What may be the only parish-based, all-male choir in the Albany Diocese is celebrating its 50th anniversary - and reflecting on its heyday, when it was known throughout the Mohawk Valley.
Having lost and then regained members over the years, the Glee Club at Ss. Anthony and Joseph parish in Herkimer is primed to live on with a new generation of singers.
"They're blending in with each other very well," said Ralph Blasting, 80, one of the original members, of the newer additions. "This thing is going to continue for quite some time. We're trying to keep this thing alive while we're alive."
The Glee Club sprang from a Knights of Columbus choir at St. Anthony's parish, an Italian community that merged with St. Joseph's, a Polish parish, about two decades ago. The choir's first performance was at the mortgage-burning ceremony when St. Anthony's dedicated a new church in 1964.
The original two dozen men in the choir had grown up together on the south side of Herkimer and served on the altar at St. Anthony's. They lived through the Great Depression, served in the Army and were chauffeurs and musicians at each other's weddings. The Glee Club's five original living members are Mr. Blasting, Richard Risi, Jimmy Aiello, Vince Mula and Phil Tripolone.
"Even today, we're the best of friends," said Mr. Tripolone, 78. "It was a lot of fun - friendship and good times."
The choir started out performing hymns at Sunday Masses and slowly expanded to weddings, baptisms and funerals, as well as church fundraisers and events at other churches, community groups and schools from Syracuse to Albany. They sang at an Italian assemblyman's function at the Capitol and at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville.
For years, they piled into a pickup truck each December and caroled at area Christmas parties and on Main Street in downtown Herkimer. At one point, they did multiple weddings a week all summer long, rehearsed once a week for up to four and a half hours and maintained a packed performance schedule.
"You'd almost have to have written permission to miss a function," recalled Mary Grogan, who's been the choir's volunteer director and accompanist since 1975. She remembers hearing them at the parish when she was a teenager.
When the Glee Club was in high demand, members used the money made from weddings - usually around $15 - and at fundraisers to buy uniforms. Of the five or six outfits they've sported over the years, the standouts are beige leisure suits with brown flowered shirts and red jackets with tufted shirts, bow ties, cummerbunds and black pants.
The group would accept any man who could sing, as long as their personalities meshed.
"You just have to fit with our group," Mr. Blasting explained. It was unintentionally all-Italian for a while, but "we got away from that because that wasn't the right thing to do. We're just a bunch of guys who like to sing."
The choir has also stayed all-male; members call women "a whole different breed with how they think."
One member used to tell jokes between songs; on their off time, members roasted each other and threw parties and dinners.
"It's a unique group of men, and I truly believe you wouldn't see this anywhere else," Mr. Blasting said. "I could carry on with acquaintances that I went to kindergarten with. We all came from the same background. That was good for me."
Added Mr. Risi, who's 78, "In 50 years, we never had an argument."
Lately, the group only has time for performances at bimonthly Masses, Christmas Eve liturgies and nursing homes. People come from other areas to hear their annual rendition of the Italian hymn, "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" ("You Come Down from the Stars").
In general, the group has always been a draw for Ss. Anthony and Joseph parish.
"We'd meet somebody on the street and they'd say, 'Are you singing this weekend?'" Mr. Blasting recalled. "People make it a point [to come] just because we're singing."
Jim DePalma, 74, has followed the group for three decades.
"We don't have that many choirs around," he said. "I think they add an awful lot to the Mass."
His favorite songs include "Amazing Grace" and "Abba, Father." The choir has dabbled in gospel and country genres - "You'll Never Be Lonely Again" is a current staple - as well as patriotic songs, "fad" songs during the 1970s and traditional hymns.
"We've been singing a lot more a capella songs, which just shows the depth of what they're capable of," Mrs. Grogan said.
"It's just a sense of community and love," she continued. "It's such a spiritual feeling. You can feel the love of God and the love of Church and the love of brotherhood and the love of family. I hope it has left a feeling of comfort and peace."
Mike Dolly, who's in his 50s, has been a member for almost a decade and looks up to the veterans.
"They're just unbelievable," he said. "It's just a camaraderie [and] it gives you the sense of days gone by where everybody stuck together. They're just inspiring to be around."