Excerpts from Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

A few excerpts from my book.

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Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 53-54.

A song has to be memorized to the point where it can be sung "from the spine," a George Nagy of the UNLIKELY HOODS used to say, but as a singer you must never lose concentration. George knew that principle well, but would occasionally become its victim nevertheless.

On the Poughkeepsie Chapter's annual show one year, the UNLIKELY HOODS decided to use three show-biz gags spaced between the verses of our opening song. One was the old joke about a disbelieving talent agent who was testing a "talking" dog. Pete Donatelli was the talent agent. I was the dog. Meanwhile, George and Mike Myers sang "doo-doos" in the background.

"So, you're Towser, the Wonder Dog who can talk," Pete started off. I panted and nodded my head. "Okay," Pete continued, "I'm going to give you a test. What's on the top of a house?"

"Roofff!" I replied in a bark, panting harder.

"Well, that's pretty good," Pete said. "How would you describe sandpaper?"

"Rough!" I barked back at him.

"Okay. Who holds the record for the most home runs in the American League?"

"Ruth!" I yelped.

"This dog can't talk; he's a fake. Get him out of here!" was Pete's line.

At that point, I was supposed to pause and with a blank expression, turn to the audience and say, "Was it DiMaggio?"

However, George, with his beautiful bass doo-dooing, had by then lost track of things. HIs concentration was gone. Noting the lull in the dialogue, he figured it was time to sing his solo lead-in to resume the song. So just as I was about to deliver the punch line, good old George leaped in and launched into the next verse. Well, the joke was lost, the audience was lost, and the quartet had quite a little scrambling to do to get things back o track.

"For heaven's sake, George, what happened?" we demanded as soon as we got off stage.

His answer was succinct: "I was woolgathering," he said in his usual stoical style.



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 54-55.

One time the UNLIKELY HOODS quartet was singing for a church group (I think it was) at a dinner meeting in Poughkeepsie. I was singing lead then and was in the middle of a solo part. I have no idea what distracted me, but I remember vividly the abrupt snap back to reality. For some reason I began a verse with a set of words I had never sung before, ever! Coming upon such a predicament brings moments of utter terror to a singer.

The last thing I wanted to do was to bring the whole song to a flaming, screeching stop. Besides inciting embarrassment, such an action tends to push the entire performance over the edge to disaster, to the discomfort of all. So slamming on the brakes is only a last resort.

During my solo panic, all those thoughts were streaming through my brain along with the realization that I did not by any means have a long period of time to ponder my plight. Miraculously, I sang on with a string of words that not only made sense, but was appropriate for the meter and rhythm of the song! On top of all that, the words rhymed where they ought to! I don't know how I did it, and I'm sure I could never do it again, but I did it then. The rest of the quartet stared at me as though I had turned into a warthog or something. I thought I had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have three quarters of the Quartet's expressions reveal that though the song continued, mass confusion reigned!



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Page 55.

One goof that particularly ticked my fancy was perpetrated by the PENTHOUSE FOUR. As members of the Poughkeepsie Chapter, they performed at regular chapter meetings every now and then and of course at other chapter events. This particular instance was a chapter meeting and the song was "You Belong to Me." It was arranged as a lead solo, with the tenor, bari, and bass singing background accompaniment and periodically joining in with the lyrics. It's a beautiful song and was beautifully sung. It was a tender, sensitive performance.

However, at the line, "Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the jungle when it's wet with rain," the lead must have had some fleeting distraction of the thought process, because his words came out (with feeling): "Fly the jungle in a silver plane, see the ocean when it's wet with rain."

There was then his moment of realization that an unrecoverable faux pas had been committed. Audience and performers alike took stock of what that tender phrase meant, but before anyone could react, the lead gestured philosophically and said, "Think about that."

Well, there wasn't much of a chance to do so, because the place burst apart with laughter. The spell of the lovely song had been broken!



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 58-59.

Sometimes the best of PR efforts can go awry, and sometimes the most carefully chosen words can backfire. In the BROTHERHOOD we spent h ours looking for just the right phrase to describe the quartet. We made suggestions, argued over the, fought over them, and finally came to a decision. We chose the catchy saying: "Barbershop harmony you've got to see to believe!"

