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The Community Christmas sing

Grace Shackman

It united town and gown

Ann Arbor has always been split between those who are affiliated with the U-M and the rest of the city. But starting in 1913, town and gown came together each year for a community wide Christmas sing at Hill Auditorium.

The sing began the year Hill was completed. From the start, the 5,000-capacity hall was filled—an impressive turnout, considering that the 1910 census counted fewer than 15,000 Ann Arborites (excluding students, most of whom were at home by then).

The 1913 sing, which took place on Christmas Day, was a joint project of the U-M School of Music and the Ann Arbor Civic Association. The program included performances by two boys' choirs and special soloists, and an organ recital by music professor Albert Stanley. On stage were five trees adorned with electric decorations—a novelty then being promoted by the Eastern Michigan Edison Company.

A special guest star was native daughter Helene Allmendinger, who came back to town from Cleveland, where she was pursuing what became a successful international opera career. A contralto, she sang "The Star of the Orient," and "He shall feed his flock" from Handel's Messiah.

Group singing was always the highlight of the evening; the audience followed along with words projected on a screen. The first year, the organizers placed trained voices throughout the audience to keep the singing in unison. In later decades, tenor Harold Haugh, a voice professor at the School of Music, directed the singing from the stage. "I merely waved my arms," he recalls. "A committee put the program together."

Interrupted only by the two world wars, the sing continued for over sixty years. "It was open to the public; that was the important thing," recalls Anne Haugh, Harold's wife.

"If you couldn't sing on key, you'd come anyway," recalls lawyer and longtime resident Jim Crippen.

Sometimes the songs were illustrated with tableaux. John Hathaway recalls that when he was a boy in the 1930s, he appeared as an angel for "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," wearing wings borrowed from St. Andrew's Church.

Leonard Chase, who worked in personnel at King-Seeley (now GT Products), was responsible for keeping the program going after World War II. He kept in contact with all the choirs in the city, both school and church, and arranged for them to appear. When Chase retired in the mid-1960s, Judy Dow Rumelhart and the Exchange Club took over.

Rumelhart decreased the number of choirs, replacing them with dancing by the Civic Ballet and the performance of an operetta. She also enlisted the music school's Willis Patterson as soloist to sing such favorites as "Ave Maria," "The Lord's Prayer," and "We Three Kings." Rumelhart directed the "The Littlest Angel" by having pajama-clad children sit at the edge of the stage and listen while Mary Firestone read it. Then adults acted out the play on stage.

Rumelhart stopped organizing the Hill Auditorium sing in 1974. "The city was smaller [when it started]," she says. "It outgrew itself. And I was exhausted." But it was succeeded by a smaller event that continues to this day. The twenty-fifth annual Christmas sing, a project of the Western Kiwanis Club, is expected to attract 500 people to the Michigan Theater on November 28 for a family-oriented sing-along of favorite Christmas carols.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman