Turning Cleveland's Children into the world's Singing Angels
Born July 26, 1920, Bill Boehm recently celebrated his 86th birthday, but you would never know it to look at him or listen to him. "I covered a lot of ground in my world of entertainment."
In first grade Bill had a problem with stuttering. His mother took him to see the teacher and together they worked on the problem. "Caught at that early age made all the difference in the world." His teacher taught him a poem "Billy Boy seeks his fortune." Bill memorized the poem and repeated it often, until the stuttering problem went away.
By third grade he was writing poetry of his own. In 6th grade he started performing in front of school audiences and by seventh grade he was "off and running in the entertainment world" as he performed in HMS Pinafore.
"I graduated from the greatest High School in America - John Adams. Dick Feagler is also an alum."
In 1935 Bill went to Adelbert College, a part of Western Reserve University. He considers himself very fortunate to have the experiences he had at home and in school. Even such things as walking to school gave him time to reflect on how lucky he was and what each new day would bring him. He graduated in 1938 with a BA and went back 20 years later to earn a Masters in Theater.
"I have been blessed with great teachers in High School and college. John Adams taught me discipline and that is so important in education."
Singing Angel Founder Bill Boehm -
He's got the whole world in his hands
He dearly loved sports and thinks it is vitally important to children. "Kids need to get out and play and at the same time learn a lot of life lessons. Sports do all that. I think it is wonderful that girls are playing more sports these days. They didn't when I was growing up."
He himself was very active in all sports until college when he got involved in theater in Western Reserve's Eldred Hall. He studied fencing and recommends it highly "to girls too." He was a member of the fencing team.
"I remember fencing against the University of Buffalo. I beat the Captain of the team and shocked him by doing so. He was vastly superior to me; I just got a little tricky and very lucky."
In later years, Bill was hired to sing the role of McDuff (a tenor) in Macbeth for NBC. He got to put his fencing skills to use in the play and taught other actors some techniques as well.
He developed a "marvelous friendship" with founder and producer of MusicCarnival, Johnny Price. Price hired Bill as the first director of staging. Bill also sang many principal roles in the theater productions.
He remembers working with Beverly Sills and specifically when he played Alfredo, a comic tenor in Rosalinda. They played well off each other and often Beverly Sills would adlib with him.
"This is a high compliment because she must have trusted that I could handle impromptu lines, and we did it well together." MusicCarnival closed because of the expansion of Thistledown racetrack and Bill has not seen anywhere in Cleveland that measures up to the MusicCarnival experience.
Bill Boehm Musicarnival record album
Bill was engaged to Dorothy Hart a beautiful young woman who had won two beauty contests. Their engagement was interrupted by the war. Bill entered the service. He was a Captain in the U.S. Army, 29th Infantry, serving overseas for two and a half years.
"I was fortunate to have chosen the army. I have two brothers George and Howard. George went to the Air Force; Howard went to the Navy. I was very happy with the Army. The best part was that all three of us came back unscathed."
Bill Boehm and brothers George and Howard in the service in WWII
He was stationed in Iceland for three months and "enjoyed the warm, temperate climate. Although all of the women were very beautiful I behaved myself, which is very difficult in the Army when you don't know what the next day will bring." From there he went to England until he was discharged in 1948. "It was a wonderful adventure."
Meanwhile, Dorothy headed off to Hollywood to become a "big star" and returned the engagement ring to him before she left. "She lasted 10 years in Hollywood, then was miscast and that was the end of her career. She has since passed away. Dorothy was in one world, I was in another. It could never have worked out."
Although he is sure there are some wonderful actors in Hollywood above all of the hype he looks at Hollywood as "a terrible, terrible place. They make their own laws and morality. It is especially dangerous for women."
Hollywood is not the only media that Bill has concerns about.
