BARchive :: Singing Out

  • by Jim Stewart
  • Sunday December 15, 2013
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San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus' first conductor Dick Kramer
San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus' first conductor Dick Kramer

It was December 1978. Evergreen garlands draped the Castro Street window of the Norse Cove Café. I was wolfing the lamb and cabbage stew when Steve Prokasky walked in.

"Steve!" I hollered across the room. He headed in my direction. We hugged hello.

"House-sitting in Marin again this year?" I said.

My first Christmas in San Francisco I'd spent with Steve watching whales migrate while we looked after a place whose owner was in Hawaii.

"No," Steve said. "I got my hands full getting ready for the concert."

"What concert?" I said. "I didn't know you were a musician."

"The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus," Steve said. There was a note of pride in his voice. "I've finally found my place in this gay city by the bay."

"Wait a minute," I said. "That must have been you I saw at City Hall the day Harvey was murdered."

"I was there," Steve said.

We were both silent for a moment as we remembered that dreadful day.

"So what's up with the Gay Men's Chorus?" I asked.

Over our tart-Tatin, Steve filled me in. He told me Jon Reed Sims had founded the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus earlier in 1978. There was a squabble over whether to include the word "gay" in its name. A call for members went out. The first rehearsal was on October 30, and Sims had appointed Dick Kramer as conductor.

Less than a month later, on November 27, the Gay Men's Chorus assembled on the steps of City Hall in a memorial just hours after gay supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been gunned down inside. It was their first public appearance. They sang Mendelssohn's "Thou Lord Hast Been Our Refuge."

"How big a group is it?" I asked.

"There are 115 of us with all four sections," Steve said. "First tenor, second tenor, baritone, and bass."

"What section are you in?"

"I'm in the second tenor section," Steve said.

As we got ready to leave, Steve handed me something.

"What's this?" I asked.

"It's a pass for our concert at the Everett Middle School on the 20th."

I thanked him. We hugged goodbye. I pocketed the pass.

Everett Middle School is on Church between 16th and 17th Streets. The neo-Spanish-colonial structure was built in 1924. Its auditorium has a seating capacity of more than 1300. On December 20, 1978, the Wednesday before Christmas, it was jam-packed for the first official concert of the world's first openly gay chorus. The eclectic mix of songs included traditional choral, classical, jazz, Broadway hits, seasonal and popular tunes. The audience was enchanted, enthralled.

When it was over, I made my way through the crowd down from the balcony. I found myself humming, "San Francisco, open up your Golden Gate."

Today the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus has grown tremendously since its early beginnings. It's gone on national tours, issued recordings, commissioned new music, and helped spur the LGBT choral movement. A "Fifth Section" was added to the Chorus listing all members who have died, most from AIDS, over the years. It is listed on every performance program today. Steve Prokasky joined the "Fifth Section" on November 18, 1993.

In addition to their War Memorial Opera House concert, which took place December 6, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will perform with guest artists San Francisco Opera soprano Marina Harris and singer-songwriter Matt Alber, December 24 at 5pm, 7pm and 9pm at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St. Tickets are $25 and $35. 392-4400. www.sfgmc.org

© 2013 writerJimStewart@hotmail.com For further true gay adventures check out the award-winning "Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa" and "Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco" by Jim Stewart.