STRIKE UP THE ABU BEKR SHRINE CHANTERS
By Tim Gallagher
Active Seniors writer
Sioux City, Iowa
NOTE: This is from a web page on www.siouxlandactiveseniors.com/ that is no longer available.
The Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters will celebrate their 84th anniversary Nov. 2 with a concert at Eppley Auditorium.
In doing so, the group's director will mark his 45th anniversary with the Chanters.
Meet Don Kelsey, a driving force behind this musical success.
"This concert will be truly unique," says Kelsey, agent emeritus for Prudential Financial in Sioux City. "It will feature music from each decade since the founding of the singing group. Light-hearted, short comments will be interspersed in between numbers and will highlight what was taking place in our world at the time the music was written."
The Shrine Chanters, organized in October 1920, have been featured at concerts across the United States and in Canada, Great Britain and Denmark. The 45-voice male choir has been invited on several occasions to sing at Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Welsh Festival of Voices.
More important, the group has raised much needed funding for children and their families who need the services of Shrine hospitals, and transportation help to and from those facilities.
"What attracted me to the Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters was the help the Shrine gives to children," said Kelsey, the father of four children and grandfather of nine. "I said, 'This is a worthwhile cause.'"
Kelsey, a native of Hornick, Iowa, brought an extensive singing background to the Chanters when he joined in 1958. He was groomed by then director Paul Bower to become Bower's successor. He did so a year after he joined the Chanters. He has served in that capacity ever since, directing Monday night practice sessions and planning music programs for hundreds of performances.
The Chanters became Kelsey's musical outlet following his return to Sioux City in the 1950s. Kelsey, in fact, had spent a few years in New York singing professionally before that time.
Here's a brief look at his career:
· A high school graduate at 16 in Washington State, Kelsey earned his first "break" in showbiz by landing the lead role in his school's production of Victor Herbert's "Sweetheart." That led to a job at a Tacoma, Wash., radio station singing solos on a live music program.
· Kelsey continued voice lessons as he attended the University of Puget Sound. A two-year stint with the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II interrupted his college career. It also sent him to Sioux City.
· "My parents had moved back here, so I came to Morningside College and studied under Paul MacCollin and Leo Kucinski. It was a great conservatory of music." He was graduated in 1949 and taught music K-12 in Plainview, Neb.
· Two years later, Kelsey left the Midwest to study vocal music at The Juilliard School in New York City. Through his instructor, Winnifred Cecil, he was introduced to some giants in the industry. While vocalizing one morning, in fact, Maestro Arturo Toscanini stopped by to give Cecil a Christmas gift.
· Kelsey earned a job in the chorus at the Roxy Theater where Dorothy Lamour headlined. He then won a television competition through "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Show."
· The tenor was then offered a job with the Clef Dwellers, a four-men, two-women group that toured the U.S. and Canada.
· Again, with more doors opening, Kelsey sang backup for Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. He also spent the summer performing with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.
· His biggest break, though, occurred when he auditioned for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein at the Majestic Theater. He earned job touring the country for 10 weeks, singing selections from "Oklahoma," "The King and I," and "South Pacific."
"That was a fantastic experience," he said. "We toured 75 percent of the country doing one-night stands."
One of those appearances took place in Washington, D.C., where Kelsey met up with another Hornick native, a man who served as head of the White House guards. The man allowed Kelsey to see the White House. "I went into the Oval Office - President Truman wasn't there at the time - and sat in Harry Truman's chair. Since that time, I've been a big Truman fan."
· Following the Rodgers and Hammerstein tour, Kelsey was hired by the General Motors Motorama, an entertainment extravaganza. It would be one of his final gigs in the Big Apple.
"I had achieved my goals," he said. "It had been exciting and hectic, but I just wanted something else. I decided to buy a trunk at Macy's, pack my stuff and head back to Iowa. In fact, I've still got the trunk."
Kelsey's friends in show business thought he was crazy for heading back to the Tall Corn State.
He found a job in the fall of 1953 teaching music at Leeds High School. He spent the Christmas break visiting New York one last time. "I mulled it over," he remembered. "I wanted to marry and have a family. And New York wasn't the place for that, not in my estimation."
That year, a new home economics teacher joined the Leeds faculty. A year later she became Barbara Kelsey, Don's wife.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," he said. "Obviously, she was the reason I came back."
Don Kelsey taught at Leeds High until 1957 when a position with Prudential Financial opened another career door. Kelsey has been with the firm ever since. At age 76, he still reports to the office each morning. When he's not working or directing the Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters, Don and Barbara can be found traveling or spending time at the Iowa Great Lakes.
"I'm here each morning because I want to be," he said. "I love talking to people and learning about people. It keeps my mind busy."
So does his work with the Chanters, who practice each Monday evening during the school year. None of the Chanters - or their director - are paid. Rather, they make the sacrifice of time for the love of music and the knowledge they're helping people in need.
Kelsey is particularly excited about the Nov. 2 concert. The event takes listeners back to the 1920s for selections like the "Iowa Corn Song" and "California Here I Come." Narrator George Harrison will spend a few minutes talking about the news of each decade. Clarence Carney will then talk about the Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters and their work in each decade.
"There is lots of nostalgia in this concert," Kelsey said. "We thought this program through very carefully. It's going to be a real fun concert."
Tickets for the Nov. 2 Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters concert cost $10 and are available at the Shrine Office, 820 Nebraska St., or from any Chanter. Tickets will also be available at the door. Children under 12 are admitted free. For further information, call 255-4966.