by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The very popular television show, Glee, is a recent reminder of how glee clubs at high schools and colleges has long been a part of our educational system, though there are other examples of such organizations elsewhere, including at churches. The word “glee” is said to derive from an Old English word meaning, among other things, “music.”
It is also observed that, by the 17th century, the word was used for a vocal portion of a composition utilizing at least three voices and a British music publisher, bookseller and composer, John Playford, is generally credited with that designation.
It was in England that glee clubs developed, starting at Harrow School and they were known for a repertoire of short songs and the London Glee Club, formed in 1783, became famous. In the United States, an early organization was the Harvard Glee Club, which was created in 1858, though, examples like it were no longer strictly associated with the type of songs the earlier versions performed and were, generally speaking, choirs.
Colleges and high schools quickly jumped on the bandwagon and formed their glee clubs and some churches also developed their own versions. In the earliest days, these were smaller ensembles of male singers performing in close harmony, but, gradually, female clubs were formed. Co-ed, or mixed, glee clubs, were a later development.
In Los Angeles, the earliest located reference to a glee club is in August 1876 as one performed at a meeting of the Hayes and Wheeler Club at the Los Angeles Skating Rink. The club was formed by local Republicans to promote the candidacy of Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler for president and vice-president of the United States, with Hayes having the distinction of being the only chief executive whose election was secured by the vote of a special election commission amid corruption and great uncertainty. The glee club appears to have been exclusively composed of Republicans of the Angel City.
By 1883, there were glee clubs in Anaheim and Pomona, while one was in operation in Covina within a couple of years and, during the Boom of the Eighties between 1886 and 1888, the new towns of Glendora and Monrovia had ones, as well.
With schools, the University of Southern California had a glee club by at least 1898 and within a decade Occidental College launched one. An early high school example was the sixteen-member male-only club at Los Angeles High, which dated as far back as 1905.
Today’s highlighted artifact is a promotional broadside for “The Home Concert” of The Men’s Glee Club of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, held on 1 June 1928 at the institution’s auditorium. The club appears to have been established about a decade earlier, a few years after the establishment of the institute, and became widely known for its renditions of sacred music.
Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), a native of Hoboken, New Jersey and a graduate of Yale University and its famous divinity school, was a Congregationalist minister and went on to further theological studies in Germany. In the late 1880s, however, he became associated with the prominent evangelist Dwight L. Moody in Chicago and ran the Bible Institute of the Chicago Evangelical Society and renamed the Moody Bible Institute, which still operates in the Windy City.
Torrey was also pastor of the Chicago Avenue Church, now also named for Moody, but by the onset of the 20th century, his oratorical and preaching skills led him throughout the country and overseas. He was also one of the editors of the highly influential milti-volume The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, which, in promoting the belief in Christian fundamental thinking and belief led to the use of the term “fundamentalism.” The prime mover in the project was Lyman Stewart, founder and president of Union Oil Company of Los Angeles.
In 1912, Torrey came to Los Angeles at the invitation of Stewart and Rev. T.C. Horton to build a version of Moody’s Bible Institute and, two years later, what was commonly known as BIOLA was established in a large structure at Hope and 6th streets just south of the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education and, after 1926, the site of the Los Angeles Central Public Library.
To the consternation of many local Protestant churches, Torrey quickly decided to establish the non-denominational, but fundamentalist and evangelical Church of the Open Door, which operated out of the 4,000-seat auditorium at BIOLA. For decades, the building was widely known for its pair of large “Jesus Saves” neon signs on its roof tops.
As for the glee club, an advertisement from 23 February 1918 in the Los Angeles Express shows that the ensemble performed on the following day’s Sunday preaching sessions by “The Irish Evangelist,” the Rev. William P. Nicholson, who was also known as the “Tornado of the Pulpit” and whose powerful and impassioned sermons contrasted the polarities of “God’s Love” and “God’s Hell.” Because the First World War was on and American troops were becoming a larger presence in the European theater, there were soldiers from Fort MacArthur at San Pedro, speeches by military personnel and the Coast Artillery Band, as well as the glee club.
In a Long Beach Telegram article from five years later, the troupe was referred to as famous in an article promoting a concert at that city’s First Nazarene Church. Also performing was the Harmony Quartet, which consisted of white males singing black spirituals and which was deemed “the greatest quartet in the west” by the church’s choir director.
The glee club was back after performing for a full house during the previous Christmas holidays and the paper added that “Mr. [John B.] Trowbridge has built the glee club into a great organization” and that it “will leave for a coast tour immediately after their appearance in Long Beach. Trowbridge, not surprisingly, was a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute and undoubtedly brought the BIOLA by Torrey.
A sampling of newspaper accounts included performances, sometimes with the Harmony Quartet, in Monrovia, Pomona and other venues in Los Angeles, as well as at Long Beach. In May 1925, the ensemble took part in a contest with seven other collegiate clubs at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium.
Other participants came from USC, the University of Redlands, the Southern Branch of the University of California (soon renamed UCLA), Pomona College and Santa Barbara State College (now UC Santa Barbara). There were also a few women’s ensembles including from BIOLA. While the results were not located, Trowbridge’s troupe took second in the spring 1926 edition of the competition.
The card highlighted here shows the 27-member club dressed smartly in their performance tuxedos and posed in front of what are probably entrance doors to the BIOLA/Church of the Open Door auditorium. On the right margin is the note “ON TRANSCONTINENTAL TOUR / June 15th to August 11th, 1928.” The reverse gives the concert date, time and location with the notation that, while there was no admission, there was a “silver offering,” or the passing around of the plate for donations. Attendees were promised “A FINE EVENING OF INSPIRING MUSIC.”
In its 12 June edition, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Twenty-four members, comprising the Bible Institute’s Men’s Glee Club, with J.B. Trowbridge, conductor, will leave tonight by bus for a nine weeks’ trip across the continent to New York and return, singing in the larger cities en route.” Among those metropolises were Phoenix, El Paso, Kansas City, St. Louis and then a two-day stint in Chicago, home of the Moody Bible Institute.
There were also appearances at “several Bible conferences and chautauquas in Indiana, Detroit and New York. The trip back home to the City of Angels included stops and concerts in Philadelphia, Dayton, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Denver and Colorado Springs with the return home shown as the 14th, a few days later than the card showed (the departure date was also a day earlier.)
A newspaper in Emporia, Kansas, southwest of Kansas City, reported on 28 June that the club stopped in town for lunch after performing in Wichita and was to sing in Kansas City that evening. The troupe was to arrive in New York on 16 July and it was added that this was the most extensive tour of a dozen undertaken by the club in its history. Moreover, it was stated that the tour would extend into Canada and Mexico and take all summer, so perhaps it was significantly enhanced while underway.
While there were several references to the men’s glee club through the end of the Twenties, only a couple were found during the Great Depression years and none after 1939, so it appears it was defunct around that time. Meanwhile, the Bible Institute purchased a 75-acre site in La Mirada at the southeast extremity of Los Angeles County and remains there today some sixty years later. A few years ago, the Fearless Glee Club, a co-ed group was launched. The Church of the Open Door continued operations at the downtown site until the mid-1980s when it moved to its current Glendora site.
The card is a representative artifact both for choral music presented at a very high level and for the development of fundamentalist evangelical religion at a time when Los Angeles experienced a significant growth in this aspect of spiritual life.