2016 MARTHA JOSEPH PRIZE
The Singing Angels, today an international choral legend, started in 1964 in the Rocky River home, where Bill Boehm worked long hours to organize and publicize the choir he founded to promote the joy of singing good music amongst children of all backgrounds.
“Dad’s first office was in our basement with a picnic table, oil cloth, Royal manual typewriter and cinder block with wood shelves for his self-done publicity material,” recalls his son, Bill “Jr.”
Bill first posted an audition call for a children’s holiday concert at Severance Hall. The charter members - 80 strong, ages 5 to 14, from diverse racial, religious and economic backgrounds - delighted the audiences with their special brand of youthful charm and disciplined stage presence.
“It didn't matter to me who they were or what they looked like,” Bill said in an interview many years later. “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."
Lisa Wright, who joined the group at 14 and performed from 1994 to 1998, treasures her experience: “I was growing up in Tremont, which was not that well-off of a neighborhood back then,” she says. “So, Mr. Boehm gave me opportunities to travel and a musical education that I never would have had otherwise.”
After that first season, The Singing Angels were suddenly in demand for every type of program, from church fundraisers to business conferences in downtown hotels. The group's first television special was made for Christmas 1967 at WEWS-TV 5. In 1969, they made their first Command Performance at the White House. That Christmas, Wayne Newton introduced them to the nation on the Kraft Music Hall Special on NBC.
As Founding Director, he spent the next 35 years developing The Singing Angels into a highly successful nonprofit organization with the mission to engage youth from all communities in quality music and performing arts education that teaches teamwork, builds confidence and provides a foundation for life. The award-winning group has appeared in more than 30 countries and performed for many celebrities from Pope John Paul II to several performances at The White House, as well as performances with great vocalists from Celine Dion to Wayne Newton.
As a member from 1966 to 1976, Susan St. John enjoyed all of the travel, including a tour of Romania and a performance for President Richard Nixon and his family at the White House. “Mr. Boehm was always so energetic and animated,” she recalls. “He taught us so much about singing and music, because he would have us perform songs other choirs weren’t doing at that time, such as Broadway hits.”
Before launching the Singing Angels, Bill, now 96, had started his own theater career with a 7th grade performance in HMS Pinafore. He attended John Adams High School and Western Reserve University, where he graduated in 1938 with a BA and returned 20 years later to earn a Master’s degree in Dramatic Arts.
He was on his way toward a successful career in singing and theater, with early appearances as soloist with the Cleveland Symphony Pops Concerts and Singing Star of Chicago Theatre of the Air and tenor lead in the NBC-TV production of "Macbeth." When he was drafted, however, he chose to put his career on hold to serve his country as an Army captain in Europe during World War II.
After the war, he returned to Northeast Ohio stages, performing frequently at Cain Park, then at Herman Pirchner's Alpine Village, and recorded more than 5,000 personal stage appearances. He also performed at Musicarnival in Warrensville Heights, one of the first tented theaters in the U.S., where he once found himself ad libbing with opera great Beverly Sills. He also served as Musicarnival’s first staging director from 1954-1975.
In 1977, Bill was awarded the prestigious Ohio State Governor’s Award, and in November of 2006, he was inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame. Upon retiring in 1999, he became Director Emeritus of his beloved choir and helped celebrate The Singing Angels 50th anniversary on his 94th birthday in July 2014.
Today, three Angel choruses and small groups perform as many as 90 concerts a year, featuring a wide variety of music, including Broadway, pop, gospel, patriotic, barbershop harmony, and light classical. More than 350 children from the 2nd grade through age 18 take part.