In a Center City clubhouse filled with perhaps the nation’s most expansive collection of male choral music, members of the Orpheus Club aren’t afraid to let down their hair. They’ll even wear makeup and don dresses, if that’s what the theme dictates at Twelfth Night Revels, an irreverent, intermittently hilarious series of performances that happens every January. “We’re really a drinking club with a singing problem,” one member quips.
Founded in 1872, the OC is also the oldest men’s singing club in the country. Its lengthy history is intertwined with the Main Line—and is reaffirmed weekly with dinner and a rehearsal on Monday nights. The club made its first official appearance in 1873 at the Academy of Music, where members sang two numbers in a program marking the centennial of the Boston Tea Party.
Today, there are 80 singing members; 775 associate patrons receive four tickets to each of three formal concerts and two tickets to Twelfth Night Revels. In June, the OC takes over the Philadelphia Cricket Club for a day of sports, singing and fellowship, culminating with a formal dinner where every member is toasted in song while passing around a three-handled silver chalice filled with champagne. “I live for those nights,” says outgoing club president John Wright II, a native Main Liner Main Liner who is general counsel and vice president of Triumph Group, an aerospace manufacturer in Berwyn.
The club is no longer using the original cup. That one was stolen a few years back. It was a gift from Alexander Van Rensselaer, the only two-term club president. He gave the onetime wedding gift to the OC in 1938, after his wife died. The new version is inscribed with a dedication to him.
New Orpheus Club members are sung in when admitted, but they aren’t formally embraced until they participate in the club’s Christmas concert, attend an annual dinner, and sing at their first funeral for a member. Essentially, as one departs, another comes in. “This is a brotherhood,” says Jim Straw, the club’s vice president. “We’re very serious about singing our brothers out.”
Some come when they’re young and stay forever. Radnor’s McKinley “Sandy” C. McAdoo vividly recalls the first night he attended an OC function as a guest, talking with a member who’d known the club’s founders and spoke of a Twelfth Night Revels show in 1919. Sandy’s father, 93-year-old Bob McAdoo, has been a member for “a mere” 52 years.
Former president Sam Griffin is the younger half of another father-and-son pair. There’s a spoof portrait of him as Julius Caesar in the OC’s rehearsal hall. His father, F. Hastings Griffin Jr., turns 93 in August. “My joy in life is that my father is both my father and my brother at the same time,” he says.
There’s a reason why the Orpheus Club has succeeded where many others haven’t: Today, almost 40 percent of its members are young, which is largely the result of tapping a cappella and glee clubs at universities. The mix of old and young is evident in the musical arrangements and selections. The Bee Gees bump up against Irving Berlin and even Lorde’s “Royals.” “I watched the Grammys to make sure the damn song won,” chirps Wright, a Haverford School alum and past president of the Merion Cricket Club.
Fellow Haverford School grad John Haslett was admitted at 28, making him the youngest member. He’s 35 now. “I had to make sure I was on time and wore my tie,” he says in reference to the club’s red-and-gold color scheme. “I had to behave a certain way—the way they behave.”
As a weekly dinner winds down on the second floor of the Orpheus Club’s South Van Pelt Street clubhouse, John Wright rings a five-minute warning bell, signaling rehearsal. In the dining room, a wall is dedicated to framed photographs of deceased club presidents, and another is filled with deceased members. Space above the fireplace is reserved for founding members.
Soon after the members funnel down the narrow stairwell to practice, the hall fills with sound. Arranged in a U shape around maestro John Shankweiler, the singers open with Edvard Grieg’s “Brothers, Sing On,” followed by the folk standard, “When the Old Man Dies.” To Shankweiler’s left, the first tenors begin, then second tenors, baritones and basses.
Now in his ninth year, Shankweiler encourages and corrects, asking the men to resonate at the end of their lines “and not go on vacation.” Conductors are “hired help,” says Shankweiler, who is the full-time theater and choral director at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford.
A Bee Gees arrangement includes “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Stayin’ Alive.” The singers finish with “Hallelujah,” but not before another Bee Gees tune and “Kingdom in the Sky.” The latter is an irreverent Disney spoof by Da Vinci’s Notebook, an award-winning a cappella comedy troupe.
The club is far less frivolous when it comes to social outreach, singing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, retirement homes, Ronald McDonald Houses, Planned Parenthood of Chester County, and more. Other appearances are by invitation only. With the 150th anniversary of the Merion Cricket Club coming next year, there’s talk of a cricket match between members of both treasured institutions. Meanwhile, Orpheus subsets gather to sing on their own. There are the Interchangeables, the Rat Pack and the Bacchus Boys.
Back in the rehearsal hall, there’s a massive Cecilia Beaux oil portrait of founding conductor Michael Hurley Cross. “I should be so lucky to live so long that we run out of wall space,” says Wayne’s Fredrick Wampler, whose own Frederick the Great spoof portrait hangs in the clubhouse. “It’s not great art, but it’s a lot of fun,” he says. And self-sustaining fun, at that.