By Betty Jo Simon
On October 20-22, I took a memorial step back in time to attend a reunion with 90 former Fred Waring Pennsylvanians. We met in the very place we rehearsed prior to our 7-month concert tour every year. The Castle Inn, built in 1906, became the home of the Pennsylvanians for 3 weeks as we prepared a 2½ hour concert complete with costumes. The singers memorized not only their vocal parts but also all their choreography. I played Cordovox as a soloist and as part of the 12-piece Orchestra filling in all the violin parts that were missing. There were five Cordovox players between the 1960’s through 1984 when Fred died. Three of us were students of Joan Cochran Sommers; the late Donna Dee (Anderson) Ray (former ATG Board member) toured (1965-1970), I toured (1970-1972) and Sheilah (Flanagan) McDowell toured (1972-1978). The other Cordovox and Duovox performers were Betty Ann McCall and EvAnn (Dahl) Hawley (1978-1984) respectively.
Fred Waring was very innovative and introduced the “new Cordovox” to his audiences. The featured Cordovox player not only played a solo with the orchestra backing them, but did a demonstration of a few of the “1000 sounds” the Cordovox could make, as Mr. Waring would announce it. This was my first time playing an electronic accordion and I’ve been playing one ever since. Thank you, Mr. Waring!
Fred Waring is known to generations as the “Man Who Taught America How To Sing.” He helped make the popular song a classic American Art Form. He is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of show business. Through almost seven decades of sharing his distinctive brand of beautiful music, he was always up-to-date and actually ahead of his time. The Pennsylvanians recorded over 1500 songs and 100 albums and Fred became known as the “King of The Road”, touring some 40,000 miles every year, mostly by bus. In one of his many endeavors, he developed the famous Waring Blendor.
The rigors of the road were tiring when we drove 200 to 300 miles to our next venue every day. We had our own personal bus and an 18-wheeler which carried our staging, lighting, sound system, instruments, music, and costumes. All would be set up and ready for us to play when we got to the concert hall. The most challenging concerts were the ones in high school gymnasiums. Since there wasn’t a curtain, they would turn off all the lights and we would have to find our way up on the stage in the dark following reflector tape. Fred would flick a little flash light to let me know to start the D diminished arpeggio on a marimba sound so the choir could get their pitches to start singing “I Hear Music” and then into “Sleep” which was Fred’s theme song. Then the light would come up.
I learned a lot from Fred Waring and being on the road. This experience taught me how to organize songs in themes and how to talk to the audience. I will be forever grateful for my time with the Fred Waring show.
It was awesome to reconnect with people on my tour and meet many new ones from other tours year. During the reunion, the choir would rehearse several songs and the distinct Waring sound brought tears to my eyes as it brought back such wonderful memories. We experienced a trolley tour of the Pocono Mountains, a walking tour of the Historic Castle Inn where we rehearsed, and a visit to Fred Waring’s Gatehouse home and his famous Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort. During the day, Stan Beard conducted us through the original Fred Waring arrangements. On Sunday, a service was held at the Historic Shawnee Presbyterian Church founded in 1752. The Pennsylvanians sang 3 original arrangements of Waring’s worship songs that brought the house down. I felt comradeship and many pleasant memories resurfaced during my attendance. It was simply amazing and rewarding! Thanks for the memories!