Serenading the elephant

Cleveland’s Singing Angels at the RNC

Photo courtesy of singingangels.org

It is 5 a.m.on a July morning in Cleveland, Ohio, and on East 4th Street just south of Euclid Avenue, in front of what looks like a front porch or terrace wrapped in plastic, about 90 children in gold vests and black ties assemble. It is still dark, but something of the coming daylight lurks in the milky sky above the buildings, though it is no match for the street lights spilling onto the bricks and glass as the hard rubber soles of 180 shiny black dress shoes clop into position.

East 4th Street is the Main Street of the 2016 Republican National Convention, just south of the Quicken Loans Arena, where delegates have assembled to nominate Donald J. Trump as their candidate for president of the United States. There are no delegates milling around now, just darkened pubs and a smell of dew mixed with dust and beer wafting up from the bricks that carpet the carless avenue between Euclid and Prospect avenues. But a bespectacled bumblebee of a man in a blue blazer is buzzing around his young charges. The bee is artistic director Charles Eversole and he is giving orders:

“Basses, take one step to the left.”

“Second sopranos to get closer together.”

“Remember, you may be on camera even if you don’t think you are. If you roll your eyes and yawn, 50 million people will see it.”

The children position themselves so that they can all fit inside the wrought iron waist-high railing that fringes the front of Hilarities Restaurant and Club. The porch is a makeshift TV studio bristling with cameras, lights, booms, monitors. Cleveland’s own Singing Angels are scheduled to be on NBC’s “The Today Show.”

According to Diane Downing, chief operating officer of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee, which won the bid to host the RNC in Northeastern Ohio from July 18–21 and ran the host city’s side of the event, one of Cleveland’s big selling points was its people. About 1,800 volunteers were positioned around the city to make sure visiting RNC delegates, their families, the media and even the augmented security forces, brought in to offset trouble, knew where to go: a welcoming, helpful, friendly presence designed to throw off this rust-belt city’s rusty reputation.

Downing said that the Host Committee had wanted more than 3,000 volunteers to fill all the slots needed, but when fewer actually materialized, she said she was pleasantly surprised that most of the existing volunteers were willing to pull double duty to fill all the needed slots. The Host Committee also partnered with Destination Cleveland — dedicated to selling the city as a fine place to visit and to have gatherings, events and conventions—and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture to feature local artists, musicians and performers to add richness to the delegates’ visiting experience. This is where the Singing Angels came in. In the course of a week they were to perform many times: at Hopkins International Airport as delegates arrived, at the end to bid all a fond farewell and at other appearances in between, singing the national anthem to kick off the first day of the convention, and now, on the “Today Show.” I was with them here and there, the “roadie” to the group, lugging keyboards and amps and wires so my piano-playing son could accompany the group. But sometimes, when equipment was not needed, I just tagged along.

It is now creeping toward 6 a.m. and the darkness of the early morning is giving way to orange light slanting in from the narrow sky above the buildings and growing to a glare in the windows of the storefronts. The “front porch” has come alive with activity. Black clad technicians, many with the NBC peacock and MSNBC splayed across their backs, adjust mics, move cameras, pivot chairs. The studio set itself is an open-air terrace overlooking the street, so that the milling populace presents a hopefully vibrant backdrop to the broadcasters.

On the other side of the banks of cameras and lights is the plastic enclosure where now the placid profile of Matt Lauer, in blue blazer and black tie, is having his bullet-shaped head, close cropped with a receding hairline, powdered against the heat of the creeping morning. A woman in a light dress with a flower print has her back to the street, studying herself in a mirror while her hair is teased by a wiry woman in black. It is Natalie Morales who stands and shields her eyes with a delicately manicured hand, staring out of her clear plastic prison to the street. People are gathering now, anticipating the broadcast to come, perhaps hoping to jump into the view of the cameras for one brief shining moment. A middle aged man with a big black sign about “Jesus” is there and another, younger man is near him with something rolled up, which will later reveal a complaint about high college tuition on white poster board.

The Angels execute a quick rehearsal of “Dancing in the Street,” made famous in the 1960s by Martha and the Vandellas. This will be their only number performed for “The Today Show” and, during it, they will be confined within their wrought-iron rail, shuffling their feet, raising their arms. Most of the Singing Angels performing chorus are girls and most of them are white, but about a third are African-American and there seem to be one or two Asians as well. The boys, about 18 in number, hold up the center and hold their own vocally, strong and confident. This is a tight, focused group of kids, plucked from all over Northeast Ohio. One boy, Thomas Dougherty, even comes in to sing all the way from Pittsburgh, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania. Later, he would be interviewed by a Pittsburgh TV station and the Angels would compensate for the brief showing on national TV with a performance of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for the Pittsburgh viewing area.

The Singing Angels were founded in 1964 by Cleveland performer and director Bill Boehm and have performed in numerous cities across the U.S. and around the globe. According to their website, singingangels.org, they have performed at Cleveland’s Severance Hall, the White House, the Vatican in Rome, and have performed in the company of showbiz luminaries such as Bob Hope and Celine Dion.

The full performing chorus numbers 140 kids and the full complement of Singing Angels—including a training reserve chorus of 50 and a younger group called The Littlest Angels—numbers about 210, according to Singing Angels Executive Director Robin Johnson. Singers must pay to be members and must buy their own uniforms, but scholarships are available for those without the funds to participate. One of the goals of the Angels is to have diversity, and non-whites have been successfully incorporated into the chorus in great numbers since its founding. Children can start in The Littlest Angels from pre-school, and members of the performing chorus and training chorus can stay until they graduate from high school. Many alumni have gone on to be professional performers, and one of their child accompanists, Daryl Waters, is even a Tony Award-winning orchestrator on Broadway.