We thought it would serve nicely on our business care and stationery, and if a chapter chose, on a show program or ad as well. Of course we were wrong. In big, attention-getting letters, one barbershop program boldly announced:

An Evening of Barbershop Harmony
To Benefit the Society for the Blind
Barbershop Harmony You've Got to See to Believe!

Fortunately, those most likely to be offended by such a statement were least likely to be reading the program anyway, so I guess no harm was done.



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 74-76. (Story is told by Pete Donatelli.)

Surely those who have performed in comedy quartets well understand what a bother it is to lug around all the props. In addition to all the costumes or uniforms, funny quartets carry along a big suitcase of gimmicks that are important in the act. The BROTHERHOOD quartet is no exception, with an "exploding" gable, disappearing and reappearing canes, a gangster-type piston, and many other miscellaneous odds and ends. What better place to store some of these accouterments than in our bass Anton Grosz's violin case, saved from his childhood days.

The drive to Boston was uneventful, the flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia was pleasant, and everything was going great. Since it was Saturday, there wasn't much activity at the air terminal, so the passengers quickly filed through the customs check. The quartet, however, had to apply for working papers, so we each had to spend a few minutes going through that relatively easy red-tape procedure. I was finished first and went ahead to the baggage claim area to collect our belongings.

By then everyone else on the flight had gone, so our bags, suitcases, and violin case were all together waiting for us. So was the customs inspector.

He was a pleasant guy and the inspection went smoothly, until we got the th violin case. "You've only got one instrument?" he asked, puzzled.

"We don't have any instruments," I said, thinking that could clarify things.

"What's in the case?"


He looked intently at me, as if to measure my veracity. "We'd better look at the props," he said.

The inspector didn't even notice the container of gunpowder we use for our "exploding" table. He paid no attention to the handcuffs and chains we use in our gangster routine. THen he came across the starting pistol. The thing hardly ever works and it's probably more trouble than it's worth, but we like to include it in the act just for appearance sake.

The casual manner of the customs man disappeared. He pointed with disdain at the pistol. "What's this?" he asked sternly.

"Oh, that's not a real gun," I said, trying to dispel his suspicions. The inspector picked it up cautiously. Then I added quickly, "It doesn't shoot." He pulled the trigger.

BOOM! It sounded like a war cannon had gone off.

What I meant to say was, "It doesn't shoot real bullets," but by then it was a little too late to explain that. Echoes of the explosion bounded off all the walls and eardrums in the vicinity and there was a flurry of exclamations: "Oh, my God!" "What the hell was that?" "Is anybody shot?" There was also a call for the Mounted Police!

About that time Mike Myers and Anton Grosz had finished their paperwork and had arrived on the scene. As the authorities gathered and the questioning began in earnest, the three of us joined in the explanation. Fred was the last one to be processed, and for some reason the seriousness of the situation eluded him. He thought the whole matter was hilarious! The police were angry enough with embarrassment, and then along came Fred ho-hoing and hee-heeing about the whole affair. It certainly was not a time for any ho-hos or hee-hees!

Finally order was restored and everyone regained composure. The gun was thoroughly examined and found, of course, to have a solid barrel rather than a shootable bore. Nevertheless, the Mounty had his pronouncement: "We'll have to keep this here. You can claim it when you leave Sunday."

On the trip back, Air Canada insisted on storing the "weapon" with the pilot, who apprehensively returned it to us when we deplaned in Boston.

The experience is now great fun to think about, but at the time it wasn't much fun at all, except for Albert Haverstock, our host, who had witnessed the episode from beginning to end through big glass windows at the end of the customs area. Al is no featherweight, and when we finally concluded our ordeal and met, he was still shaking with laughter from head to toe!



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 105-106.

My quartet, the BROTHERHOOD, had just arrived in Utica, New York for a barbershop show and were checking in at a Holiday Inn. There was a little confusion at the registration desk because a drunk was causing trouble in the restaurant and the clerk had to call the police. Moments later the men in blue arrived. We were still signing in and getting our keys. Two big cops shoved open the front doors and glanced quickly about the lobby. One with a nightstick in hand walked slowly toward us at the desk.

It was like a carefully rehearsed routine, though it was completely spontaneous. Mike Myers, Pete Donatelli, and I all together motioned toward bass Anton Grosz and said, "THere he is, officer. He's the one you want!" The police closed in.

