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How the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers Happened

By Bill James

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Bill James
Bill James, in 2008.

How the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers Happened
By Bill James

This is an accurate and unvarnished recounting of the plan for establishing and the events surrounding the beginning of the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers Barbershop Chapter. This is a story of the early days never before told and only fully known to two persons today. I am writing it as a founder with intimate knowledge of only the first decade of the 50-year legacy of the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers. Our inception plan was unique and perfectly suited to the opportunity that existed in Poughkeepsie back in the '60s. Not only did the plan succeed in founding one of SPEBSQSA's most exceptional chapters, I believe the same plan would work again today if stanchly applied.

The Meeting of Bill Heydman and Bill James

Upon arriving in Poughkeepsie as an IBMer, I discovered to my dismay that it boasted no Barbershop chapter. I visited the nearest chapter in Kingston and found it a bit too chorus-oriented for my liking. I had come from Lansing, Michigan, where its chapter met biweekly in a public restaurant's downstairs and enjoyed a three-hour Barbershop party -- featuring visiting and chapter quartets, pickup foursomes, beer and camaraderie, an MC with microphone and a stage, and NO CHORUS! What a great time and intriguing formula for a fun-loving Barbershop chapter!

Bill HeydmanI put an ad in the IBM paper for a quartet lead. (I had done the same thing at Michigan State University and turned up Burt Szabo to introduce him to the Lansing chapter.) In Poughkeepsie, up jumped Bill Heydman (right), an utter madman whose Barbershopping views coincided nearly perfectly with my own.

We both felt a chorus is necessary, but it should be kept "in its place!" In our minds, a Barbershop chapter existed first and foremost to promote quartet singing. We opined that a three-hour chapter meeting was about right, with an hour and a quarter devoted to chorus rehearsal (to teach quartet singing), a half-hour for a business meeting and beer break, and an hour and a quarter program (you guessed it -- featuring visiting and chapter quartets, pickup foursomes, beer and camaraderie, and an MC with microphone and a stage) would be just about right. We determined to establish such an organization. I would handle the chorus rehearsal, a position for which I had some credentials, and Heydman would run the program, a calling at which he was absolutely brilliant.

The Beneshan Challenge

Bill BeneshanHeydman had also visited the Kingston chapter and, as a result, had met Bill Beneshan (right), a sweet-spirited older gentleman from Poughkeepsie and a former area counselor. Beneshan in no way shared the visionary ideas of Heydman and me, but he had wearied of traveling to Kingston and very much wanted a local chapter. Heydman introduced me to Beneshan, and we invited him to join us in our experiment. It should be noted that Heydman and I viewed our new enterprise as a "done-deal" and in no way considered it experimental. Beneshan was a good sport who went along with these wild-eyed young upstarts, taking a lot of good-natured abuse along the way, as I recall.

We began to put together our plan for developing the brand of chapter we envisioned. The first step was to search within IBM for displaced Barbershoppers to constitute a core. The addition of Beneshan within our troika amply illustrated to Heydman and me that, as we turned up additional former Barbershoppers, each would bring to the table his own previous chapter experience. Because our dream was so strong and our end result so clear, we were pretty certain we were not open to a whole lot of diversity of thought. So, our first hurdle would be to "educate" those joining us to a new vision.

The plan involved the establishment of a core (ultimately, the SEVEN), the 25ers, and elaborate plans for "B" Night. I'll explain these entities as I proceed with the story.


Bruce Slack Rudy Veltre Steve Plumb George Nagy As indicated, the first task was to locate the core. So Heydman, Beneshan, and I went on a search. It turned out that we come across only four new players: George Nagy, Steve Plumb, Rudy Veltre, and Bruce Slack (right). All together, we became a 7-man core (which we called the SEVEN) to implement the plan. In addition to starting a chapter, Heydman and I sought an experienced tenor and bass with whom to form a quartet. We accomplished that with the Dutchmasters (a wordplay on Dutchess County), consisting of Slack, Heydman, James, and Nagy. The quartet would play a role in demonstrating the Barbershop style and providing "entertainment" at several planning meetings to be held by the SEVEN. Those meetings provided the venue for the "education" spoken of earlier, and for exploring the role of the 25ers, and planning for their recruitment.

Each of the SEVEN committed to "scare up" two or three persons who, upon understanding the plan, would enthusiastically embrace the idea. The only qualification for a 25er was some singing experience (church choir, college chorus, high school group, etc.). All together, these new guys plus the original SEVEN would comprise a body of 25 folks. While 25 "members" might be an acceptable start for many new chapters, the 25ers had a greater destiny in Poughkeepsie. The critical task of the 25ers, who would be largely new to Barbershop harmony, was their role in the elaborate kickoff night, which we labeled "B" Night.

The 25ers

Until all the 25er slots were filled, Heydman and I intended to continue holding planning meetings. In addition, Heydman and I met regularly to make sure all things were progressing in the intended direction and to continue to refine the plan. Some of the SEVEN grew a little weary with the wait and -- I remember Veltre, in particular -- wanted to forge ahead, relying on the numbers already recruited.

Heydman and I stayed the course and remained firm. The Dutchmasters continued to provide the soft entertainment and the SEVEN met regularly to monitor progress and to enthuse recruited 25ers regarding the concept. No chorus singing -- only quartet performances -- occurred at these meetings. Eventually the good news was in evidence that we had our 25ers in attendance at our meeting. We began seriously planning the BIG kickoff of Barbershopping in Poughkeepsie, "B" Night! While never officially recognized as such, those 25ers were really the charter members of the Poughkeepsie chapter.