The Singing Angel's Bill Boehm in 2006
"I have very strong views on music and I am not at all happy about Hollywood." Bill thinks rock music is "very, very bad." He even questions the need for such high volume. "Volume has been utilized by many entities, but rock music uses volume to increase pressure. There is no melody; it is just volume."
Bill is a devotee of the O'Reilly Factor, the Fox News "No Spin Zone" show with host, Bill O'Reilly. "O'Reilly's principal emphasis is on what I consider to be the right side. Most of it is based on common sense, which is just not that common any more. There are simply not enough applications of common sense."
Bill Boehm in front of the flag he loves
Bill is very concerned about America today and the direction it is heading. "When I came back from the war in '48 we talked about the danger to America because America is so porous. Anyone can come in. The problem is just being addressed now like it's something new. We have been very fortunate, but that can't last."
He is very tuned in to politics and the world situation. And he loves to write. In fact, he wrote for his high school newspaper. Now, he combines his interest in politics and his love of writing. When he reads a newspaper and something upsets him he writes about it.
"I have written many, many letters to the editor, or to writers or the principals in a story. I would like to gather senior citizens into a group and have them protest some of the things going on."
Bill likes to read the comics in the paper too - but only two of them "I read Family Circus and Marmaduke, after that, there's nothing worth reading."
After the war Bill became very active in the music and drama theater. When he was a senior in college he was selected as the "Most Talented Under Graduate" and had the opportunity to appear on the Fred Allen radio show - the largest, most listened to show of it's time.
Bill Boehm singing
As a result of this appearance Bill was given a screen test with 20th Century Fox and interview with a noted Broadway producer. The question was always asked "How do you stand with the service?" When he answered honestly that he was going into the Army conversations stopped and doors were closed.
When his time was up Bill came back to Cleveland and concentrated his efforts in this area. He performed a lot of leading roles in productions at Cain Park. He decided it was time for him to settle down or as he quotes the Latin, "Tempus Fugit" (time is flying).
He went to work at the Alpine Village. Herman Pirchner was the owner of the restaurant/lounge and "the best boss a person could ever have. He gave such wonderful advice. He always said if you believe you're right you must be very strong in that belief."
There was a battle raging inside of Bill between his professional work and his objections to Rock n' Roll. "If Rock n' Roll could be controlled it could be compelling, but it's not. It's devastating and crippling. It's related to drugs and killing and depravity. I should emphasize I am talking about hard rock. Latin music could go that way, but it doesn't. Latin music has a captivating rhythm and much lower volume."
One day while doing research in the library for his Master's Degree he met a woman and started to discuss a project he had been thinking about. He wanted to organize a Children's Musical Group. "I had had this idea in my mind for quite awhile and just didn't know what to do with it." She suggested that he contact the Cleveland Friends of Music, a group that sponsored developing cultural ideas.
"I knew I had something practical that would work and be good for the kids." So he went to see the people at Cleveland Friends. He wanted to put on a concert at Severance Hall. They said they would promote it if he would sell the tickets. So he sent out a notice and had eighty children respond. "From word 'go' I knew I had something."
Bill Boehm and the Singing Angels
It was a very diverse group. "40% were Catholic and 20% were black. It didn't matter to me who they were or what they looked like. My father had a ball team and he always said to me 'I don't care what ship you came over on as long as you can play the game.' That's exactly how I felt about the music."
Children from ages 5 to 14 auditioned and there were only two requirements. First, that they could sing in tune, creating a pleasant sound and second they must love to sing.
And thus in 1964 the Singing Angels were formed. They sang their very first Christmas concert that year and have been amazing audiences with their beautiful music ever since.
"We went from that first group to singing with symphonies. We sang with Wayne Newton and Celine Dion. All of the big superstars were so good to the kids."
The Singing Angels started with 80 children, next year there were 150, then 250. They kept it at 250 for awhile but it has now grown to 350.