You should have seen the expression on Anton's face. His eyes were large with disbelief at our betrayal and he was uncharacteristically speechless. Unfortunately, we weren't able to keep our composure and we burst into laughter. Realizing that our identification was in jest, the police pressed on to attend to the drunk. I don't think Anton was particularly amused, but the rest of us have chuckled over the incident ever since and we've marveled at the unanimity and timing of our mutual inspiration.



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 221-222.

My quartet, the BROTHERHOOD, was making the rounds of the hospitality rooms after a District convention in Lake Placid, New York one time. We were using a series of gangster songs, were dressed accordingly, and we opened the bit with a song containing three old and corny jokes. I started them off in a dialogue with Pete Donatelli. "Oh, Godfather, Godfather," I pleaded, "can you help me?"

"What do you want from?" Pete responded.

"Oh, GOdfather," I moaned, "I just can't stand the underworld any longer. Can't you help me get out?"

"What do you want from me?" Pete reiterated.

"Godfather, can't you get me some kind of legitimate business? How about . . . how about a pizzeria?"

"Well, I don't know," Pete said, "it takes a lot of dough!" The punch line was usually followed by a few laughs (a very few laughs) and a lot of groans, but we would mercifully plunge ahead with the rest of the song and act.

Now after we had done that dialogue a number of times, we began to tire of its sameness and we began to change a word here and there, alter an emphasis, modify an expression. It was fun to see what new twist each of us would insert into the routine as we took our act into the early morning hours. In one room I decided to make a drastic deviation. We went through the dialogue as usual until my line right before the punch line. "Godfather," I said, "can't you get me some kind of legitimate business? How about . . . how about a hardware store?"

I looked at Pete and saw consternation in eyes, probably the expression Caesar showed Brutus. It was too cruel a trick to play for long, however, so I continued, ". . . or better yet, a pizzeria?"



Laughter, Love, and a Barbershop Song

Pages 258-259.

The show was sponsored by the Scotia Knights of Columbus but was organized by the Schenectady, New York Chapter of the Society. My quartet, the BROTHERHOOD, arrived at the high school at 6:15, found an open classroom, moved in all our props, uniforms, and other belongings, and went out on stage to see the auditorium. There we met the stage manager. He used a hand-held vibrator placed at his neck when he spoke to us. Apparently his larynx had been removed by surgery.

He was an unusually friendly guy, full of enthusiasm, brimming over with spirit, and wore a cap with the letters "SPEBSQSA" over the visor. That puzzled us since he surely could not sing with the chorus. Before the show started he came to our room while we were warming up our voices. He asked for a song and listened intently as we sang for him.

Throughout the evening we wondered about the stage-manager barbershopper who obviously loved the music and avidly supported the cause. We wondered how, with no voice, he had become interested in the hobby and why he had a membership in a singing society. Our questions did not remain unanswered for long.

Following our appearance on the afterglow, we were changing clothes in a small back room that was hardly big enough for all the coats and soft drinks stored there. We heard a knock on the door and in walked the stage manager. He wanted to tell us he had enjoyed our performance. He touched the button on his vibrator and said our singing reminded him of earlier days. His eyes lit up as he spoke. He told us he used to sing in a quartet and had many memorable experiences. He told us of singing on shows with the MIDSTATES FOUR and BUFFALO BILLS. What was his quartet? Then he told us. It was the PITTSBURGHERS, International Quartet Champions of 1948! He was Bill Conway, the bass.

The irony was like a slap in the face. He had reached the top of the barbershop ladder, yet a short time later needed a battery-powered mechanism to even utter a sound.

In the few moments he hold of his experiences, I gained a new insight into and appreciation of the barbershop spirit. Being able to sing is something very special and beautiful. Just being able to speak is something very special. It's easy to get so wrapped up working for quartet honors and accolades that an appreciation of the basic singing mechanism is missed. Singing is a vocal process not all can enjoy.

Our meeting with Bill COnway brought that realization into sharp focus. He was in no way apologetic for his handicap. He was in no way solicitous of sympathy. He was a dedicated barbershopper who had reached the summit, had enjoyed much of barbershopping's bounty, and then asked only to participate in his hobby as changing circumstances allowed. In his pride, devotion, and lover ob barbershop harmony I found an inspiration. I also found great strength and courage in his barbershop spirit.