What was the ultimate purpose of the 25ers and what was the task to which they were assigned? First, the 25ers agreed to become members of the new chapter and to fulfill a special assignment toward "B" Night. Heydman and I knew that, if we were to spawn a strong, viable, thriving, and exciting new chapter, numbers were essential. Part of the vision imparted to the 25ers was that the Poughkeepsie chapter would begin its life with 100 serious guests at its inaugural meeting.

Hence the name 25ers! It would require at least 25 players to support such a plan. The plan was simple and straightforward: 25 people would invite (and commit to attendance) for "B" Night at least three interested guests. Let's see now -- 25x3 plus the original 25ers = 100 prospective members!!! Voila! Could there be any simpler or more straightforward plan for guaranteeing at least 100 guests on our opening night?

Of course, we prepared for a whole lot more than just the appearance of 100 guests at that meeting. We required a strategy for an interesting and productive chorus rehearsal, affordable refreshments, a compelling "sales pitch," an exciting program in which all would participate, and most of all, a GREAT quartet to demonstrate Barbershop at the highest echelon.

As luck would have it, close by in New Jersey, several medalist quartets operated. But how could we afford to hire a medalist quartet? We concluded that we COULDN'T! So, we decided upon a smarter approach. The Playtonics, International Second Place Medalists, was our preferred choice. The quartet was made up of guys who were true Barbershoppers, right? True Barbershoppers can always be counted on to support other Barbershoppers in need, right? True Barbershoppers would jump at the chance to support the formation of a new chapter with 100 prospects in attendance, right?

Heydman agreed to phone The Playtonics and tell them our story. He asked them if they would be willing to help. They replied. of course, that they would, depending upon their availability on the night in question. They said, "Write us your proposed date, we'll check our busy schedule, and blah, blah, blah…" Now, here's the genius of Poughkeepsie's philosophy and the beginning of its pattern for continuing success. Anticipating such a response, we purposely had not yet selected a night for the event. Heydman responded to them, "That's the beauty of it, we can hold it on whatever night you ARE available. Look over your schedule, I'll call back, and you can tell me what night you would like to do it!" Thus, having successfully corralled the quarry and having the night agreed upon, we had committed the second best quartet in all the land to coming to help us recruit members at our kickoff meeting!

A 100-person Turnout Opening Night

As I recall, about one hundred and six guests showed up on "B" Night. We left no untidy threads in the red carpet with which we greeted all of our guests. The group in attendance learned and sang a Barbershop song, organized quartets sang, and we pitched the dream. The Playtonics performed fabulously, and we socialized with our prospective brothers. Incidentally, seeds were planted that night that grew into a long-standing special relationship between the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers and the Dapper Dans Chorus.

Probably, we could have and should have qualified our 100 prospects more closely. Over the next several Wednesday nights we watched that initial showing fall off to around 50 attending. Looking back I believe that such a star-studded and exciting kickoff night could have yielded a greater retention percentage had all the prospects been keenly and personally interested in singing. Nonetheless, we settled down to a regular group of around 50 members and established the great Poughkeepsie Newyorkers chapter, which has served the Barbershopping needs in Poughkeepsie for over 50 years.

Only the beginning

The gutsy founding plan of the Poughkeepsie Newyorkers served as a pattern for the next 10 years of chapter operation. This magnificent collection of creative, talented, and ballsy comrades knew no limitations on outrageousness. Once we recognized that the Newyorkers possessed the capacity to win District contests, we began planning supplementary activities at a contest site (e.g., lobby shows, contest theme, general hoopla, etc.) with the same care and forethought we applied to contest preparation. Whenever we competed in a District contest, we expected to win! And furthermore, we intended to engage the entire district assemblage in our celebration.

Limiting oneself to a single illustrating case is extremely hard, so I'll pick one at random. One year -- it was a time of the national presidential election -- we thought it would be fitting to stage a simulated political-convention-style demonstration when a Newyorkers' win was announced. At the back of the auditorium, while the results were being named, we assembled a full marching band, poised to spring into action upon the "proper" announcement. When over the loudspeakers the proclamation came that the Newyorkers were again crowned champs, we struck up the band and marched and played and threw paper streamers throughout the entire auditorium for a precisely choreographed couple of minutes. We had arranged for all doors to be locked during this mock demonstration, thereby ensuring that all -- even any who might not have been enthused over the Poughkeepsie victory -- would be "encouraged to join the making of merriment.

Who might be under-excited? Well, a Barbershop contest is a highly partisan operation and anyone committed to another contestant might have experienced less joy than did the Newyorkers' fans. Also, for reasons inexplicable to us, some in district "official" positions often seemed less charmed over Poughkeepsie's shenanigans than were the huge preponderance of Northeast District "Joe Barbershoppers" who related to this bunch of livewires bringing unbounded joyfulness and excitement to their hobby.

Of course, our daring approach involved considerable risk. What would you do with a fully assembled marching band at the rear of an auditorium if Poughkeepsie didn't win? How would you swallow the embarrassment or explain the rationale for the horn- and drum-laden ensemble? We didn't know the answer to those questions and, furthermore, we never gave much thought to the possibility. That was the unbridled joy of being among that wonderful zany bunch of buddies who pioneered and sustained the early Poughkeepsie Newyorkers.

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