November 30, 2015
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Those festive fellows in tall top hats and long scarves known as The Great Lakes Dredge and Philharmonic Society have been practicing weekly since early October, readying to burst on the holiday scene with their first performance December 1.
“Since our founding in 1934, our purpose has been to entertain and pay attention to children and other groups, making sure everyone is festive and happy,” David Earle, managing director for 15 years, said recently before one of the group’s nine fall practices. “We don’t take any money for our performances but delight in spreading goodwill, love and great music.”
Under the direction of Dan Robinson, a classically trained musical and choral conductor, The Dredge mixes serious rehearsals with the fun of friendship. As one member said, “The Dredge is more than a musical organization, it is a human organization.”
Dredge historian Bob Wittebort has written, “Ranging from the boisterous to reverential, The Dredge has sung in unison and in six parts or more, sometimes intentionally, in English, Latin, French, German, Italian and, in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ at least nine other languages. The season’s bountiful musical tradition offers treasures aplenty for singers.”
In addition, Dredger Julian Harvey has composed pieces for the Society and accompanist Roger Stanley is a master at new medleys. Learning new music keeps the group challenged during rehearsals, and four or five new singers join The Dredge each year, following a tryout with Robinson. It has a roster of 80 members. Among the fine voices are several former Yale Whiffenpoof a cappella members.
“The Dredge has matched the breadth of its repertoire choices with the variety of its performance venues, singing in hushed churches, bustling hospital wards, retirement homes, intimate living rooms, comfortable clubs and on frigid windswept streets banked with snow,” Wittebort stated.
“There used to be more walking through the neighborhoods, and people left candles burning in the window as a sign to invite us in to sing,” Earle reminisced. “There is less of that now with all the high-rises.”
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, The Admiral at the Lake and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago will sparkle with the special sounds the 50 singers will bring. At the Rehabilitation Institute, they perform on several floors, passing out sleigh bells for patients to accompany them. At Children’s, their music is piped into every room. At the Admiral, residents rejoice in singing along. For several years, they have performed for the Neighbors in Need dinner for the homeless held at St. Chrysostom’s Church. Each concert begins with their signature song, “Let No Man Come.” “Bless This House” remains one of the favorites at a variety of venues.
In addition to welcoming new singers into the fold, the tradition since the early days of welcoming brothers, sons and sons-in-law has continued. David Earle’s father-in-law, architect John Cromelin, had been one of The Dredge’s nine founders.
“The remarkable coherence of The Dredge over the decades is no doubt due in part to the felicitous consequences of ‘benign nepotism,’” Wittebort stated. “Names such as Bulley, Bross, Downey, Earle, Fairbank, Haffner, Hunt, Kimball, McCutcheon, Notz, Podesta, Stephan, Sudler and Winterbotham, to name a few, echo through The Dredge rosters.”
Top hats, which many Dredgers or their families decorate with ribbons, stuffed animals or other holiday signs, are often handed down through talbum-he generations. One Dredger doffs his top hat and dons light-up Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer nose for Lurie Children’s Hospital performances. Grandchildren of another Dredger, surely the most popular at final children’s performances, attach Hershey’s Kisses to his hat, which the appreciative audiences dive for at the end.
A Gold Coast neighborhood tour following the last performance has often provided amusing encounters. One woman gave a Dredger a dollar bill and great thanks, following carols in Goudy Square, and an early chronicler named his favorite story.
“One snowy night, one of our members was in the back row pressed up against the window of an Astor Street apartment building whose ground floor windowsill was approximately at chin level. For some reason during the course of the singing, he felt a presence near him and turned around to find the face of Syd Harris, the Daily News columnist, with his nose squashed against the windowpane, staring at him. Since his nose was no more than a few inches away, it was a startling experience.”
To those who have questioned why not women in The Dredge? “The answer is simple, the repertoire is composed of songs from men’s choirs,” Earle explained.
The final performance is December 22 for family and good friends, but how did it all begin? An early history relates how The Dredge got its name.
“Lost in the mists of time — or perhaps to be more accurate, lost in the mists of the bar at the Tavern Club — are the actual details of the founding of the Great Lakes. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Mrs. Robert Pyzel, married to a Shell Oil Company official, was interested in the arts, in particular, opera. A friend of hers was an opera singer named Concialdi, a man of enormous pride, little money and no job. He refused to take direct financial help from her, but she convinced some old friends of hers — John Root, Walter Frazier, Alfred Shaw, Noel Flint and John Cromelin, all architects, and Paget Cady, Earl Kribben, Louis Sudler and John Winterbotham — to start a little singing group and hire him as a professional to coach them at rehearsals once a week.
“While they were having a pre-luncheon drink one day at the Tavern Club, someone saw a ship of The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company going down the Chicago River, and the thought came to mind that perhaps they should be known as The Great Lakes Dredge and Philharmonic Society.”
Earle feels that one of the reasons for the group’s purposeful camaraderie is that they practice only during October and November, and thus anticipate the experience.
“Dredge season is my favorite time of the year,” Trip Driscoll said. “We joke and jibe and raise our voices in joyous song one day a week for a couple of months, with love in our hearts and drinks in our hands.” JCB
Photo Credits: Robert Baldwin,
Trip Driscoll, Dredge Rehearsal