from the Knights of Columbus to Quincy Mayor Thomas J. McGrath. They even managed to secure a slot on the radio—serenading all of Boston from the studio of WBZ. All the while, a few exceptional voices began to stand out and receive special attention. Senior soloists Francis Tondorf, James Connors, and Arthur Hagan became celebrities on campus and throughout the city. Chief among them was Hagan, hailed by the student body as “BC’s favorite baritone.” Both he and Connors were given solo concert engagements and used their elevated status to further promote the club.
The Glee Club craze of 1927 reached its peak in January, as students returned from their holiday break. The Intercollegiate Glee Club Competition was a month away and the group was rehearsing tirelessly. Set to take place at Symphony Hall, the annual contest would feature the Maroon and Gold Songsters alongside groups from Amherst, Brown, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Tufts, and Holy Cross, among others. The winning club would receive ample prestige and the opportunity to compete at the national level. As the date inched closer, BC students began to sit in on the club’s practice sessions as if they were concerts. They provided a welcome audience and some spirited applause between songs. Finally, the day of the competition arrived and BC’s musical heroes donned their tuxedos and set out to meet their opponents on the Symphony stage. Boston College held its breath as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed; for Ecker, Douglass, the Glee Club, and their dedicated fans, this was the culmination of the entire season. They had been an overnight success, an unprecedented sensation, and now they stood on the threshold of attaining even greater heights.
It is here that I must leave you, with the group poised to take the nation by storm. Alas, the fate of the Maroon and Gold Glee Club will remain a mystery for now. Whether you are eager to discover the outcome of the contest or you are merely curious to see if the phenomenon continued in later years, I urge you to check out new digital archive of The Heights when it arrives next year. If you’d like to find out more now, then take a look at Boston College’s yearbooks online or in the Burns Library Reading Room. For those fans that cannot get enough Glee this September, the exploits of Ecker’s famed ensemble might serve as an interesting alternative.
- Robert Williams, Conservation Assistant, Burns Library & B.C. Class of 2014