There have been many great events in the past 100-plus years since Bakersfield College first opened its doors. But few elicit the same type of warm memories and deep sense of community pride as one that happened a half-century ago thousands of miles away from our beautiful campus.
Earlier this month, nearly three-dozen surviving members of the 1965 Bakersfield College choir reconvened to remember the good old days and savor the memories of the day they helped put BC on the global map, scoring an underdog win for the ages with a first place showing at the prestigious Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in North Wales.
Thank you Mary Jo Pasek for making this event happen!
To say the choral world was unprepared 50 years ago for a group of California kids to walk into their hallowed competition and not only hold their own, but triumph, is an understatement.
In fact, members of that group as well as their intrepid choir director Joseph Hutszti will tell you they only wanted to sing their best and show that Americans — Bakersfieldians, in particular — had the chops to perform on the same stage with some of the best choral ensembles in the world.
And boy, did they.
The competition was the centerpiece of a trip of a lifetime for the choir’s 48 young men and women, a six-week European tour that saw the troupe perform in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France.
First, the choir succeeded in a sustained two-year effort to raise the $54,000 they needed to make the trip happen. (I highly recommend reading Herb Benham’s fantastic story in the Bakersfield Californian for more on what it took to even get to Wales in the first place.)
Then, it was off to New York and “across the pond” for a whirlwind schedule of performances in nearly a dozen different nations and territories, including a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of their talents for Pope Paul VI at his papal summer residence Castel Gondolfo just outside Rome.
No pressure. But even the tension of performing for a papal audience couldn’t have matched what those young men and women felt hitting the stage in Wales.
After competing against the top voices of Europe and collecting their championship (by just one point!), the crew capped off their victory on the way home with one final stop at the White House for some congratulations from — and a performance for — President Lyndon Johnson.
In honor of their achievement 50 years ago, 34 of the 48 singers and Choir Director Joe Hutszti (who just retired from UC Irvine) got together earlier this month in BC’s Fireside Room for a reunion, reliving those glory days and rekindling the friendships that started those many years ago at BC.
It’s not every day any of us can say we were the best in the world at something. While we honor their achievement, only they can truly understand and fully appreciate what they accomplished.
It was heart-warming to see these 70-somethings get together and dive right back into friendships as if no time had passed. And as singers, they’ve still got it. The group tuned up in their old choir room and performed an impromptu concert of their greatest hits and the magic was still there a half-century later as the video below will attest.
“It was amazing how wonderful and gracious everyone was at Bakersfield College. It could not have been better,” choir member and reunion organizer Ramona Gia said. “It was absolutely perfect.”
After seeing the light cast on nearby McFarland in the terrific hit film “McFarland, USA,” would it be too much to hope that Disney might be looking for another inspirational period story about a group of Central Valley young people banding together in obscurity to reach greatness?
I can just see “The Bakersfield Belters” on a theater marquee right now…do you think we could get Lea Michele from “Glee” for the lead?