Rehearsing done and the sun further up in the sky, the children of The Singing Angels are told now to wait. They occupy wrought-iron chairs, which will later serve to turn the pubs along East 4th Street into open-air cafés. The obligatory cell phones come out and all will be largely bowed in prayer over them for the next few hours before they finally get their chance at the Big Time. At one point, a TV camera focuses on four of the girls, who wave at America as the “Today Show” goes into a station break.

It is past 7 a.m. and the big story has been Melania’s alleged plagiarism of a speech by Michelle Obama. A segment on luggage and an interview with Actress Mila Kunis from the “Today Show” anchors still in New York delay the Angels’ debut. Delegates and tourists pass, stop from time to time to gawk at the newspeople and then walk on, many holding Starbucks cups. Here and there a cameraman lugs equipment or an activist poses with a sign, often protesting the Republicans’ alleged homophobia or racism. But there are counter-activists with hats that say “Make America Great Again.” One man in white shirt and tie hands me a booklet that reads “How to Get to Heaven from the RNC.”

The Singing Angels are a prominent presence in venues around the Republican National Convention and even, at one point, inside it. The Monday before the “Today Show” broadcast, 12 of the Angels, including Dougherty, sang the national anthem to open the convention. While praise was high for the group’s stirring rendition, the performance was not without its criticism, which had more to do with the venue than the singers. As Charles Eversole wrote later:

“Two people told me on Facebook that it was awful to have them sing for the Republicans (specifically in regard to the national anthem). I responded that, as the conductor of a chorus comprised of families with political views across the spectrum, I would be unqualified to lead if I let my own political views preclude them from singing the national anthem at a major political party’s convention. It’s not the Trump Anthem, or the Clinton Anthem, it’s the national anthem. We would (and have) sung for the Democrats in our history, and would do so again gladly.”

Criticism was outweighed by rave reviews, however. Romper.com, while complaining about the Republicans’ largely “lackluster” performing roster, nevertheless wrote:

“On Monday, the RNC opened with the Singing Angels performing the National Anthem — a 52-year-old select youth music group comprised of students from the greater Cleveland area. They totally killed it, too.”

Earlier in the week, The Singing Angels were greeters at Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport. The Angels’ repertoire runs the gamut from Broadway hits and Barbershop harmonies to classical works like Ave Maria and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. They also have songs just right for a political convention, like rousing renditions of “She’s a Grand Old Flag” and an astonishing a capella version of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with the sopranos singing the piccolo descant above the melody near the end.

Sometimes the milling airport multitudes stopped and listened. Other times they hurried through. Press luminaries and show biz types peppered the throng of delegates and their families passing through to baggage claim: Cokie Roberts, Geraldo Rivera, members of Jimmy Fallon’s band The Roots, even two men carrying the Olympic torches in yard-long cylindrical cases for a run through the city on their way to Rio.

Between songs, and sometimes during them, Charles Eversole greeted travelers with a smile, waving and shaking hands. The Angels were back at the airport at the end of the week, singing and wishing delegates and news media a fond farwell. Cleveland.com reported gleefully later that the news media, off to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, came to miss the warmth and efficiency of Cleveland given the gridlock, logistical snafus and bad weather in Philly.

As 9 a.m. approaches, it is nearly sign-off time. But now the Angels get the “Go” and “Dancing In The Street” lifts its jazzy cadences from the fiercely confident kids as they pivot and dance like something out of “Saturday Night Fever.” Just a few seconds have made it on the broadcast, but it is enough to show what the group is capable of. Now a slight, bald figure with thick glasses has emerged from “the porch.” It is Al Roker. Far thinner than when he was Cleveland’s weatherman, Roker looks a bit sickly, his glasses almost seeming too big for his face. But his avuncular banter hasn’t changed, as he jokes at his own expense and makes everybody feel at ease. Matt Lauer gives the Angels a plug: “They are so well-loved here in Cleveland.” And then the NBC cameras have turned away: 15 seconds of national fame.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, Cleveland made about $180 million from the Republican Convention, 10 percent lower than the 2016 Cleveland Host Committee had projected. The Host Committee has commissioned a study to discover a more exact amount, which will be available in a year. It was clear that Cleveland restaurants and bars nearer to East 4th Street did a booming business, but even those as close by as Tower City did not seem to, according to several people I talked to. Cleveland residents stayed away so as not to be embroiled in the chaos of the convention and perhaps to avoid what many thought would be a violent and dangerous environment. Thanks to the police—and perhaps to the good nature of Cleveland citizens—it was anything but.

“We were promised a riot, we got a block party instead,” reported Dan Zak of the Washington Post. As for the experience the Singing Angels themselves in all of this, as Charles Eversole wrote to me:

“We have benefitted from the convention coverage by incredible exposure, not only locally, but nationally. Based on our airport shows, we were also on NPR radio, and I know of several local TV affiliates from other cities who did stories and took footage of us, too. We also benefitted in our relationships with our own families. The opportunities presented, particularly to sing on the “Today Show,” led to many emails about the experiences their kids had!”

Angels and elephants seemed compatible in Cleveland in July in this election year of 2016. It remains to be seen whether elephants will have the same relationship with the rest of America come November.

Peter Manos is an adunct professor of history and communication who audited the summer course Political Communication: Covering the RNC at John Carroll University in July 2016.