Bill Boehm with two of his Singing Angels
On his staff was George Strickling, the head of Choral Music at Cleveland Heights High. "I'm very frugal. I had no capital. I took no salary for 4 years. George was preparing to retire and I asked him to join us, with no pay. And he did. He was with us for 12 years and every year he demanded that his salary be doubled. So every year I doubled the zero and he kept working for us."
Also on the staff was Tom Neal who taught the children barbershop quartet harmony. "He wouldn't take any money either and he must have taught 3,000 children to sing these beautiful harmonies."
Luther Blackwell (now Bishop Luther Blackwell) was the training conductor. Bill had gone to the Supervisor of Music for the Cleveland Public Schools for a recommendation and they recommended Luther Blackwell.
"If I had to pay these people even a portion of what they were worth this never would have happened. Our product was a family product and it was a gift of love."
Bills' goal for the Singing Angels was to have them motivate the audience. It was seldom that they completed a concert without at least one standing ovation. The group was eventually performing 100 concerts a year.
Bill Boehm and one of his Singing Angels after another great performance
To this day Bill gets "thank you" letters from the children he considers "his kids." Just a few weeks ago he received a letter from a charter member, one of the original 80 back in 1964. The letters tell Bill how his kids are doing and how grateful he is that he took time with them.
They are all grateful for the lessons Bill taught - not the least of which was discipline. Bill says in addition to singing he taught these students the rules of life including the need to be courteous and considerate. He taught the children that regardless of their age when they are on stage they are expected to do "a capable job and motivate the audience and win the audience."
"I admire the Amish people for their simplistic and fundamental way of life. Children are the most important thing in our life so much more so than the things that make our life so complex."
The Singing Angels and Bill Boehm performing in costume
Bill feels strongly that the standard of life for children must be raised citing the numerous "evil influences" surrounding them. "War, gangs, even nature is rebelling. We must protect the children."
Bill credits the success of the Singing Angels to the fact that they are a family - and "a hugging family" at that. "I would be firm but with love. They always knew they were loved. We needed to maintain a standard of excellence with our music. To allow them to give less than 100% of themselves to their music would have been unfair to them. That is not love, it is lazy."
He goes on to say that people come to see a show not just "cute kids on stage." "And" he says "we always gave them our very best."
Singing Angel Founding Director Bill Boehm
On his birthday this year the kids at rehearsal called and sang happy birthday to him and a group of alumni took him to lunch. "I love these kids, every one of them. I just love them."
Bill is no longer an active director of the Singing Angels but serves as Director Emeritus and will always pay close, keen attention to what the Angels are doing. "I hope this current Board of Trustees never forgets the need for love."
Bill individually and the Singing Angels collectively have won numerous awards. They have performed in 31 countries on 4 continents. They sang for Pope John Paul II and for Presidents.
Pope John Paul II with Bill Boehm and the Singing Angels in Rome
Last year Bill was honored by the Early Settlers Association as the Person Who Has Done the Most To Promote Cleveland.
He has received awards from various Presidents, The White House, Congress, Senate and City of Cleveland.
In November, 2006 he was inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.
One of many awards for Bill Boehm for his work with the Singing Angels and for "His outstanding leadership and musical influence on Ohio's youth."
He has no one favorite song but is partial to operettas and musical comedy.
Pope John Paul II with Bill Boehm
In 1955, the day after he started at MusicCarnival, Bill married Harriet. They have a son, Bill Jr. who lives with his wife and two children in Boise, Idaho. "Bill Jr. is the light of our life!" He and Harriet are now enjoying their 51st year together.
Singing Angel Founder Bill Boehm in 2006
The Singing Angels represent a quieter more peaceful time; a time when songs had lyrics that were heartfelt and sincere. It is a time Bill Boehm has helped preserve.
Bill's love for children has created a musical gift of love for everyone to share. In his office are these words, sent to him by one of "his children."
"Children are always the only future the human race has. Treat them well." Bill Boehm has treated the children well and in doing so has made our days a little happier and our future a little brighter.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson (11/06)
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